As much as we search for a reflection of ourselves in the stories we read, books are also where we go to learn about those who are not like us. Books help eradicate ignorance. They often change previously hardened hearts and minds. They empower the disempowered.
As a kid, I used to slip behind my grandmother’s heavy living room curtains to sneak in reading between chores. Each book cradled between my hands was a vehicle transporting me to lands, characters and ideas beyond the confines of my own upbringing and the largely likeminded people who made up my family and community. Woe unto the sibling who dared disturb me!
But those interruptions of bliss, while annoying, were child’s play. I had no idea then that a Judy Blume book I was reading had been banned (because she dared write about puberty and other real-life issues). And I certainly never would have imagined that the 2020s (a decade I assumed would be as advanced as “The Jetsons”) would turn out to be an era of renewed censorship battles — from books getting banned from libraries and schools to burned in public spaces.
Yet aren’t books and other forms of writing protected under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech? According to David L. Hudson Jr., a First Amendment law expert cited by the New Jersey State Bar Foundation, book bans violate the First Amendment because they deprive children or students of the right to receive information and ideas.” However, the issue is not so clear-cut. Government actions that some may deem censorship — especially as related to schools — are not always neatly classified as constitutional or unconstitutional, because “censorship” is a colloquial term, not a legal term, The Free Speech Center reports. And in some cases, limitations on freedom of speech are constitutionally permissible, as courts have allowed public officials to take “community standards” into account when deciding whether materials are obscene or pornographic.
When it comes to allowing the general public to define what is “obscene” or “pornographic,” it’s a slippery slope. Indeed, much of the banned (physical removal) and challenged (attempts to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group) books are those that center (or briefly mention) race, racism, LGBTQ+ characters and issues and coming-of-age themes, such as dealing with puberty and/or sex.
“The leadership in our books department, both in Los Angeles and New York, reached out to me to say this book banning thing is really bad now,” says Deborah Marcus, an executive for the Creative Artists Agency Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the entertainment and sports agency CAA. “What’s happening is parent groups are challenging books, librarians are being fired or they’re afraid to put books on shelves for fear of backlash. And then, those books are not available to kids.”
Book banning “is bad for kids, teachers, the entire educational ecosystem and our democracy,” Marcus says. “Two of the areas that the CAA Foundation spends most of its time working on are supporting kids and working to support a strong democracy through civic engagement. So, I said, ‘Let’s figure this out.’”
Marcus is overseeing Let America Read, a campaign the foundation (in partnership with PEN America, Campaign for Our Shared Future, the ACLU and other organizations) launched in April in response to the sharp uptick in book banning legislation and proposed legislation, as well as individual and local efforts to ban books. “People on the West Coast often mistakenly believe that the book banning problem is a red state problem, but that’s simply not true,” says Allison M. Lee, managing director of PEN America Los Angeles. Censorship efforts are alive and well in SoCal and beyond, she says.
With celebrities and other high-profile supporters, the Let America Read campaign grew exponentially in just a few months. Organizers are gearing up for Banned Books Week, an annual event (taking place Oct. 1-7 this year) to celebrate banned books and their authors. “This October, we’ll bring together Black authors who have been banned and other authors of color, too, but we really want to focus on Black authors because they’re particularly targeted,” Marcus says.
While book banning can seem like a conservative-versus-progressive issue, it’s more nuanced than that. For instance, some Black parents have protested the teaching of classics they deem racist at the same time some white parents have protested the teaching of American history covering slavery and Jim Crow. Shutting out any voice is a Pandora’s box, critics of book banning argue.
“Just to be clear, Let America Read will always be nonpartisan,” Marcus says. “It is a nonpartisan effort, but school board elections are important. School board members have the authority to do x, y and z. And if you care about x, y and z, make sure you vote for the right school board member for you.”
Let America Read is partnering with the I Am a Voter campaign, which aims to increase civic engagement. Participants can text VOTER to 26797 to check their voter registration and register to vote.
What else can parents do?
“You can ask teachers how you can support them, what do they need to be successful?” Marcus says. “Help teachers advocate. Parents have a very loud voice, as we’ve learned.”
And using that voice to ask questions about controversial books can help create an atmosphere of intimacy and trust. “What I have heard about in Los Angeles is people having questions about books on shelves in both public and private schools, and, by the way, that’s OK,” Marcus says. “It’s OK for a parent to be concerned about literature that might be in a library. That parent is invited by the librarian to go in and have a conversation. That librarian has that book in their library for a specific, educated, researched reason. The librarians I’ve spoken with have told me that that is how it used to be. It creates dialogue; it creates understanding. Then, if a parent still doesn’t want their kid to read that book after that conversation, that’s their right as a parent — but for their individual child.”
Cassandra Lane is Editor-in-Chief of L.A. Parent and author of “We Are Bridges: A Memoir.”