On the Books

On the Books
On the Books
By Ellen Ryan

A roundtable discussion about the new wave of  American censorship.

According to the American Library Association, book bans and challenges to all manner of literature have grown by double digits this decade and are climbing. Book ban efforts doubled in 2022. The New York Times now devotes a section of its website to the matter with dozens of stories documenting the resurgence of an old phenomenon with echoes of a repressive past—and similarities to the actions of authoritarian governments.

The reasons for these efforts vary. In some cases, liberal scolds want to cleanse classics of pejorative and racist language. But the real backbone of the latest banning movement comes from groups of far-right activists who want to prohibit young people’s access to materials that touch on everything from sexuality to the Holocaust, African American history to suicide.

Like many Americans who value free speech, librarians, scholars, and First Amendment experts are among those alarmed at the escalation of a tactic used for centuries by autocratic movements. For many at Sidwell Friends, the idea of banning access to knowledge is antithetical to the mission of education. To learn more about how these battles are playing out in view of creators, curators, and those who study the phenomenon, Sidwell Friends Magazine sat down with a few members of the community who are close observers of today’s book-banning efforts:

LIZA DONNELLY ’73, a New Yorker staff cartoonist and the author or co-author of more than a dozen books, including, most recently, Very Funny Ladies: The New Yorker’s Women Cartoonists

STEPHANIE GAMBLE, Upper School librarian, Sidwell Friends School  

SARAH LUDINGTON ’82, director of the First Amendment Clinic and a clinical professor at Duke University School of Law    

NATASHA SINEL ’89, author of the young adult novels The Fix and Soulstruck    

LENI ZUMAS ’90, author of Red Clocks, The Listeners, and Farewell Navigator


Q. BOOK CHALLENGES HAVE RISEN SHARPLY. WHAT’S THE TALK IN YOUR COMMUNITIES?

SINEL: Authors are very upset about it. If a kid is reading, we should let them read. When you read a book, you picture in your head what you’re reading. With a movie or TV, it’s someone else’s interpretation. But you don’t see people banning movies or shows. So yes, authors are extremely upset that challengers are putting their own religious beliefs on everyone else. That’s discrimination.

ZUMAS: When authors talk about the books the right wing wants to remove from libraries and schools, they point out that the people who are doing the banning seem to equate the novels and short stories and picture books as directives to tell readers what they should be doing or how they should be living. That’s a fiction!

GAMBLE: Not to mention, banning books from the library keeps all kids from accessing that book, even those who are ready and able to read it or really need its message or would gain something incredibly important. To say that you’re worried about your own kid’s access to a book and therefore seek to cut off everyone’s access is a huge leap to make. There’s so much bullying and posturing now among kids. It’s incredibly important to note that some may feel connected or seen through something they read. Every time we shut down an avenue for students or children, or cut them off from another way of thinking or being, we’re shrinking their potential for empathy and developing awareness of our broader world.

LUDINGTON: This is not the first time in American history that book challenges have had a moment. It’s not unexpected in such a polarized time. Especially when some politicians, such as the governor of Florida, are going after what you might call “woke curriculum” and “woke ideology.” And the internet helps political “astroturfing” groups like Moms for Liberty replicate around the country, making it easy for them to mount these challenges.

Q: HAVE YOU EXPERIENCED A CHALLENGE TO YOUR BOOKS OR OTHER MATERIAL?

GAMBLE: We’ve been very fortunate not to encounter this here at Sidwell.

DONNELLY: Me either. A lot of cartoons get rejected, and I don’t know why. Could be something editors don’t want to share, or maybe they’re just not funny.

LENI ZUMAS: Nothing dramatic, but a few reactions to Red Clocks have puzzled me. For instance, a man in Washington, DC, of all places, asked, “What am I supposed to tell my evangelical Christian family about your book when you wrote it to demonize them?” A lot of this book is about abortion and reproductive justice, but I write fiction to ask questions about things that are bewildering and exciting and important to me. The notion that a novel is directed at someone is missing the point of fiction.

SINEL: At a Barnes & Noble book signing—this is typical—a woman picked up my book and asked, “Any sex in this?” Not actual sex, I said, but the characters are teens, so, you know, they fool around. “Oh, never mind,” she said, and put it down. Then she pulled another author’s book from the shelf: “Have you read this? Any sex?” I told her I didn’t think so, but I did know it to be extremely violent. The woman said that was fine. Isn’t that interesting? People say they are trying to protect their children, but what’s actually hurting children is violence—gun violence—not necessarily sexuality or gender material. It’s depressing.

AND THE CHALLENGES GO BEYOND LITERATURE …

DONNELLY: When extremists went to the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 
Paris in 2015, they murdered 12 editors and cartoonists and injured more. The global cartoon community came together in anger and grief. To me, it harkens back to the Danish cartoon controversy a decade before, when some cartoonists were invited to draw the prophet Muhammad, and that became the catalyst for a lot of violence around the world.

We all believe in freedom of expression, of course. But there is, I’d say, a 50/50 split among cartoonists on these issues. As opinion writers, or drawers, we have a responsibility to pause and think before expressing ourselves. I’m not blaming the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists—France has a long satirical, irreverent tradition—but combine that rich tradition with the internet and you have a problem with extremist groups. My way is to punch up, not down. Charlie Hebdo was famous for punching down at all religious groups. So, it’s complicated; you can’t always know how something’s going to be perceived.

Q. WE KNOW THERE’S A VARIETY IN WHO IS CHALLENGING THESE MATERIALS. HAS THE NATURE OF THE CHALLENGES CHANGED AS WELL?

LUDINGTON: Yes. For a long time, the American Library Association has posted best practices for how to handle these challenges. Public and school libraries are public resources, supported by tax dollars, so this has to be managed in a way that is equitable to all taxpayers, not just one parent or one group. It’s generally a long, boring process. For instance, in North Carolina, you would go first to the school, then to a district committee, then to a vote of the school board. It’s harder to get a book removed than you’d think.

But now, some groups have managed to change the procedure, to circumvent the timeline.

GAMBLE: And challenges to multiple books at a time have grown dramatically. Sometimes it’s a list of up to 100 books at once! That’s the biggest shift in the past two years. It’s very disconcerting because the reason we have a space to make legitimate challenges is that you want the opportunity for a conversation. Libraries have policies to deal with that: “Have you read the book? What, specifically, is the objection?”

But when you have those avenues flooded with dozens or hundreds of titles being challenged, it suggests the groups are not even reading these books; they have a list from others or it’s based just on titles or authors.

ZUMAS: I find it terrifying, not just as an author but as a human being, that a public library can become a place where people can order the removal of 100 books!

SINEL: Such coordinated efforts are scary. The folks making these challenges are often not trained to assess books and are often not connected to education. School librarians are trained for it and should be trusted to choose what to have in their library. Parents should have the right to have their child not read a certain book or tackle topics uncomfortable for them, but not to remove the books from the library.

Q. WHAT MATERIALS DO PEOPLE WANT TO KEEP AWAY FROM YOUNG PEOPLE, IN PARTICULAR, AND WHY?

GAMBLE: The top 10 or so of the most frequently challenged books have LGBT and/or racial- and religious-minority authors or a major emphasis on these topics. A lot are in the young adult category, which covers a broad age range of kids at all levels of reading and development. It’s an age when parents feel fear and anxiety about independence and what the kids are encountering.

SINEL: In my first book, the main character babysits for a gay couple. There’s nothing special about them; they’re just married with two kids. It’s important for teens to see gay characters in a book just living their lives. It’s upsetting when some people want to take away books that simply mention the word “gay” or have gay people in them.

SINEL: A lot of reading is about empathy—being able to see other points of view. I read a study that said reading made children more empathetic and more positive toward people from disadvantaged groups.

GAMBLE: Every year at Sidwell we celebrate Banned Books Week and have Banned Books Bingo. Students can’t believe Harry Potter has been banned, and it’s a great opportunity to talk about why people might have tried to keep them from reading these books. It kind of blows their minds.

Q. WHAT ABOUT MATERIALS TOUCHING ON MENTAL HEALTH OR DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES?

SINEL: My books are aimed at the older side of “young adults” and have some heavy themes, such as sexual abuse and drug addiction. I have gotten many emails from readers saying, “I’m so glad I read this” and “the book made me feel less alone” and “this happened to me.” And people who have fortunately not lived through these traumas can see how they can affect teens, and that can be one way to open their eyes. One of my books has a character with Asperger’s syndrome and may be a way for people to see someone who may not be like themselves.

ZUMAS: Transgender writers are getting a lot of pushback. Unfortunately, some parents who are seeking appropriate mental health care for their child, and who might turn to one of these books as a resource or comfort, are accused of “abusing” their child.

GAMBLE: A study looked at what happens when kids read so-called disturbing books. It followed hundreds who had the choice to read whatever they wanted to. Some of the books were among those being banned for “difficult topics.” The results showed that kids sought out and had conversations about what they were reading. They want to make sense of it and don’t want to just read in isolation. If it shakes them up, they talk to peers, teachers, parents; the lesson was that reading really opens up pathways for communication and dialog. That’s a positive thing.

We want our students to be exposed to more ways of engaging with difficult topics so that they can continue to grow and make their own decisions in the world. Our students are encountering a lot of tough things just going through life now. To pretend otherwise doesn’t serve them well.

Q. LET’S TURN TO A DIFFERENT CATEGORY OF BOOKS. THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN AND TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, FOR INSTANCE, BOTH FEATURE YOUNG CHARACTERS, BUT WERE WRITTEN FOR ADULTS, THOUGH MANY HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS NOW READ THEM. MANY GRAPHIC NOVELS ARE ALSO VERY MUCH AIMED AT GROWNUP READERS. WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE?

ZUMAS: Where I teach, at Portland State University, students were discussing the republishing and editing of books to cut racist representation and sexist language in everything from Agatha Christie novels to Huckleberry Finn. They said context matters in what we read—not just when the book was written, but the history of the country and racism and white supremacy at the time. It really matters what critical lens we bring to books as historical documents, as archives of our history.

To me, the idea isn’t to remove or redact books but to read them carefully and critically. Younger readers especially need to understand the implications of living in a world where that language was commonly used.

LUDINGTON: You also see challenges now to “anti-woke ideology”—people not wanting to address the complexities of American history, which include slavery and racism as well as the complexities of human sexuality. The anti-woke sentiment is driving a lot of the content choices.

DONNELLY: With graphic novels, I think of everything from Fun Home—I know Alison Bechtel—to Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, which is about a young woman growing up in Iran. People have objected to a depiction of a breast in Maus. That’s an excuse. And there are naked people and sex in Fun Home. But the objections are really about the character coming out as a queer person.

People who write and draw graphic novels do push boundaries. All this makes me think back to attacks on Mad magazine in the 1950s for showing political ideas in a form children could access. That’s scary to many people. Maybe it’s a similar thing.

Q. WHAT ARE THE GREATER DANGERS HERE—TO EDUCATION, MULTICULTURALISM, EVEN DEMOCRACY?

SINEL: We know that fascism starts with book-banning, book-burning. That always worries me. We need to read about history in order not to repeat it. We need to understand multiculturalism, the Holocaust, and African American history. We need to see these experiences in order to understand and to develop empathy. Challenging and banning books is a slippery slope, and it’s a small, loud number of people who are doing it.

LUDINGTON: Empathy aside, it’s very misguided to hide or conceal the truth of slavery or racism. The idea is similar to anti-diversity, equity, and inclusion statutes being passed. There’s a desire not to teach the more uncomfortable parts of American history that might make some children feel bad about being white. But the purpose of studying this is not to make people feel bad about their race. It’s to avoid repeating the past.

ZUMAS: One thing I got from being a lifer at Sidwell Friends was an appreciation of being curious and open to all questions. The idea of democracy as a system where not everyone’s the same is part of its beauty. There’s so much fear-based decision-making now about books and education. Curiosity and openness to uncertainty are the antidote to that fear.

LUDINGTON: The whole point of our First Amendment is to have a robust marketplace of ideas and promote the free flow of all kinds of information. Prohibiting books, limiting Americans from accessing them, runs profoundly counter to the ideal of the free flow of information and knowledge.

It’s an extremely dangerous circumstance if we don’t know our own history in a country that is so diverse. American society is not likely to become more unified if we whitewash our past. There was book-banning in Nazi Germany, certainly. The unifying theme is that any government, any authority that wants to limit the knowledge of its populace does not want what’s best for that population.

SINEL: So much of what’s happening in this country now is attributable to people not understanding each other. That’s where books help a lot.

DONNELLY: And banning them is a huge danger to democracy. We need to hear a variety of viewpoints. We need to allow our artists and writers to express themselves, and that includes things we don’t necessarily agree with.

I read recently about a library in Blue Hill, a liberal pocket of Maine, where a patron wanted to donate a copy of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. The librarians debated and decided to accept it, saying that they couldn’t ban books they disagreed with, even though many in the community were outraged.

Q. HOW DO EXPERTS AND LEADERS SUGGEST FIGHTING BACK?

SINEL: Start in your own community—your school, your kids’ school. Find out what’s happening. 

GAMBLE: From my conversations, this can often be resolved at an early stage by explaining what libraries stand for. If a library serves a wide range of ages, a parent might ask, “How did my kid come across this book?” They may come to understand that in shared space, it’s appropriate for an older kid, so removing it completely doesn’t make sense.

LUDINGTON: I encourage anyone who sees this to get involved. Engage with the politics of it. Let your local school board and library know that it’s important to keep books in the libraries. Show up at board meetings; each one will have a public comment time. Email elected officials.

A lot of times, it’s a very vocal minority that’s screaming about an issue. If the school board doesn’t see that there are citizens who care about reading and free expression, they just might bend to the pressure of a loud, political group without realizing the depth of sentiment that runs the other way. 

The discussion has been edited for length and clarity.

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Sidwell Friends Alumni Magazine is published three times a year for the community. It features School news, stories, profiles, and alumni Class Notes.

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