In 1982, the American Library Association (ALA) declared the first week of October Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week is an annual celebration of intellectual freedom started to oppose censorship of books in schools, libraries, and bookstores (Banned Books Week). This year’s Banned Books Week comes as conservative efforts to silence the stories of LGBTQ+ people and people of color rage across the country. The right-wing backlash has even hit the American Library Association, sponsor of Banned Books Week. A 146-year-old non-partisan organization tasked with supporting the 123,000 libraries in the United States, the ALA was once a non-controversial professional association. But this year, the state library systems of Montana, Missouri, and Texas have disaffiliated from the ALA, with nine other states considering the same. With the promotion of public libraries and the free exchange of ideas now painted as the “Marxist” advocacy of “pornography” for children, we must use this Banned Books Week to fight for the right to read (MSN).
• Join or donate to the Banned Books Book Club.
• Form a radical reading group with friends. Develop group agreements, create a reading list and schedule, and learn about the roots of problems in your community and what you can do about them.
• Use these resources from PEN America to fight book bans where you live.
The American Library Association provides professional training and support to most libraries in the United States, together with $12 million of funding each year (MSN). The ALA’s 1939 Library Bill of Rights defends the right of all people to access libraries that contain “all points of view on current and historical issues” regardless of the “origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation” (ALA). To uphold this standard, the ALA has long opposed book bans. This includes attempted bans of books now considered classics, such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (for being “communist propaganda”), JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (“anti-white”), Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (for promoting “racial hatred”), and Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (“troubling ideas about race relations”) (NEA, ALA).
While attempts at library censorship are a long American tradition, the current frenzy of book banning is unprecedented. Never before have entire state library systems left the ALA because their leaders wish to censor categories of books. There were a historic 1,269 attempts to remove books from libraries in 2022 (MSN). The English department of a South Carolina school stormed into an AP class this year to confiscate copies of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (Washington Post).
A video of two Missouri State Senators torching cardboard boxes with flamethrowers recently went viral with claims that they were participating in the Nazi Party-style book burning. State Senator Bill Eigel clarified that though the boxes in the video were empty, he would happily participate in a public book burning if given the opportunity — on the front lawn of the governor’s mansion, no less (MSN).
It’s not just any books that are being banned. Books with exclusively white characters aren’t targeted for their “troubling ideas about race relations.” Books depicting heterosexual intimacy aren’t banned for exposing children to sexuality. Authors who celebrate American nationalism aren’t censored for “politicizing” education. Book bans are the product of a “growing, well-organized, conservative political movement, the goals of which include removing books about race, history, gender identity, sexuality, and reproductive health from America’s public and school libraries that do not meet their approval,” according to an ALA report (Northeastern).
Snatching books from library shelves is bad for anyone who values open debate and a diversity of opinions. And preventing young people from reading books that focus on topics some see as “difficult” is bad for all kids, not just kids with marginalized identities.
“Our society doesn’t like to talk about bad things. It’s just shut down. It’s not engaging in a conversation around it. But kids know things. They’re very perceptive. I think it’s much more harmful that they have these book bans in place because kids need this knowledge and quite frankly, the adults who are banning these books need that knowledge,” says Dr. Jaci Urbani (Northeastern).
A right-wing movement is mobilizing in municipalities and school districts across the country to erase certain topics and identities from the public sphere. They’ve made shocking gains, which will only continue unless we fight back. The Banned Book Books Club is a monthly reading group, library, and fund dedicated to reading and protecting the most important books for the next generation. You can join the community or donate to ensure threatened books are distributed. You can also use resources like this to start your own radical reading group with friends to develop a political analysis of the issues in your community. And groups like the Zinn Education Project provide teaching materials about people’s history that can be used inside or outside of the classroom.
As Brazilian educator and philosopher Paolo Freire pointed out, “There’s no such thing as a neutral education. Education either functions as an instrument to bring about conformity or freedom” (Civic Educator). As we enter Banned Books Week, we should resist censorship aimed at enforcing conformity with unjust systems and create collective education to bring about freedom.
• The first week of October is Banned Book Week.
• Multiple state library systems have left the American Library Association due to ALA opposition to book bans.
• With record numbers of attempts to ban books, it’s important to support political education outside the classroom.