Perspectives: Debating the banning of books

Book with wooden judge gavel, chain and padlock on wooden table, censorship concept. / Getty Images/iStock/Valerii Evlakhov

Two columnists present contrasting views about banning books in school libraries.

POINT: Drawing the line between censorship and age-appropriateness

By Robert Pondiscio

"You're for censorship! That's against the First Amendment!"

"Do you believe school libraries should carry Hustler?"

"No, of course not!"

"OK, so you're for 'censorship' too. Now we're just negotiating over where to draw the line."

A good friend (and staunch libertarian) uses this imagined dialogue to make an important point. Even those of us who consider ourselves near free-speech absolutists have to draw our lines somewhere. I've spent my entire adult life in two fields of work, journalism and education, which both have an immune response to censorship. But I'm increasingly sympathetic to the line drawers.

Candidly, I don't find perennial, unresolvable arguments over canonical works of literature all that compelling. We've had more than a century to decide whether "Huckleberry Finn" belongs in school libraries or English classes, so it's clear no resolution is at hand. Nor do I expect the next 100 years will settle whether "Beloved," "To Kill a Mockingbird," "The Catcher in the Rye" or other frequently challenged works belong on the curriculum.

The more challenging front in the censorship wars is over new and comparatively obscure works targeted at readers, from small children to young adults, which cannot claim canonical status. These new works are being published, promoted and defended on grounds of "authenticity and inclusivity." To question them - to draw a line - is to risk a charge of ignorance, bigotry or worse.

Publishers of young adult novels have been falling over one another in recent years to bring out controversial texts on themes of sexual abuse, racism, domestic violence, gang life, school shootings and other "realistic" subjects, in widely read books such "The Hate U Give," "Thirteen Reasons Why" and "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian."

Picture books for little kids are even more discomfiting. I'm old enough to remember the controversies that attended "Heather Has Two Mommies" (1989) or "And Tango Makes Three" (2005), which sought to normalize gay and lesbian family structures.

That normalizing impulse now goes to lengths that give pause on grounds of age appropriateness even to parents who think of themselves as progressive. "How Mamas Love Their Babies," for example, is described by Kirkus Reviews as an "amazingly inclusive" book, and the first to depict a sex-worker parent. An illustration shows a stripper in front of peep show with the text, "Some mamas dance all night in special shoes. It's hard work!" The School Library Journal recommends it for "strong consideration" for children in grades K-4.

SLJ also praised and recommended as a "first purchase for libraries" the picture book "What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns," which "models the ease with which our language can adapt to gender diversity and pronoun use." For toddlers, the familiar children's song "The Wheels on the Bus" has been rewritten as "The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish."

"Why is this kind of woke content being pushed so hard in children's books?" asked conservative cultural critic Bethany Mandel in a recent tweet about the above-mentioned picture books. "In short: Everyone in the pipeline is woke. Book agents, authors, publishers, marketing. Anyone who isn't is silenced. And who's buying it? Librarians and teachers. Also infested with wokeism."

She's not wrong, particularly about the increasingly harsh criticism heaped on those who question whether any of this (to use a phrase suddenly conspicuous in its absence) is age-appropriate. This confluence of impulses, the earnest desire to signal to children that everyone is OK and that anything goes makes conflict inevitable.

Instead, we must reaffirm that you're not a homophobe if you don't want your child exposed to an explicit illustration of oral sex as in the graphic novel "Gender Queer." Neither are you a closet white supremacist if you question the wisdom of exposing young children to the racially charged picture book "Not My Idea. A Book About Whiteness," which concludes, "Whiteness is a bad deal. It always was."

It just might be where you draw the line. And there's nothing wrong with doing so.

Robert Pondiscio is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on K-12 education, curriculum, teaching, school choice and charter schooling. He wrote this for

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COUNTERPOINT: Parents cannot dictate what other parents' children can read

By Deborah Caldwell-Stone

The American Library Association fully supports the right of every parent to control what their child reads and to select alternative reading or instructional materials for their child. We do not believe, however, that a parent's right to control their child's reading includes a right to restrict what other children read, or to limit the books that are available to young people in the library.

Our belief is rooted firmly in the First Amendment. Young people have First Amendment rights - not only the right to speak but the right to access and use the resources of the school or public library, free from any censorship that arises from disapproval of a book's content or views. Our courts of law - including the Supreme Court - have said that a decision by a school or library board to remove a book from its library because the board disapproves of the words, ideas or opinions contained in the book is a violation of a minor's First Amendment rights.

This principle applies even when it is a parent or group of parents demanding that elected or appointed officials censor books they find shocking or inappropriate because the books conflict with their moral, political or religious beliefs. While the First Amendment promises freedom of belief, and the right to express that belief, it does not guarantee a right to dictate to school boards or library boards what ideas or beliefs may be found in our publicly funded libraries. Publicly funded libraries are community institutions that must serve the interests and information needs of every child, every family and every individual in the community. By necessity, their collections must reflect the diversity of thought and values that exist in every community.

These are not easy issues to navigate, much less resolve, especially when books are viewed as a threat by parents and partisan activists because they challenge the assumptions they hold about their world.

Designating a broad range of books dealing with the lives of those who are gay, queer or transgender, or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous or persons of color as inappropriate or worse not only inflicts trauma on vulnerable young persons and their families who are members of those groups, it also threatens our democratic values.

Librarians and library workers will be the first to acknowledge that not every book is right for every reader. But librarians and library workers will also be the first to tell you that censorship only succeeds in fostering the conditions that destroy our precious liberties - our freedom to read and think for ourselves, which belong to young people as well as adults.

Certainly parents should be able to direct their child's reading, and librarians and library workers are more than willing to assist parents in identifying books for their children that reflect their values. But librarians and library workers are also committed to defending their communities' right to read and to learn. Rather than teaching lessons in censorship, librarians and library workers strive to affirm the importance of the freedom to read and to demonstrate to young people that in this country they have the right and responsibility to think critically about what they read, rather than allowing others to do their thinking for them.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone is director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association. She wrote this for

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