This article, written by Barbara Meyers, is from the October 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
It only takes a cursory perusal of today’s news coverage to happen upon a fight about book banning. It seems to be increasing in frequency, which is concerning to those of us who write books and believe in the freedom of expression. Like most aspects of human progression over time, book banning goes in cycles. And we repeatedly have to push back against it.
The beginning of book banning
Chinese emperor Qin Shih Huang Di wanted to control the written history of his time, but in doing so he actually went down in history as perhaps the earliest implementer of book banning. His measures were drastic when you learn he buried 460 Confucian scholars alive to assert total control over how he and his reign would be remembered. In 212 B.C., he burned all the books in his kingdom, retaining only a single copy of each for the Royal Library. Even those were destroyed before his death. With all previous historical records destroyed, he thought history could be said to begin with him.
The first book ban in the United States dates back to 1637, in what is known today as Quincy, Mass. Thomas Morton published his New English Canaan, which the Puritan government later banned for being “a harsh and heretical critique of Puritan customs and power structures.”
For a further historical perspective on book banning, read NINC President Celeste Barclay’s column in the April issue of Nink.
What is a book ban?
When a book is successfully “banned,” that means a book has been removed from school curricula and/or public libraries because a person or group has objected to its content.
An attempt to get a book removed is called a challenge. Most public schools and libraries have boards made up of elected officials (or people appointed by elected officials) who have the power to remove books from the schools and libraries they oversee.
When book banning goes beyond libraries and schools
“My first reaction was to be ashamed,” Pepper North says upon learning her first book, Zoey: Dr. Richards’ Littles® 1 was banned Jan. 25, 2022, on Amazon (English version only). She was told it violated their content guidelines. Social media and her newsletter fans were supportive, and North knows they made an impact on Amazon.
“The worst is the inability to get anyone to listen to you and the fear that Amazon could yank one book or all your books on one person’s opinion, and there is nothing you can do. If that person is of another culture and beliefs, it makes it even tougher. How do you know what the playing field actually is?”
Sandra Hill learned about the influence of one person’s opinion when she scheduled a book signing with the late Trish Jensen at a Wegman’s supermarket. The store manager skimmed through one of Jensen’s books, saw something he found objectionable, and decided they were “too sexy.” He rescinded the offer for her to participate, did not advertise the event, and put Hill in the back of the store.
“Oddly,” she says, “I write sexy books. Trish never did. It was embarrassing for her, me, the book distributor who came that day, and the publisher. In retrospect, I wish I had declined to participate too.”
“One of my erotic romances was rejected on Draft2Digital by one of the library distributors because it was listed as being primarily for erotic content, etc.,” Denise Agnew says. “What is funny about that is the next two books in the trilogy were not rejected and yet there is no toning down of the content in either book. So, who knows what sort of rules/criteria they use in that library system?”
Nora Roberts found it “shocking” when eight of her books were removed from school library shelves in Martin County, Florida, following a complaint.
“I’m surprised that they wouldn’t want teenagers to read about healthy relationships that are monogamous, consensual, healthy, and end up in marriage,” Roberts said about her books in an article in The Hill.
Not only does Roberts speak out about book banning, she also donates to individual libraries and to the EveryLibrary Institute, a national nonprofit focused on public policy and libraries.
Are book bans on the rise in the U.S.?
Yes. The American Library Association (ALA) keeps track of challenges and bans across the country. In 2021, the ALA recorded 729 book challenges targeting 1,597 titles. That’s more than double 2020’s figures and the highest number since the organization began recording data in 2000.
Challenged books focus
A recent analysis by PEN America found that many challenged books focus on communities of color, the history of racism in America, and LGBTQ characters. In fact, one in three books restricted by school districts in the past year featured LGBTQ themes or characters.
There have been a series of attacks on Sherman Alexie’s multiple award-winning young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. In 2014 he told The Guardian that book banners want to control debate and limit imagination while his goal is to encourage debate and celebrate imagination.
According to The National Coalition Against Censorship, Alexie’s book was one of its most frequently defended titles at that time.
When Brad Meltzer learned via social media of bans on his children’s books about heroes like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., he was stunned. The books, aimed at ages five to eight, were meant to “help kids build character, kindness, and compassion one real hero at a time,” according to Meltzer’s website.
Meltzer told Freedom Forum his advice for those experiencing book bans was to not stand for it and to protest because bans are only going to increase and are born out of fear, and work because people are scared. One of the ways he and his supporters fought back was by helping to gather hundreds of the “not-to-be-permitted” books to be placed in Little Free Library locations.
Mississippi recently hosted its first Banned Books Festival in response to school districts removing scores of library books that have yet to be “approved.”
On the festival’s website, Reena Evers-Everette, director of the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Institute in Jackson, is quoted as saying, “These books are being banned, because some people want to erase history and erase the truth. That is why we need to take a stand for truth in holding this festival.”
Kyle Lukoff, author of Call Me Max, a banned children’s book about a transgender boy, has spoken extensively on the topic and refers to his pinned Tweet thread where he states, “I’m not the first to note how ‘banned books’ has tidily replaced ‘diversity’ as a way to silo marginalized authors away from discussing our craft, making us serve, again, only as emissaries of our people.” Further in the thread he says, “…I’m sick of always talking about what my enemies are doing and wish I could just talk about what I’m doing, who my characters are, what stories I’m bringing into the world.”
Maia Kobabe’s autobiographical book, Gender Queer, tells the story of Kobabe’s young adulthood and eventual coming out as nonbinary after many years of gender confusion. In a USA Today article, e says e believes that if e’d had a book like Gender Queer, it could have taken 10 years off eir questioning and confusion and uncertainty about who e was and how e was going to fit into the world.
Kobabe sees legislation like Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, as part of the organized effort to erase trans, queer, and nonbinary voices from the public sphere.
According to a 2022 report by PEN America, Ellen Hopkins was the most frequently banned writer in the U.S. Hopkins began writing her first book, Crank, after watching her daughter struggle with drug use, teenage parenting, prostitution, and homelessness. She has written several novels using topics such as homelessness and human trafficking based on her family’s experiences in an effort to help kids make better choices.
What to do about book bans
- Gather the facts. Book banning is often painted with a broad brush. For example, a “Florida Bans Books” headline may inaccurately reflect the decisions of one library or school district in one county.
- Consider donating to organizations such as those mentioned above which fight against book bans.
- Use your voice as an author and gather support from your readers and/or author organizations to oppose a book ban.
- Use social media and your website to promote your position on book banning.
Books bridge divides between people
Perhaps author Jodi Picoult said it best when she told Anderson Cooper during a CNN interview, “As parents it’s totally fine to make a decision about what your child can or cannot read. It is not fine for you to make a decision for everyone else’s child.” She went on to say, “Books bridge divides between people, and we know that book bans create them… Speak out as loudly as the people who are making the noise. Because there are far more people who don’t want books banned in this country than the ones who do.”
Barbara Meyers writes a mix of contemporary romance and women’s fiction stories which often feature a displaced child.