The parental right to kill a mockingbird (and other important texts)
Some of my fondest memories from elementary school are of plucking the stories that most intrigued me from the shelves of the school library and making my escape into the text’s fictional world. I traveled through time with Jack and Annie (and subsequently begged my parents for my own non-magic tree house), I memorized spells and visited Hogsmeade with Harry and Hermione and I developed an interest in Greek mythology because of the adventures Percy Jackson offered me.
Book banning has always been a hot topic for school districts and libraries alike — and texts depicting marginalized communities, identities and non-Christian themes have often been the target — but recently, unprecedented measures have been taken by parents and conservative politicians to remove books from the shelves of school libraries. Some Texas school districts are even reporting “more challenges this year than in the past two decades combined.” Currently, books that mention gender and/or sexuality are leading the pack as the number one reason behind book bannings, with anything involving race or racialized content following closely behind.
One Mississippi mayor is withholding $110,000 in approved funds from a local library until they remove all “homosexual materials.” “Maus,” a nonfiction graphic novel depicting the horrors of the Holocaust, was banned by a Tennesee school board just weeks before Holocaust Remembrance Day 2022. “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Lawn Boy,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Bluest Eye,” “Beloved,” “The Hate U Give,” “Beyond Magenta” and “I am Jazz” — all books containing themes of gender, race and/or sexuality — are a few among hundreds of others that are being contested (and in some states, flying from the shelves) amidst the passing of book bans. But if said book banning is supposedly being done in the best interest of children, it begs the rather obvious question of which children are being excluded and even harmed by these measures. What are schools attempting to shield non-marginalized students from?
Calls for the banning of books like “Maus” and “The Hate U Give” in the name of the difficulty of the topics being discussed centers students who do not have the lived experiences of racism and anti-semitism. It is also virtually impossible for conversations about either of those topics to be both pleasant and accurate. Students with racialized identities, however, do not get to choose whether or not they are exposed to said issues. Despite this, in addition to the materials being removed after being voted against by school boards or legislators, others are being removed more quietly without a preceding discussion.
Further, a recently-introduced Florida bill, commonly referred to by opposers as “Don’t Say Gay,” aims to ban classroom discussion about gender identity and sexuality in primary grade levels, with supporting Republican Senator Dennis Baxley citing parents’ rights to have a say in what their kids are learning as the primary reason for the bill. According to KCUR, more than 120 bills have been filed since Dec. 20, 2021, by Missouri state legislators alone on teachings about race, bias and “parental rights,” with “elementary and secondary education” being the most popular topic of bills filed so far in 2022. Some have even proposed that parents be informed weeks in advance should a “controversial” topic be in the lesson plan.
So who gets to make the decision on what’s controversial? As the subjects of these banned books and topics suggest, there is a specific type of child whose experiences and “well-being” are allegedly being prioritized. Or, rather, there is a specific type of parent whose beliefs are being upheld and written into legal doctrine. Bans like these certainly do not include the well-being of children — or parents — who have seen themselves, their families and their histories represented in the books that are being contested and ripped from the shelves. On the contrary, students who are only just beginning to see themselves reflected in library books and the course curriculum are now being told that their identities are “harmful” or “too inappropriate” to be discussed amongst other students who do not share them.
Banning these books harms both the children who are having their safe spaces and representation stripped away from them as well as non-marginalized students who should still be exposed to a variety of experiences and identities. Ignorance only enables intolerance and bigotry, and to insist on the burial of difficult or “diverse” topics instead of encouraging their discussion in an educational environment is to willingly aid in ostracizing marginalized students and creating ill-informed, intolerant behaviors in others.