• Thursday, June 08, 2023

Rising Book Banning Trend Sparks Controversy and Resistance as Authors, Publishers, and Advocates Fight for Freedom of Expression

When Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy was initially released in the 1990s, it faced challenges in the United States. However, the banning of children's and young adult books has now reached an alarming level, as highlighted by Jane Ciabattari.
on May 26, 2023
Rising Book Banning Trend Sparks Controversy and Resistance as Authors, Publishers, and Advocates Fight for Freedom of Expression

Philip Pullman's highly acclaimed fantasy novel, Northern Lights, has been ranked sixth in the BBC Culture's list of the 100 greatest children's books of all time. Despite its popularity, the book faced bans and challenges in certain parts of the United States when it was initially published in 1996 under the title The Golden Compass. By 2008, it had become the second most challenged book in the country.

Northern Lights received the prestigious Carnegie Medal for children's fiction in the UK in 1995, and in 2019, Pullman was knighted and honored with the 2019 JM Barrie award for his lifetime achievement in captivating young readers.

However, the worldview presented in Northern Lights and the rest of the His Dark Materials trilogy, which some consider to have atheist undertones, proved controversial for certain vocal minority groups in the US. The Catholic League, in particular, objected to the series, and the American Library Association's banned book list in 2008 identified Northern Lights as the second-most challenged book in the country. 

While the trilogy sparked outrage in some parts of the US, columnist Peter Hitchens described Pullman as "the anti [CS] Lewis," contrasting him with CS Lewis, whose book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe also made the BBC Culture poll's top 10.

The banning of Northern Lights can be seen as a precursor to the censorship of books for moral, worldview, or religious reasons. Presently, book banning and challenges in the US have reached an unprecedented level. According to the American Library Association (ALA), there were over 2,500 reported book challenges in 2022, marking the highest number of attempted book bans since the ALA began tracking censorship data over 20 years ago. 

Books addressing topics such as race, gender, and sexuality, including titles like Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, have been specifically targeted.

Lessa Kanani'opua Pelayo-Lozada, the president of the ALA, emphasizes that attempts to ban books are an effort to silence authors who have shown immense courage in sharing their stories. She asserts that libraries exist to provide access to authors and stories that the community desires to read, regardless of whether they mirror the readers' experiences or shed light on unfamiliar perspectives.

Kasey Meehan, the director of PEN America's Freedom to Read project, explains that the book banning movement is driven by a vocal minority seeking censorship. She highlights the impact of new state laws censoring ideas and materials in public schools, which began in 2021 through the efforts of local citizens and advocacy groups. 

These attempts to restrict speech are part of a nationwide campaign aimed at instilling anxiety and anger in order to suppress free expression in public education. Bans have been imposed in 32 states, affecting four million children and young people. The surge in banned books also includes titles touching on violence, abuse, health, well-being, grief, and death.

Reasons cited by those who challenge books include objections to "gender ideology propaganda," "transsexual material," "embracing trans ideology seen as harmful to girls/women," "sexual misconduct," "drug/alcohol use," "LGBTQ content," "violence," "anti-police sentiment," "racism," "obscene content," "paedophilia," and "grooming." Jennifer Pippin, a Florida mother and founder of Moms for Liberty, voiced her concerns to the Washington Post, stating that the focus is on the explicit sexual nature of LGBTQ books rather than homophobia.

Author Jonathan Evison, addressing the issue, emphasizes that while book banners represent a minority of the population, they are an organized and vocal group determined to exert influence across all levels of governance. 

Evison's novel, Lawn Boy, which follows the story of a young Mexican-American yard worker navigating life in working-class Seattle, ranks seventh on the American Library Association's most-banned list. He stresses the importance of remaining vigilant and organized in defending free speech.

According to an ALA study, 90% of the challenges in 2022 were compiled by organized censorship groups, with 40% involving lists targeting 100 or more books. Author Dave Eggers, known for his recent "all ages" novel. 

The Eyes and the Impossible, explains to BBC Culture that book banners have developed a playbook that includes a list of targeted books and specific passages deemed objectionable. Eggers himself visited Rapid City, South Dakota, after his novel, The Circle, was banned in high schools and all copies in the school district were destroyed.

Despite the banning of books, publishers continue to release new stories. George M Johnson, author of the memoir All Boys Aren't Blue, which explores boyhood and adolescence from the perspective of a queer black boy, joined PEN America, publisher Penguin Random House, several other authors, and concerned parents in filing a lawsuit in Florida on May 17. 

They aim to challenge a county's removal of books, arguing that it violates the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment, and advocating for the return of the books to school library shelves where they belong.

George M Johnson finds hope in the fact that the majority of the country opposes book bans and that the bans have motivated students to fight for their right to access books. He notes the success in many counties in keeping the books on shelves and expresses determination to continue the fight as a galvanized and organized group. Furthermore, he believes that the banning of books has not deterred publishers from producing more stories, predicting that eventually, the abundance of stories will make it impossible to ban them all.

The Bluest Eye by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, a coming-of-age story that explores the impact of racism on a young girl's psyche, ranks third on the American Library Association's list of most challenged books. Morrison once explained that the title of the book was inspired by her childhood friend, who, at the age of 11, confided that she had been praying for blue eyes for two years. Morrison emphasized that this form of racism causes internal pain rather than the more overt forms of violence.

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