Brownicity • October 5, 2023
Did you know that October 1-7, 2023 is Banned Books Week? This annual event serves as a powerful reminder of the vital importance of free expression and the right to access diverse perspectives. In a time when our country grapples with numerous efforts to ban books, we’re taking a moment to reflect on the significance of this week and the lessons we can learn from history.
Throughout history, certain voices have faced increased censorship for a multitude of reasons — religious, political, and questions of morality are some of the primary reasons. As we navigate these turbulent times of rising book bans, it’s essential to remember that the act of banning books often stems from fear – fear of change, of diverse viewpoints, and of challenging the status quo.
This week is a call to action, an opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to inclusivity, and the freedom to explore diverse narratives and historically marginalized voices. It is a reminder that every book, every story, and every perspective holds value in our collective tapestry of humanity.
Here we want to provide resources as a guide for you to learn and find ways you can engage and make a difference.
A little history
For hundreds of years, the Roman Catholic Church listed books that were prohibited to its members; but in 1559, Pope Paul IV established the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. For more than 400 years this was the definitive list of books that Roman Catholics were told not to read. It was one of the most powerful censorship tools in the world.
Prayer for Book Burnings. Spanish painting from the 1400s by Pedro Berruguete
One of the earliest documented examples on the North American continent is the burning of Mayan and Aztec manuscripts in the 1560s by Catholic priests and the conquistadores. What is considered the first book ban in the United States took place in 1637 in what is now known as Quincy, Massachusetts. Thomas Morton published his New English Canaan, which was subsequently banned by the Puritan government as it was considered a harsh and heretical critique of Puritan customs and power structures.
Some of the most controversial books in history are now regarded as classics. The Bible and works by Shakespeare are among those that have been banned over the past two thousand years. Here is a selective timeline of book bannings, burnings, and other censorship activities.
For more than 40 years, Banned Books Week has been an annual event that has brought together the entire book community — librarians, teachers, booksellers, publishers, writers, journalists, and readers of all types — in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.
Book bans in the U.S.
According to PEN America – The Mounting Pressure to Censor, the freedom to read is under assault in the United States—particularly in public schools—curtailing students’ freedom to explore words, ideas, and books. In the 2022–23 school year, from July 1, 2022, to June 31, 2023, PEN America recorded 3,362 instances of book bans in US public school classrooms and libraries. These bans removed student access to 1,557 unique book titles, the works of over 1,480 authors, illustrators, and translators. Authors whose books are targeted are most frequently female, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals. Amid a growing climate of censorship, school book bans continue to spread through coordinated campaigns by a vocal minority of groups and individual actors and, increasingly, as a result of pressure from state legislation.
The pressure to censor
PEN America released their latest report on the state of school book bans, showcasing a 33% increase in the number of books banned in the 2022-2023 school year compared to the previous school year. The PEN America report includes:
- 1,406 book ban cases in Florida, followed by 625 bans in Texas, 333 bans in Missouri, 281 bans in Utah, and 186 book bans in Pennsylvania.
- More than 75% of the books banned are young adult books, middle grade books, chapter books, or picture books. The books being banned in schools are those published specifically for these audiences.
- There was a 400% increase in book bans from school libraries and classrooms in the last school year, compared to the previous.
- Almost half of the books banned in the 2022-2023 school year included themes of physical violence. This includes books about sexual violence and assault. 30% of those books include characters of color and themes of race and racism; 30% represent LGBTQ+ identities; and 6% include a transgender character.
- In the 153 school districts across the country that banned a book during the 2022-23 school year, 80% have a chapter or local affiliate nearby of one or more of the three most prominent national groups pushing for book bans — Moms for Liberty, Citizens Defending Freedom, and Parents’ Rights in Education. These districts are where 86% of book bans have occurred. In other words, the bulk of book bans are happening where book banning groups are operating.
What can we do?
Historian Kidada E. Williams notes that “fighting for freedom and justice is best done collectively.” She continues:
“Teachers can fight and win by working with other educators, with librarians, with students and activists… We also fight these unjust laws by reaching out to lawmakers, by running for office, and by direct action protests.”
Video source credit: Zinn Education Project
Most of the groups that are resourced below provide practical ideas of what we can do to help defend books from censorship. You’ll find some great suggestions from Unite Against Banned Books and from Banned Books Week. Here are a few ideas they include: call a decision-maker, support an advocacy group, buy a banned book or donate one to your local library, write a letter to local school boards and elected officials, volunteer at a library or with an advocacy group.
Connect with groups fighting book bans
Here are some of the many groups and organizations fighting book bans and working to change the narratives around these books. Check out their websites and social media platforms to learn more and see where you can help.
- American Library Association
- PEN America
- Red, Wine & Blue
- Banned Books Week
- Unite Against Book Bans
- Lee & Low Books
- Zinn Education Project
- We Need Diverse Books
- Florida Freedom to Read Project
- Book Riot
- More groups
We want to liberate the voices that need to be heard and celebrate the books being written. Young people deserve to see themselves reflected in a library’s books. Standing up for stories unleashes the power that lies inside every book.
Join the movement for change and let freedom read!