Political Issues

​​When We Ban Books, We Severely Restrict Children’s Ability To Learn About Different People and Themselves

Graphic: W+G Creative
Growing up, reading books was my favorite activity (my father didn’t allow us to have a TV). And when my family moved from Minnesota to southern France for my dad’s job right before my fifth birthday, reading became a therapeutic means for me to self-soothe. I neither knew the language nor anything at all really about my new home. But, I was learning to read and I quickly realized that books were my cheat sheet: I could read about this new place; I could read about the characters my classmates mentioned on the playground so I could better fit in, learn about their culture, and connect; I could even read about the TV shows they loved that I couldn’t watch myself. I could read about anything I wanted, because thankfully, no one censored my curiosity to explore. This is not the case for everyone.

News of libraries and schools banning books—which does seem to happen on a near annual basis—often tends to garner headlines; however, the current landscape of book-banning feels perhaps more alarming than in past instances. In a November 2021 press release from the American Library Association (ALA) stating its opposition to censorship of books in libraries and schools, Deborah Caldwell-Stone, Director for the ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF), called the volume of challenges to books the ALA had fielded in the fall season of 2021 "unprecedented." “In my 20 years with ALA, I can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis,” she said.

Since that ALA statement, a bill was introduced in Oklahoma to keep books about sex, sexual identity, or gender identity out of public school libraries. And even more recently, a Tennessee county school board voted to remove Maus, Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from the eighth-grade curriculum, citing the work's use of "objectionable language" and "disturbing imagery." (Again, it bears reiterating, the book is about the Holocaust.)

When we ban books, we compromise children’s education and development. Books “foster development physically, socially, and emotionally,” says Ash Beckham, an LGBTQ+ advocate, activist, and leadership and diversity speaker. “Books can give children a glimpse of the world far beyond the one they actually see every day. They not only show us what is possible, but they challenge us to rethink what we know and therefore what we imagine is possible.”

"Books that represent people and situations that are drastically different from anything [children have] ever known can trigger empathy." —Tara Keeley, elementary school teacher

By opening kids up to people, places, and cultures worldwide, books help kids develop empathy for others. “Children, by nature, start out very self-focused, so it can be hard for them to imagine lives and experiences outside of their own,” says Tara Keeley, a New York City-based elementary school teacher with the city’s Department of Education. “Books that represent people and situations that are drastically different from anything they’ve ever known can trigger empathy [because] there are universal human experiences, like joy, grief, disappointment, shame.”

A 2014 study of elementary and high school students in Italy and the United Kingdom found that children became more empathetic toward LGBTQ+ folks, immigrants, and refugees after reading Harry Potter, a story of a child who is different than his peers. “As human beings, we develop fear and anxiety around the things we don’t know or understand,” says Elanna Yalow, PhD, educational psychologist and Chief Academic Officer at KinderCare Education. “By the time children are two years old, they will naturally gravitate toward people who are familiar to them and can be hesitant around people who don’t look like someone they know.” Books can be a gateway for fostering acceptance, empathy, and appreciation for others.

And just as there's value in providing insight into situations readers might not otherwise consider, books can also provide representation to children who come from or identify with marginalized communities. This highlights why educators often talk about books in the classroom serving two purposes: some are “mirrors,” while others are “windows.”

“‘Mirrors’ are books in which readers see themselves representing meaningfully,” says Keeley. "’Windows’ are books that can show the reader the perspective and experiences different from their own. We all need and deserve to have access to both types of books; banning books that center marginalized people and deal with difficult topics shuts those windows and smashes those mirrors."

For example, Keeley says that she remembers reading Chris Crutcher’s books—which largely focus on teens navigating struggles like racism, injustice, disability, and abuse—for the first time in middle school, which left her feeling as though someone might understand her experiences and her trauma. “It helped me put words to thoughts and feelings I’d previously been unable to articulate.” To her, that a number of Crutcher’s books ended up on banned-book lists only highlights the hindrance the action has on helping kids find literary “mirrors” and “windows” that both boost their self-esteem and empathy for others.

That’s why Maus and Maus II have long been part of Keeley’s classroom library. “The way Spiegelman wrote it as a young man interviewing his elderly father about having lived through the Holocaust allows us to see both the atrocities that were committed as well as the impact it had on him for the rest of his life,” she says. “Many students have experienced discrimination or being othered. They can connect the prejudice and wrongdoings in Maus to what we’ve learned about slavery and legalized discrimination in the United States, the attacks against Asian-Americans during COVID, and even less brutal but still harmful attitudes and acts they’ve learned of or experienced firsthand.”

Esperanza Rising—a book about a girl who moved with her mother from Mexico to South Carolina during the Great Depression, which was challenged in 2015 by parents in North Carolina who claimed its themes to be inappropriate—is also part of her library: “It tackles topics of loss of a family member, immigration, racism, how different marginalized groups can be pinned against one another to the benefit of white supremacy.”

Banning books can stunt children's curiosity about the world and other people, which is why Keeley believes schools have the opportunity and responsibility to serve as a resource center and sanctuary for students. “Many of them don’t have the resources one way or another to buy books or search for them at the public library and you can’t really look for that which you don’t know about,” she says.

Furthermore, exposing children to books that serve as “windows” and “mirrors” encourages them to seek out more on their own so they can keep reading and learning about themselves, others, history, and the world outside their home—even if some of the words and themes they may learn in books bring up difficult or uncomfortable topics. “What do we achieve by insulating our kids from uncomfortable truths?” Beckham asks. “Likely, they will learn them eventually and if they don’t, then we have failed in our responsibility as parents [and educators]. The truth can be hard.”

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