A Virginia court case brought against Barnes & Noble attempted to restrict the sale of Maia Kobabe’s "Gender Queer" and Sarah Maas’ "A Court of Mist and Fury." Local legislators argued based on a poorly-worded Virginia law that the books would be “obscene” for readers under the age of 18. The case was recently dismissed. This comes at a time of much political discussion centered around which books are appropriate to read in the classroom.
Equally disturbing is the removal of Margaret Atwood’s "The Handmaid’s Tale," a novel famous for highlighting oppression and injustice, from a few Texas and Kansas public schools for “review.” "The Handmaid’s Tale" is an influential work that is extremely well-written. It’s relevant today and will continue to be. Removing this book is an affront to a proper education. The book is so well-known and influential that it is hard to believe school officials are unaware of its content. What is there to review that they wouldn’t already know of?
Restricting access to books is an obstacle to a well-informed public. Having healthy debates and access to information are crucial aspects of any democracy. Reading books about difficult subjects, like racism, leads to discussion of those subjects, especially in the classroom.
On this, the author Laurie Halse Anderson said: “'By attacking these books, by attacking the authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation. You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence and attacks.'”
Historically, many books of great literary merit have been challenged in the United States, including J.D. Salinger’s "The Catcher in the Rye" and James Joyce’s "Ulysses." "Ulysses" was burned in serialized form in the United States. The road to getting it published in the U.S. was long and arduous due to its “obscene” content. In England, the book was mass burned before it was legally banned. Yet, it is also regarded as a literary masterpiece. "The Catcher in the Rye" was challenged and banned in multiple US classrooms, mostly for profanity, despite its status as one of the greatest works in the American literary canon. It’s difficult to argue nowadays with the sheer amount of praise and literary analysis both works have received that access to them should be restricted or banned, as people have tried in the past.
In trying to ban books like "Gender Queer" for its “obscene” content, a similar mistake is made. Books of great literary merit, which are a joy to read and foster intellectual discussion, could be wholly removed from the classroom. This decreases the quality of literary education. Going further by restricting access to books at booksellers like Barnes & Noble is devastating and begs the question: What is worth more, quality education or censoring books certain readers may find “obscene?”
Deborah Caldwell Stone, the American Library Association’s director of office for intellectual freedom, sums it up perfectly: "If you focus on five passages, you’ve got obscenity. If you broaden your view and read the work as a whole, you’ve got Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’”
It’s so important to have a diverse selection of books to read because the real world is just as diverse. Regardless of whether a book is set in a fantasy world or is pure nonfiction, there are many life lessons to be gained from books. They are a resource for people of all ages to learn more about the world, oftentimes from the point of view of characters they can relate to rather than simply learning information from a textbook. This connection draws the reader into what they’re learning about. For example, "Gender Queer," a memoir of Kobabe’s life, explores sexuality and gender identity. "Beloved," another book that has historically been challenged, highlights the pain and devastation of slavery. These books can educate readers about serious material. Trying to censor these books, through removing them from classrooms or otherwise, does not erase the books’ subjects from reality. Students will eventually have to confront these topics.
Specifically in classrooms, there exists an argument that certain material isn’t age-appropriate for students. There are certainly books that would not be appropriate for elementary school students and as such aren’t taught to them; the issue is trying to remove books from high school curriculums. For example, in a campaign ad for governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin, a mother declares that she would like "Beloved" to be optional instead of part of her son’s required high school curriculum, as a result of its “explicit content.” Some content in "Beloved" is difficult for very young children to read, but this book is widely recommended for the high school-age reader and for good reason. Censoring this book does not mean that its historical content disappears — the issues the novel confronts must be addressed eventually. Teachers can help students understand the difficult topics in these books and productively learn from them. Students will become more informed and better equipped to discuss difficult issues, an important life skill.
To ban a book from a school, a library or a bookseller is to cut off the public’s access to information and quality literature. Books are important for the development of the mind. Censoring books is not okay. We cannot ignore real world problems by trying to silence books that discuss them.
Caitlin Brannigan is a sophomore from New Jersey studying psychology and theology. She will forever defend her favorite young adult novels and is overjoyed to have a platform to rant. She can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org or @CaitlinBrannig on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.