Incinerate this commentary
A display of banned books at the San Jose Public Library (Photo courtesy of San Jose Public Library via Flickr | CC-BY-SA 2.0).
I was in middle school when I first learned of the Harry Potter series making waves in the Christian community. As the daughter of devout Southern Baptist who took the Bible as law, woe unto them that call evil good. Reading a coming-of-age story about a magical boy and all his wand-yielding, spell-casting friends was simply out of the question.
Of course, like many other things that went against our fundamentalist values, nothing was more intriguing than the forbidden.
In all my prepubescent yet rebellious nerdom, the library was a favorite hangout. Outside of my aide duties reshelving books, I was permitted to read during free time. Reading was, to me, an escape; I much preferred fantastical universes, heroes and heroines, and unexpected plot twists to reality. The rush of devouring “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was as addicting as it was, well, confusing.
Why was this whimsical story being met with outcry and the occasional public book burning?
Quite a bit older and barely wiser, I’m still asking myself this question. This week, I sought answers.
In recent months, a notable increase in media coverage has shed light on a growing number of school boards calling for the removal of literature from library and classroom shelves. Challenges have been raised in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Utah, South Carolina, Texas—it seems no red state is safe.
The American Library Association is a nonprofit that tracks censorship efforts as part of its mission to ensure free access to information. The ALA says calls to ban and even burn books are higher than ever, often receiving multiple reports per day. In fact, reports rose 67% this September compared to the same month last year.
My ceaseless craving for the written word compelled me to see what’s been up for conservative kindling. I’m always looking for new reading material, after all.
Perusing the ALA’s lists of the 10 most challenged books by year, I was utterly appalled at how many of my favorite authors’ works topped charts — Harper Lee, John Steinbeck, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Chuck Palahniuk, and, as recent as 2019, the word wizard of the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling herself.
These were some of the provocateurs of prose that inspired me to expand my worldview, imagine anything and question everything. They fueled my fire for racial justice, gender equality, and perpetuating the art of damn good storytelling. Moreover, their plots and characters invited me into an alternate reality to detach from my own, on occasion.
If their books represent all things bad in the world, am I the product of their nefarious nature, evil incarnate? My grandmother’s opinion aside, I’m inclined to say no.
But those carrying the torch for censorship across the country would probably declare otherwise. Looking over the challenges they’ve posed in just the past decade, they represent a range of grievances.
Here are some of my favorites:
- “Vulgarity and sexual undertones.” These parents obviously never rode in the back of a school bus or changed in a locker room. Your kids use all sorts of lewd and lascivious language when you’re not around. This summer at a neighborhood park, the colorful terms that came out of some seventh-graders’ mouths during a Nerf gun fight even made me blush.
- “Conflicting with a religious viewpoint.” Outside of the six most popular religions worldwide, there’s also a ton of obscure ones. In a time when the divine teachings of the Jedi and extraterrestrials have gained followers, there is no book in circulation that doesn’t conflict with someone’s ideology.
- “LGBTQIA characters and themes.” Because the best way to clear up sexual confusion is to pretend it doesn’t exist, right? Wrong. I know many people who have found solace in the stories of others who shared their complex and highly individual journey with their bodies and sexuality. Reading them can also do wonders for gaining a little perspective and understanding.
- “Drug use, profanity, and offensive language.” As a person whose common vernacular includes a slew of expletives, omitting them from reading material just does not compute. Maybe it’s the remnant haze from all that experimentation in high school, but the argument that sheltering kids from such things prevents them from trying it is lost on me.
- “Characters that use ‘nefarious means’ to attain goals.” Yeah, the real people doing terrible things to succeed are enough evidence that we don’t need them in books. This one made me laugh because it was the challenge against the Harry Potter series. I’m sure all the dictators and diabolical geniuses of the world learned their crooked craft from Hogwarts.
- And, last but not least: “Schools and libraries should not ‘put books in a child’s hand that require discussion.’” I saved this one until the end because I think it warrants a discussion of its own. Perhaps not here on this platform, but at home around the dinner table. As a parent, I fully encourage my child to read books with an insatiable appetite. I hope his desire to read takes him to fictional worlds and challenges him to think about the real one. Those thoughts and ideas should spark questions, and I welcome the opportunity to find answers, together. Why would any parent want to hinder the quest for knowledge and send kids to their peers for discourse and discovery, instead? If any topic is too taboo for an open dialogue with your children, maybe it’s time for you to talk about why.
Fortunately, thanks to the good work of the ALA, fellow bibliophiles, and defenders of free thinking out there, I learned most book challenges never result in a ban. However, any victory for the battle against the exchange of ideas through the written word is a tremendous loss. While my own child is not yet in primary school, the modern developments in censorship compel me to get involved. If you’re a believer in the power of books, please join me against those who would have it destroyed.
In the words of J.K. Rowling, “Nothing is more unnerving to the truly conventional than the unashamed misfit!”
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