Freedom of speech must also be freedom to listen. Freedom to write must also be freedom to read. School libraries have become the places threatened with losing both.
Banning books harkens to the dark times of the 1950s when being labeled a communist was tantamount to a career, political and social death penalty. Images of piles of burning books are tied to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany in the 1930s.
Book banning is not a new idea. It has always been central to the tension between certainty and freedom.
In 1650, Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned one title for being blasphemous. Huckleberry Finn has been banned twice, first for its colloquial dialogue, which was deemed too “coarse,” and later for its inclusion of a racial slur.
Book banning seems to center around religious views or cultural identity for adult readers. Some ban advocates say that adolescents must be protected from the dangerous subjects of human anatomy, sex and lately gender identification.
For very young readers, forbidden words become the catalyst for removing books from public shelves.
“I Need a New Butt!” by Dawn McMillan has been targeted as so terrible that a Missouri legislator proposed that anyone approving it for schools or libraries should be subjected to legal penalties. In Mississippi, an assistant principal was summarily fired for reading it to second graders.
This fun, funny, silly, simple story of a boy who discovers the “crack” in his posterior is a perfect book to entice young children struggling to read. The shortened version of buttocks seems to drive protectors of propriety crazy, as if they have never met a 7-year-old.
A far more insidious danger lurks behind the silliness of worrying about “I Need a New Butt.” Unreported, undocumented but very real self-censoring is being carried out by school librarians who are removing books that might become contentious.
The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom counted 330 incidents of book censorship in the fall of 2021.
Most are books about gender identification. Most of the removals were the result of challenges from parent groups. But some librarians worried about becoming a target for the loud, threatening, often politically organized attacks that have become commonplace across the country.
Librarians have every right to be afraid. Prosecutors in Wyoming have suggested the possibility of obscenity charges. The Mississippi educator lost his appeals to get his job back. Meanwhile, the book banners pay no price.
The Puritans didn’t stop debating whether obedience or suffering was atonement for sin. People along the Mississippi didn’t suddenly speak of Black people in academic language. Adolescents will think about sex and children will test bad words and giggle about them.
All books and the librarians who care for them should be safe. There is never any justification good enough to ban books.
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