Banning Books Backfires

Banning books isn’t anything new. Historically, governments have done it to prevent the spread of “dangerous” thoughts. Religions have sought to do so when books dealt with issues felt to be too “ungodly”. Parents have asked for books to be banned when they’ve felt the books might teach their children values they, the parents, don’t share. Recently, we’ve seen a new spate of book bannings for all those reasons and more and the results have been interesting at least.

Because I’m a proud Texan, I’m going to start with a story of book banning that’s happening in my proverbial backyard. (You have to remember, backyards are really, really big in Texas. VBG) It starts with a push from some of our state legislators to remove books containing what they view to be inappropriate material from our schools. Following along like good little politicians, the Granbury ISD school board reviewed more than 100 books and decided to ban 5 of them.

The five books were all written by the same author. The school board deemed them “sexually explicit” and decided they should not be made available–at all–for high schoolers.

“It is without question in my mind that the right move for Granbury ISD and Granbury High School was to remove the Abbi Glines books.  The material in those books is too sexually explicit and completely inappropriate for a high school library collection.  This incident has provided us with a moment to pause and review our collection procurement processes and make adjustments to ensure that we purchase and shelve age and grade appropriate books,” said Granbury High School Principal Jeremy Ross.

Other school districts, including a number here in Texas, when tackling this problem have made similar decisions. However, there’s been a marked difference in how most of these districts handled the “bannings”. They removed the so-called offending books from mandatory reading lists and from classroom libraries. They did not remove the books from the school proper.

And that’s a distinction that wasn’t lost on the high school students of the Granbury ISD. At the latest school board meeting, a number of students were among those who spoke to the board about the ban.

“We want to learn about things that may not be the prettiest or the most comfortable, but we as students are entitled to complete knowledge — not information that has been disseminated,” the student said.

In response, the superintendent basically called the students and those opposing the bans “radicals” and accused them of trying to “gaslight” everyone about what was really happening in the district. The students weren’t daunted or cowed. Instead, they formed a fundraiser where they are basically shoving the superintendent’s words right back at him.

I love their drive and I love how they are responding to the situation. While I am not familiar with the five books the GISD banned and it is quite possible they are books I wouldn’t agree should be part of a required reading list or school curriculum, I am against banning books. These are high school students. In a very short time, they will be out from under their parents’ protective roofs and having the face the world. They should be exposed to ideas that aren’t easy or comfortable. If they want to read about those ideas, they should be allowed to. This wasn’t a case of being forced to read the books for a class. They were in the library. If we allow our politicians to remove books from school libraries because they deem them inappropriate for whatever reason, what is to stop them from doing it from our public libraries? After all, the threat of the loss of state funds would be a very large incentive to cave.

But GISD isn’t the latest to find itself in the media over book bannings. Tennessee’s McMinn County Board of Education found itself in the center of the debate last week when national media picked up the story about the board banning “Maus“.  (link is an Amazon Associates link.)

For those of you not familiar with it, Maus is a graphic novel published in 1996.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times).

Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.

The board in question objected to the book being available for 8th graders. Apparently, it had “vulgar” words the board objected to as well as the fact the book depicts subjects “inappropriate” for those 8th graders.

The McMinn County Board of Education said the graphic novel “was simply too adult-oriented” and cited the use of profanity, nudity, and depictions of violence and suicide. In a statement last week, the board said it doesn’t dispute the importance of teaching students about the Holocaust and said it asked administrators to find more age-appropriate texts to “accomplish the same educational goal.”

Now, it’s been a long time since I was in 8th grade, but I remember those days. Most of us knew, even if we didn’t use, words that could make a sailor blush. By the time my son was in 8th grade, young adult novels dealt with rape, drug abuse, depression, incest and worse. And, yes, he was required to read novels about such things and he was required to do so long before reaching 8th grade.

Besides, we’re talking about the Holocaust, one of the worst periods of human history ever. Instead of using this as a teaching moment, the board wants to coddle the students. If they were that worried about the book, the remove it from the curriculum but leave it in the library where it can be checked out by those students wanting to read it.

Of course, what neither the GISD or the Tennessee district considered were the consequences of their actions. They have been the focus of some rather negative media coverage. They have given students and their families reason to look closer at other policy decisions made. Most of all, they have given publicity to the books they found inappropriate. In at least the case of Maus, they made the book a best seller on Amazon. As I write this post this morning, the hard cover of the book currently sits at #3 in books, #1 in Biographies and Historic Graphic Novels, #1 in Fiction Satire and #2 in Literary Graphic Novels.

Hmmm, maybe instead of objecting to books being banned, I ought to ask how I can get mine banned. . . Nah. I’d rather make sure our kids–and ourselves–are able to read uncomfortable books even if I don’t agree with what the ideas the books push.

Featured Image by Prettysleepy from Pixabay

37 comments

  1. *Maus* was required reading. On that topic, I am entirely on the book banners side, after the compelled readings I had to suffer through.

    1. This is where we will disagree to a point. I have no problem with them removing it from the required list. I do have a problem with them blanket banning it from even being in the library. This is from the mother who demanded a book be taken off the 4th grade summer mandatory reading list for graphic portrayal of a rape. But I also know there are some students, especially at the 8th grade level and up, who are ready to read and discuss things like Maus. Then there’s the fact these ban lists aren’t looking at a lot of popular YA fiction that is. The only difference is those are novels and not graphic novels.

      1. How old was Anne Frank? She might have been in 9th grade the year she died. I remember discussions of her and the book “Treblinka” in the 4th grade. The books were not required reading, but the Holocost was discussed in depth.

        1. Exactly. Have the books available–if age appropriate–and have the discussion. It is a large part in how our kids will learn history, etc.

            1. The parents have the authority– that’s why Tennessee has the law about schools publishing what they’re going to be teaching, why they have school boards, why they have public meetings and sometimes even have opt-outs. To help the schools express that parental authority.

  2. I’ve written about this before and didn’t add it to this post. But I have objected to certain books being required reading because they were not appropriate for the age group. One of those is the book I mentioned in my response to Mary above. A child going into the 4th grade is not mature enough (on the whole) to deal with a graphic rape scene. And I do mean graphic.

    However, as a writer and as a mother, I am against the banning of books simply because they don’t fall in line with the political, social or religious beliefs of someone else. Okay, the books might not be appropriate to be required reading, but that doesn’t mean they can’t still be part of the library offerings. And before someone argues that the books could be gotten somewhere besides the school library, remember this. A number of local libraries have closed over the last decade due to financial concerns of the cities or towns where they were located. That means not everyone has one conveniently located to them any more. As for being able to buy or rent the book in question, that assumes the family has the disposable income that allows them to do so.

    Then there is the slippery slope we get one when we stand by and let books be banned from a school because they present ideas the administration or some parents disagree with. Again, I am not talking about books as required reading but books available through the school library as supplemental or personal reading. Remember when parents were demanding Harry Potter books be banned–and there were districts that did so–because they advocated witchcraft and that meant satanism. High schools that teach comparative religion as an elective have found themselves facing demands to ban the Koran or even the Torah and other holy books of other religions because they aren’t Christian.

    Where do we draw the line? Shakespeare is taught and you see teen suicide, incest, etc. Look at what is in the Canterbury Tales.

    I might not agree with what a book says, but I would rather that book be available to the appropriate age group where it can be used as a learning experience than to ban it. I don’t agree with Marx or Hitler, but I read their works in high school because I knew I needed to know what they stood for in order to fight their ideas. I read Lenin in college for the same reason.

    Besides, I remember being a kid. Tell me I couldn’t do something or read something or go see something and I was sure as hell going to do my best to do just that. Is that the best way to handle ideas we might not feel comfortable with or agree with?

  3. Book A describes long-term sexual abuse of a girl by her stepfather begining at age 12. Book B contains the N-word as the name of a major character. Both are considered important literature. Which is so inappropriate for a high-school student it should be removed from the library – Lolita, Huck Finn or both? Glad I’m not on the school board.

    1. The Huck Finn discussion brings up even more concerns when it comes to books and whether they should be banned or not. Should a book no longer be made available to students because it uses language or depicts a way of life that is no longer approved of today? Or is it better to have these books, which were written in the time period they depict, taught to our kids so they can see it happened once and that it should never be allowed to happen again?

      Should we teach about slavery and life in the Deep South at the time? Should we teach about the Holocaust and how Hitler wanted to wipe out entire races and religions?

  4. One thought on the subject of “Banned Books” and schools.

    Too often the Rhetoric doesn’t differ between “removing from required reading lists” and “complete removal from school libraries”.

    Of course, to listen to the Rhetoric, it seems that the “banners” want to completely destroy the books which isn’t always the case.

    Oh, is it “Banning Books” when the school administration decides to Not Purchase Books for the School Library (especially for political reasons)? 😉

    1. To answer your question, no. By choosing not to purchase a book, the school isn’t necessarily banning it. However, if they choose not to purchase a book and then learn a teacher has purchased the book for their own classroom libraries and then demand the book be removed on the threat of disciplining the teacher if she refuses, then they have banned it.

      1. Not arguing with your answer but I can just imagine some Lefty (a person or group) learning that some school decided to Not Purchase a book that they thought should be in the school library screaming about Banned Books. 😈

        1. Of course. Unfortunately, not just a Lefty. We’d see it from the other side as well right now. We already have when books written by or about Trump have been challenged.

        2. No need to imagine it, I’ve seen it.

          That’s one of the things that got me looking deeper at claims made during “Banned Books Week.”

    2. I have a cousin who’s a bibliomaniac but has a permanent grudge against librarians after one thought “Bunnies equals kid’s book” and put Watership Down in the kid’s section. It has been decades and he still vividly recalled the traumatic effect of reading 1984 with rabbits way too young.

  5. We have a problem here with the use of the word “ban”, because different people are using it to mean different things. Leftists, in particular, like to refer to something being “banned” if it is no longer subsidized, or if something they think should be mandatory becomes optional.

    All libraries have to curate their stacks. If a library does not stock a particular book they are not banning it–even if it was a book they had stocked previously. They are simply not offering that title. Patrons are still free to check out that book from another library, or to buy their own copy.

    In order to truly ban a book, a school would have to enforce a policy of examining the books that students bring into the school from home and confiscating those they find objectionable. Is that happening in these cases?

    1. You are over-broadening the word, Mischa. A school board can “ban” a book by demanding its removal from not only the curriculum but from the school operated library and/or classroom library because the book doesn’t meet some arbitrary test of propriety. That is what is happening right now.

      As for banning it from being brought to school by students from their private libraries, it is happening in some districts. They use school handbook rules to enforce that as bringing unapproved material onto school property. Whether that is happening in the two situations I mentioned, I don’t know.

      1. The word is over-broadened, yes, which is why I try to determine how the word is being used. There are several ways in which a school board can treat a book:

        It can be part of a mandatory reading list.
        It can be an optional part of a curriculum.
        It can be available in the school library.
        It can be permitted to be read in school, but not available from the school.
        It can be forbidden on school property.

        Reducing these options to a binary “banned/not banned” dichotomy confuses the issue. I would only consider the last option as “banning” a book, but other people draw the line elsewhere. Whenever I see someone talk about a banned book, I like to ask, “What do you mean by banned?”

  6. Bans backfiring is, thankfully, not a new trend.

    As fate would have it, a few days ago Mama Raptor and I were discussing movies, and Gone With The Wind came up. Mom was raised Catholic, and the Catholic Church had a list of books, movies, and other materials that Good Catholics were forbidden from reading/watching. To hear Mom tell it, every time an item was added to that list, all the ladies in her diocese would rush out to read/watch it.

    On a similar trend, when I took American Lit in college (ugh, hated that class), every time we started a new book or author, the professor would pull out his copy of 100 Banned Books or one of its follow-up titles (50 More Banned Books, etc.) and tell the class about when, where, and why the book/author had been banned. My takeaway was that, in order for a book to truly be a classic, it has to have been banned somewhere at least once.

  7. I prefer a standard of age appropriate rather outright banning, although I might make an exception for Lawn Boy and Gender Queer. Years ago my son was in the G/T program and was required to read The Scarlet Letter at age 11. It did not go well. The controversy over the Last Temptation of Christ had not died down even five years after English publication in 1960–and I got it from the public library at age 14. It was wasted on me at that age. Given the slant of and ever growing bannings of non prog everything I’d rather be too open than too careful.

  8. The Tennessee board didn’t ban Maus.

    They decided not to have it as the one book for the entire quarter focused on the Holocaust.

    From reading the meeting transcript, I’d guess there’s some slight-of-hand going on with trying to hide what they’re actually teaching the kids in the class, because they are required by law to post the curriculum so parents can review it, and the entire citation is that they’ve got a two-year subscription to what the Maus supporter described as a vendor. If you go to that website, and look for the curriculum, it takes you to a log-in protected page with a list of the resources.

    I’ll see if I can find the link to the public meeting…..

    1. Quite a discussion over on TPV, too.

      As I noted over there, there are far better books for that age group than “Maus” for the Holocaust. I recommended “I Have Lived For a Thousand Years” and “The Boy In the Striped Pajamas.” (The latter was objected to by one person, apparently because it doesn’t portray the Germans (whites) as uniformly evil.) Another person recommended “Night,” although the consensus seemed to be for the older, high school level. (The objector seemed to think that I would object to “The Last Jew of Treblinka” for some reason, nice example of jerking the knee there…) “Number the Stars” was for the younger, elementary, level.

      Now, the Texas case – I would like to know just which Abbi Glines books were “banned.” From sampling a few of her many books through Amazon – blurbs and a couple of look insides – the lack of expanded “True Stories” dreck is unlikely to hamper the intellectual development of anyone. Perhaps I did not happen to look at the books in question, and there is something not along the lines of “I had sex with my stepbrother.”

      1. I’ve got major objections to teaching history from fiction books in the first place– I don’t care if it’s “based on a true story,” it’s dramatized, and that teaches kids some very bad habits about fake-but-accurate, even before one considers the inaccuracies introduced, both by demands of story and by the limiting of perspective.
        To use Maus as an example, it shouldn’t need to be pointed out that literally drawing the ‘races’ of people involved as different animals is a very broken Aesop, even before the realities of the situation get involved. (The Poles, rather notoriously, were to be wiped out as completely as the Jews– and that’s before the issue of what was going on in the Soviet controlled part of Poland comes up. It’s a very messy choice for an entry-point to the horrors of WWII.)
        To look at what the section is supposed to be teaching– a highly emotionally charged subject like the Holocaust, delivered in a manner designed to get a strong emotional reaction, and to which there is no acceptable level of disagreement, is an absolutely HORRIBLE choice for learning to analyze, interpret and evaluate writing. It’s like teaching someone to swim by throwing them into the ocean during a hurricane. Or maybe having them lick a light socket to learn about electrical safety.

        Of course, it’s a perfect choice if you want to teach someone The Approved Interpretation and what they are allowed to think, interpretation based on something besides the text. Since that aspect of the curriculum isn’t available, there’s not enough information.

        Now, I do know a bit about teaching someone how to get information out of reports from different perspectives; writing is a very good choice for that, since you can easily go back over it, and it minimizes external influences. (For example, a pretty news anchor can make one more sympathetic to what she says– that would be a later lesson.)
        If one wants to teach someone how to analyze, interpret and evaluate writing, then you take relatively simple texts, with opposing viewpoints, aimed at a very simple situation, and have the kids read them. Then have them watch a video of whatever the texts are describing– it needs to be simple and not emotionally charged. Then either have them write what they would describe the video’s content as, and then have what the person who made the video was trying to convey.

        This involves a lot of work for the teacher– you can probably cut it down to a manageable amount by having the kids go over what they wrote, compare it to all the other examples, and then write if they still think each point of their interpretation is the most accurate or not, and why. It is entirely possible to make a video with one intention, and miss something that changes the situation. Say, if it’s a video on running safely, and the person recording it didn’t notice a nasty weed that causes allergic reactions in the background. Or a video of someone being bumped into and falling, and the disagreement about what happens hinges on the internal state of the people involved. (That’s one of the reasons fiction is such a very bad idea for teaching history– in fiction, you can know the internal state of multiple people with complete accuracy. That doesn’t happen in real life.)

        For the love of God, to actually TEACH it, DO NOT try to get clever with this stuff! (Yes, I would expect most teachers to try to be clever with interpretation, since that’s a risk of teaching the same thing– you get bored and forget that the kids haven’t learned this yet, so you try to show them a neat way to twist it; it’s either ‘clever’ or lazy as fail-states.) All that does is teach them that the teacher isn’t to be trusted, and will try to embarrass them for not knowing things they have never been taught.
        (The lazy option pays no attention to what the kids actually did in the exercise. I had a lot of teachers evaluate group projects with comments that it lacked something that had been front and center.)

  9. 1986. Maus was originally compiled and published in 1986. Serialized from 1980-1991. The version you linked to is the first published book, plus a second one published in 1992.

    1. Understood, but it was linked to make my point that that version has benefitted from the controversy. I didn’t see a link to the earlier ’86 version. BTW, thanks for the info. I meant to include it and forgot.

  10. Banning books is one of those things topics that has to start with, “What precisely do you mean by banning?” Me personally, there are some books I wish I’d never, ever read, or not had access to at young age. Others I would prefer were removed from general circulation and reserved for research facilities (“So you are interested in the pathologies of the writer’s brain? Here’s a list you can start with.”) I’m not going to go around demanding that either of those things happen, aside from “You know, that’s not really appropriate for 6th graders, I don’t think. Have you looked at page . . .?” Let the teacher/parent decide.

    I really, really wish kids weren’t exposed to the stuff they are today, as early as they are today. But that’s a rant only tangentially on topic, and best reserved for other places (but sheesh YA publishers, ick! Really? And the writing quality is terrible. Get an editor and a thesaurus, please.)

  11. Speaking of the Holocaust and idiots and banning things, it appears that the inestimable Whoopi Goldberg has been banned from The View tv show after claiming, repeatedly and at considerable length, that the Holocaust wasn’t about “race.” Because Jewish people are, y’know, white. That was her whole argument.

    Streisand Effect. It can be a beautiful thing sometimes.

    As to the school boards and their book banning antics and general quackery, I have but two words: Home. Schooling. Because the crap you can’t see is so much worse than what you can. The fact that they waste time discussing Maus in a school board meeting is only one cockroach. There are armies of roaches hiding in the walls.

  12. I have no problem with a school class or library pulling content that is age inappropriate. But that doesn’t mean I would support removing those same books from a public library or bookstore.

  13. I take your point that for some school libraries are the main source of books, but I would still say that pulling a book from a school library isn’t banning that book since it is available elsewhere. And as Foxfier has noted elsewhere, calling something banned because a group has failed to get the book as required reading is misuse of the term.

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