In a country where the average adult is reading fewer and fewer books, it’s a surprise that Americans argue about it so much. In this election year, parents and politicians – so many politicians – join the fray to say how powerful books can be. Granted, politicians often make what I do sound like witchcraft, but I take that as a compliment.
I’ll admit that one of my first thoughts on the current wildfire of attempted censorship was: How quaint. Conservatives seemed to dust off their 1958 script, when our stories could only get to children through schools and libraries. While both are still important havens for readers, they’re hardly the only options. Many booksellers offer titles that are being pulled from school shelves. And words can be shared on social media and the rest of the web for free. If you take my book off a shelf, you keep it off that shelf, but you hardly keep it off the readers.
With censorship wars raging in so many communities, damaging the lives of countless teachers, librarians, parents, and children, it feels less and less quaint. That’s not your father’s book censorship.
We no longer talk about the fear of “dirty words”. Early in my career, some adults expressed unease about the number of f-bombs in my books. I’ve always explained that they’re used for precision – saying “I’m really angry” is different than saying “I’m really fucking angry”. Since I don’t necessarily see the use of F-bombs as a core part of my identity, I have not taken such confrontations personally. We argued over words.
I really miss fighting over words.
Because now it’s very personal. The overwhelming majority of books under dispute today are by BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) and LGBTQ+ authors. Censors not only pursue freedom of reading; They try to erase entire identities and stories. Censors claim they protect children from ideology…by forcing their own ideology on entire classrooms and communities. Or at least tries.
Here’s something I never thought I’d be nostalgic about: sincere censors. When my first novel, Boy Meets Boy, was published in 2003, it was immediately the subject of many challenges, some of which prevented the book from even getting off the shelf. At the time, a challenge usually meant a parent trying to get a book from a school or library, which went through a formal process. I often recalled trying to find sympathy for these parents; Yes, they were wrong, and their desire to control what other people in the community got to read was wrong – but more often than not, the challenge came from a fear of a changing world, a genuine (if false) belief that being gay would lead kids straight to ruin and hell, and/or the misguided notion that if all books challenging the (homophobic, racist) status quo were to go, the status quo would remain intact . In a way, it was just as personal for them as it was for us on the other side of the challenge. And nine times out of ten, the book stayed on the shelf.
It’s not like that now. As I’ve spoken to authors, librarians, and teachers, I’ve found that attacks are less and less about the actual books. We are being used as targets in a much larger proxy war. The aim of this war is not only to curtail freedom of thought, but also to erode the public education system in this country. Censors scorch the earth without caring how many children are burned. Racism and homophobia are still very present, but it is also a power grab, a money grab. The goal of many is a for-profit, more authoritarian and much less diverse culture, a culture where the truth is what you are told, your identity is determined by its acceptance, and the past is a lie that the future is forced to emulate , emulate. The politicians who yell and post and make their lists of “harmful” books are actually not afraid of our books. They use our books to scare people.
There’s a reason this tactic has a chance to work, and why you don’t see people using adult reading opportunities as an argument for banning books. No one cares much about what adults read because the power of reading is (unfortunately) not that widespread among adults.
However, the power of reading is widespread among children. So many of us know this because even if we don’t read much as adults, chances are we felt the magic of reading when we were young: whether it was a loved one reading us to sleep, or Experiencing a fantasy world all by ourselves and then talking about it with our friends, we understood that we were in the presence of something bigger than ourselves that somehow lived inside us too.
I laugh when someone attacks one of my books (or any other LGBTQ+ children’s book) for “making the reader gay”. We are powerful, but we are not the powerful; The power of our books lies in providing validation, validation, inspiration and space for reflection, not in creating something that isn’t already there. I’ve heard from readers saying that my books and other LGBTQ+ books saved their lives because the recognition they discovered and the validation they felt brought them back from the brink of despair. And I’ve heard from far more readers that our books help them live better, truer lives by showing what’s possible, by acknowledging the difficult parts, and giving them characters that often handle situations similar to them , which they face. Rarely do a reader write to me and say, “Your book has power,” but what they say often amounts to that. We are not the engines of change; Readers are the engines of change. Sometimes we can give them the fuel they need, often when they need it most.
Censorship wants to stop this supply. And eventually it might have worked. But because of the internet and all the support networks that queer and BIPOC and other targeted youth have built over the past few decades, it can’t work now.
Censorship’s playbook may be outdated, but that doesn’t make it any less insidious.
A few months ago, I was speaking at the American Library Association’s annual meeting, at a celebration of intellectual freedom. It was a bleak day, and I’ll admit I used a few F-bombs. Roe v. calf had been tipped over that morning. I wore a t-shirt that said, “I Will Say Gay“ to acknowledge the bizarre and despicable attack on queer youth that is going on in Florida. The librarians who won awards at the event spoke about how politicians had turned some (not all) people in their communities against their libraries. Demonstrators demanded a lecture that featured a drag queen. And one librarian told us how, after she released a statement in support of diversity at her library, the local sheriff told her not to bother calling 911 if something went wrong.
There didn’t seem to be an easy answer to that. But we still asked ourselves: What gives you hope?
We all had the same answer and it is Not The power of books. It is the next generation of readers, the very children and young people, that censorship seeks to control in the name of “protection.” The threat to intellectual freedom never comes from children. No educator or librarian I’ve spoken to can recall a child asking for a book to be banned from a classroom or library. (There are a lot of kids who say a book sucks and shouldn’t be taught; I know because I was definitely one of those kids.) When a kid comes across something in a book that scares them or confuses them or he’s uncomfortable, they might stop reading, but they don’t insist that everyone else should be prevented from reading it too.
As I told the librarians in June, the censors want us to believe that lions are at the gates. But the truth is that we who cherish and defend books are the ones who guard the gates. They want us to close and bar these gates in a state of constant defense. But we’re here to keep the gates wide open for everyone and everyone, especially kids of color and LGBTQ+ kids who have been kept out so many times.
We who appreciate and defend books do not do it because we love books and have better lives because of them, although both are usually true. We defend books because by doing so we are defending all the children who are represented in those books. Censorship is the opposite of telling the truth, and while it’s hard work, we must continue to tell the truth — not just about the books, but about the censors and what they really want.
David Levithan is the 11th most censored author in the United States, according to PEN America. His latest book is “answers in the pages.”
A note to our readers
We participate in the Amazon Services LLC Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program that allows us to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated websites.