“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” warns a character in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s dystopian vision of an America where books are considered so dangerous they must be incinerated. The novel appeared 70 years ago, in the aftermath of Nazi book burnings and amid McCarthyism and Soviet ideological repression. But the urge to ban books has resurged with a vengeance, with the American Library Association (ALA) recording a doubling of censorship attempts in 2022, to 1,269 across 32 states: the highest rate for decades. Pen America, which champions freedom of expression, tallied more than 2,500 cases in the last school year.
These attempts are not merely more numerous but are also broadening and deepening. The decisions of school boards and districts take place in the context of politicians grasping electoral advantage and punitive yet often vaguely worded state laws on education – such as the Florida governor, Ron DeSantis’s, Stop-Woke Act. At least 10 states have passed legislation increasing parental power over library stock, or limiting students’ access. In place of spontaneous challenges to single titles come challenges to multiple titles, organised by campaign groups such as Moms for Liberty. The ALA says that 40% of attempts last year targeted 100 books or more.
Not only schools but now community libraries too are under scrutiny. The efforts are also increasingly punitive. Missouri Republicans this week voted to defund all of the state’s public libraries after librarians challenged a bill that has removed more than 300 books and that threatens educators “providing sexually explicit material” with imprisonment or a fine of up to $2,000. A library in Michigan was defunded last year; another in Texas is under threat this week.
These challenges are overwhelmingly from the right. And while liberal parents have sought to remove titles such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from mandatory reading lists over their approach to race, this time the demand from parents is not merely that their child should not have to read particular titles – but that no one’s child should be able to unless they buy it privately.
Pen America notes: “It is the books that have long fought for a place on the shelf that are being targeted. Books by authors of color, by LGBTQ+ authors, by women. Books about racism, sexuality, gender, history.” They include works by celebrated children’s writers such as Judy Blume, literary greats including Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood – and even the comic picture book I Need a New Butt. Librarians are attacked as “paedophiles” over sex education titles or those depicting same-sex relationships. In part, this is a backlash against efforts to diversify reading matter in schools and libraries. The pandemic also gave parents greater insight into what their children are studying and fostered a “parental rights” movement rooted in opposition to mask mandates.
The primary cost is to children denied appropriately selected books that could be life-affirming and life-changing – even, perhaps, life-saving. The chilling effect of challenges makes librarians and teachers second-guess their choices and cut book purchases. In two Florida counties, officials this year ordered teachers to cover up or remove classroom libraries entirely, pending a review of the texts – reportedly leaving weeping children begging: “Please don’t take my books.” But parents, librarians and communities are waking up to the threat, and are organising and educating to counter it. Books are the building blocks of civilisation. They must be defended.