I have discovered many wonderful books, mostly in the young adult category, by reading news stories about what’s being banned in public schools these days: “Gender Queer,” the riveting, upsetting graphic novel about the nonbinary author’s journey of self-discovery; “Dear Martin,” in which a Black teenager who is wrongfully arrested while trying to help his drunk ex-girlfriend get home writes an imaginary letter to Martin Luther King Jr.; and “Paradise Lost,” John Milton’s 17th century epic poem about the fall of Adam and Eve.
At the end of last year, according to the Orlando Sentinel, “Paradise Lost” was one of 673 titles removed from public school classroom shelves in an Orlando-area district in response to new state laws that require librarians and teachers to review all classroom books and banish ones that are pornographic or depict “sexual conduct.”
As the Sentinel explained, “New state training … warns them to ‘err on the side of caution’ when approving books and warns that they can face criminal penalties and the loss of their teaching certificates if they approve inappropriate books.”
Florida’s censorship efforts are part of a book-banning frenzy sweeping through the more conservative parts of our allegedly free-speech-loving country.
“We have recorded instances of book bans in 30 states,” said Kasey Meehan, the Freedom to Read director at PEN America, which advocates for free expression and fights censorship. “Florida and Texas are leading the way, as well as Missouri, Pennsylvania, Iowa and Utah,” she said.
In Idaho, librarians are so demoralized by the censorious political climate — one official in the city of Buhl referred to the local librarian as a “groomer” — that more than half recently told the state’s library association that they are thinking of leaving the field, according to the Idaho Capital Sun.
Mostly, the pressure to censor is coming from the right, which has pushed book bans under the banner of “parental rights.” Efforts originating from the left, Meehan told me, often involve protests against white authors using the N-word. In 2020, the Burbank Unified School District took some books off required reading lists, such as Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” after parents complained that the books were racist. However, Burbank Supt. John Paramo told me Tuesday that they are still available in the school and classroom libraries.
Books targeted by conservatives often feature characters who are not white, or who are not heterosexual.
In January 2022, a North Carolina parent asked his school district to take “Dear Martin” off the required reading list in his son’s high school English class. Tim Reeves told a local TV news station that he did not object to the novel’s message about racial profiling, per se. Rather, he objected to the liberal use of vulgar words. “Words that start with the letter S,” as he put it. “Words that start with the letter F.”
“Dr. Martin Luther King would not want vulgarity or sexual innuendos [to] be used to teach the lesson about racism and brutality,” said Reeves. I don’t know about that. Seems like King would maybe have been more interested in ending racial profiling than worrying about how fictional kids talk.
Anyway, thanks to Reeves, I downloaded “Dear Martin,” the widely acclaimed debut novel by Nic Stone, a Black woman whose father is a police officer. The book was inspired by the same events that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement — police killings of unarmed Black men and women. “I wondered: what would Dr. King say or do if he were living in our present social climate?” wrote Stone in her author’s note.
Thanks to the magic of my search function, I detected 10 F-words, 39 S-words, 30 “damns” and three “goddamns” in the text of “Dear Martin.”
As someone who is raising a teenager, that sounded about right to me. You should hear how the kids talk when they think no adult is near.
You might think book bans are beneficial to a young author. Hey, all publicity is good publicity, right? But this is not the case, said Meehan.
“When their works are banned,” she told me, “it can have a sizable impact on their revenue. Those authors are less likely to get invited for a school visit or a public library reading or a Zoom classroom visit. Those are revenue generators that kid-lit authors rely on.”
If you are a famous author, like Ann Patchett, or perhaps a dead one, like Milton, a ban might not hurt at all. It might even help.
When Patchett learned this month, for example, that two of her books had been banned in Orange County, Fla., she trolled the censors on Instagram:
“It’s a pretty big day for me personally,” said Patchett. “My first novel, “Patron Saint of Liars,” is about a home for unwed mothers in rural Kentucky. … They have the baby and give the baby up for adoption, just like they tell us to do in the state of Florida. I would actually think this book would be required reading.” (Her other banned novel, “Bel Canto,” features a hostage-taking and ends with the terrorists being killed. With guns. “Maybe in the state of Florida that would be OK too, because they don’t ban guns,” Patchett suggested.)
It’s not just sexual, gender and racial themes that incense some on the right, Meehan said. Parents have also banned books that include scenes of violence (Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic “Dune”), sexual abuse (Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”), drug use (Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) or suicide (Jay Asher’s “Thirteen Reasons Why”).
“It’s content that makes people feel uncomfortable,” said Meehan. “But isn’t that the beauty of books?”
Just think how much discomfort — and enlightenment — “Paradise Lost’s” most famous line, uttered by that great fictional character Satan, delivers: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”