Commentary: Valerie Kinloch and Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada — Book protests a morality red herring

For teachers and librarians, going back to school means getting students back into stories. Stories are important and change our lives. Often the flashy stories are the most compelling and make lifelong readers.

An angry little boy, sent to his room for punishment, finds it turned into a jungle of monsters (and feelings) which he conquers (“Where the Wild Things Are”). A formerly enslaved woman and her family are haunted, both literally and metaphorically, by the murder of her child and the horrific circumstances that led to it (“Beloved”).

These stories and many others teach us important lessons about humanity.

Stories open up possibilities for us: to follow in the footsteps of a person from the distant past or a person who is distant in the present because their path does not correspond to the reader’s experiences. This year, those opportunities are diminished by the widespread removal of books from classrooms and libraries across the country.

A disproportionate number of stories that receive the most scrutiny involve characters and writers who are Black, Indigenous, or people of color, or who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex, or asexual.

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Due to legislation in states like Florida, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Missouri and the ongoing onslaught of local book challenges, students will have less reading to do this year. That should concern us all.

Increasingly, some people in communities across the country, often spurred on by disinformation and politically motivated groups, want to ban books in the name of parental rights. This is a red herring. Teachers and librarians have always respected the right of parents to choose which books their children read.

But no one has the right to dictate what books other people’s children may read.

Young people deserve healthy models for discussion, not an antagonistic approach that vilifies teachers and librarians and divides communities. In Tennessee classrooms, students cannot borrow books until teachers have compiled lists of books, submitted them for review, and posted them to their classroom libraries. Right now, a student who asks to pull a book off the shelf is likely to be told “no.”

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Teachers and librarians in Keller, Texas, were ordered to remove any books that had been challenged in the previous school year. And in Missouri, a new law requires school librarians to preemptively remove books from shelves under threat of criminal charges.

When students go to public libraries after school, they face the same challenge, with attempts to remove books from public libraries across the country.

Banning a book — or burning it, as politicians in Tennessee and Virginia have suggested — does not erase its truth. Our nation has always been a nation of many stories, and silencing some means reducing the opportunities for our students to build both an understanding of what it means to be fully human and themselves in what seeing what they read represents.

By banning books, we are passing on the practice of silence to children and teaching young learners that eradicating opposing views when disagreements arise is justified and that the lives and experiences of some people do not matter.

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Book bans shouldn’t be the default option for dissenting opinions in our classrooms or libraries. Those who value the freedom of reading need to be just as organized as those who try to limit it. That’s why we stand with a growing list of individuals—authors and publishers, educators, parents, civil rights groups, and more—in the fight against censorship.

As we gather again in classrooms and libraries, we call on school boards, parents, and concerned citizens to model civic discourse by encouraging serious discussion of complex and competing ideas through books. We might all learn something from this.

Valerie Kinloch is President of the National Council of Teachers of English and Renée and Richard Goldman Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada is President of the American Library Association and Librarian in the Palos Verdes Library District, California. NCTE and ALA are founding partners of the Unite Against Book Bans campaign. They wrote this for

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