As a new K-12 academic year begins, students in states from Texas to Missouri and Pennsylvania may see slightly fewer books on the shelves in their school libraries.
Across the country, book bans are on the rise, according to a report from the American Library Association (ALA). In 2021, the ALA recorded 729 attempts to ban or limit access to books and other materials in libraries, schools and universities around the U.S.—marking the highest number in the association’s 20 years of tracking book bans. Many of those attempts at censorship focused on books by Black or LGBTQ authors, such as The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas and This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson.
Wendy Glenn is a former middle and high school English teacher and unabashed book lover. She believes that reading books, even ones that make adults squirm, is important for young people. Books introduce kids to new ideas and people, helping them to learn about the world.
“Classrooms are democratic spaces, and books are democratic entities,” said Glenn, a professor in the School of Education at CU Boulder.
She shared her perspectives with CU Boulder Today.
There have been many waves of book banning in this country’s history. Do you think this one is different?
Over generations of literary censorship, the ‘why’ has remained pretty consistent. Attempts to deny access to books tend to grow from adults wanting to protect young people from ideas that might scare them or that might be seen as inaccurate or that adults don’t want children to know exist.
But while the ‘why’ has remained pretty consistent, I think the ‘what’ of literary censorship has shifted based upon who holds the power.
Young people in the late 1800s, for example, were prohibited from buying certain dime novels. These titles featured sensationalistic stories, particularly stories of romance that pushed against the Progressive Era propriety that wanted women to behave according to certain norms and moral codes.
More recently, we’ve seen inaccurate understandings of and unwarranted fears around critical race theory lead to attacks on books written by people of color.
What can kids learn from reading books that might make adults feel uncomfortable?
When I was a middle and high school teacher in Mesa, Arizona, I worked with students who were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had several students who identified as Catholic or Protestant. Others practiced Islam or Buddhism. Still others were atheists. Our classroom conversations were so rich and so complicated because the students brought all of these perspectives to bear on the topics that we explored together.
And sometimes stories invited new thinking around these perspectives. Some students met and found deep connections with characters whose non-dominant sexual identities pushed against their faith. They fell in love with these characters, and that led them to think about how their religion viewed homosexuality. Other students who held non-dominant sexual identities met these same characters, too. They saw their identities presented through a lens of acceptance and love, sometimes for the first time ever in a school space.
Books have that power. We can find connection through the stories that we read.
Is there a banned book that holds particular meaning in your life?
Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. was really important to me as a young person. It talks so honestly about things like first periods and first bras. I always felt like I could ask my mom about those kinds of things. We had a good relationship, but I also somehow knew that talking about bodies, about sexuality, made some adults uncomfortable.
Censors often fail to recognize that young people are smart and curious and capable of thinking deeply about some of these topics that adults think are too difficult.
Many on the right might point to what they call “cancel culture” to argue that the left is also prone to censorship. What do you think?
I do think there are (and have always been) examples of censorship happening across the political spectrum. Recently, authors, including several authors of color, have been criticized for not ‘getting it right’ in their presentation of the cultures that they are describing.
When those on the left say, ‘Don’t buy this book. Don’t use it in your classroom,’ the aim is to avoid misrepresentation and associated harm, which I understand and support. But I also think that any time we bring our own judgment to bear in determining what is appropriate for someone else to take up and read, the consequence could deny that someone else access to story. By definition, that could result in censorship.
As a book lover, do you feel hopeful for the future?
I'm optimistic because I think stories have the power to educate and even unite. If we can find a way to invite people of all perspectives to engage with stories, even those that make them feel uncomfortable, then I think we can begin to have these important conversations.
Books are central to our democracy. They allow readers to learn about and consider a wide variety of perspectives. That feels ultimately hopeful to me.