(CHICAGO) — At the American Library Association, annual reports are collected to monitor efforts by parents and political groups to ban books from libraries and schools across the country.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of non-profit ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, has worked with such reports for about 20 years — and she says she’s never seen such a widespread effort to remove books on racial and gender diversity from the shelves the way she’s seeing it right now.
“What we’re observing right now is an unprecedented volume of challenge reports that seem to be connected to a loosely organized campaign to remove certain books,” Caldwell-Stone said. “Before, you might get one or two challenge reports a week and now we’re getting multiple reports per day.”
Though the reports for 2021 are still coming in, 273 books were targeted in 2020 — and Caldwell-Stone says the number is expected to be higher this year. Reports of challenges are based on media stories and voluntary reports sent to the organization. But the vast majority of book challenges remain unreported.
The increase comes as the controversy over the concept of race in education picks up steam, as states across the country challenge education about racism and discrimination through legislative action.
“In recent months, a few organizations have advanced the proposition that the voices of the marginalized have no place on library shelves,” ALA, which fights censorship, wrote in a recent statement against the efforts. “Falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral, or worse, these groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections.”
In June 2021, about 150 organizations including the ALA penned an open letter against legislative efforts to restrict education and readings about racism and American history.
Now, some authors of color are speaking out, saying that books are a tool for children and young adults to learn, ask questions and see new or nuanced perspectives about the world around them.
“The mind of an adult begins in the imagination of a kid,” said poet and author Kwame Alexander, whose books tackling racial issues have been challenged in the fight to ban certain books from educational spaces. “When you talk about representation, you talk about creating a space for literature in a child’s life that is all-inclusive of the kind of world that we claim we want for them, that the world is kind of loving and compassionate and empathetic.”
No Left Turn in Education is one of the groups leading the calls against certain books on race and sexuality. Its website contains a long list of books, warning parents that they allegedly spread anti-police messages, themes of critical race theory, and education on sexuality.
“These are the books that are used to spread radical and racist ideologies to students,” a statement on the website reads. “They demean our nation and its heroes, revise our history, and divide us as a people for the purpose of indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.”
No Left Turn in Education did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
Focus on ‘critical race theory’
Critical race theory, an academic concept that analyzes how racism affects or drives U.S. laws, has become a target of Republican legislators in states across the country despite the subject not being officially taught in K-12 classrooms. At least 29 states have introduced or implemented bills that aim to place limitations on lessons about race and inequality being taught in American schools, in the name of stopping “critical race theory” in its tracks.
Proponents say that some lessons blame children for actions of generations past or make them feel guilty for being white.
“We can and should teach this history without labeling a young child as an oppressor or requiring he or she feel guilt or shame based on their race or sex,” said Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt when he signed a bill into law in his own state in May. “I refuse to tolerate otherwise during a time when we are already so polarized.”
In a statement sent to ABC News, Stitt said that some forms of the curriculum “define and divide young Oklahomans” based on their race or sex.
The language in the law is almost identical to at least 24 other proposed bills across the country. Lawmakers in several states are aiming to ban educators from teaching that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously,” that “a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex” and that “this state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”
This push has led to the increasing call on school boards and libraries to remove books that deal broadly with racial issues — a misinterpretation of what critical race theory is, according to Caldwell-Stone.
“There was a real focus on books that dealt with Black American history, the experiences of Black persons that talked about racism, the history of racism and slavery in the United States, all under the claim that they dealt with critical race theory,” Caldwell-Stone said.
Many educators, however, say that it’s not critical race theory that’s being taught in K-12 schools, but that it’s basic U.S. history on racial issues in America. They argue that anti-critical race theory laws only serve to restrict conversation about racism and oppression in America.
Encouraging diverse perspectives
A diverse array of books, the authors say, is a major factor in getting children to learn about new perspectives and to look at society in nuanced or complex ways.
Author and artist Lulu Delcare, who writes multilingual children’s books centering on the Latino experience, says she has looked to books to learn about people and identities.
“Many decades ago, one of my daughters came out as gay. And for me, I didn’t know how to react to this because I grew up in … an extremely prejudiced family and guess what? I turned to books,” Delcare said. “The very first thing that I did was to tell her I loved her no matter what. The second thing that I did was to go to the library.”
Delcare and author Sheetal Sheth joined the non-profit Reading Is Fundamental to encourage young readers to embrace literature from diverse perspectives.
These authors fear that if children don’t have inclusive reading material, they may not be prepared to see the complexities of the world around them. Specifically, they may not be able to understand and address racism or discrimination, Alexander says.
Alexander’s book, “The Undefeated” has landed itself on some banned books lists. The book of poetry is described as a “love letter to Black life in the United States,” and covers slavery, the civil rights movement and more.
Many books on banned lists cover similar issues.
“Human beings are afraid of things they can’t see, things they can’t imagine things they don’t have any connection with,” Alexander said. “If you look at the background of any of the people who are banning books, I would posit that there were no poetry books by Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni on their shelves as kids. There was no “House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros on their middle school shelf.”
Fostering ‘cognitive empathy’
A study from the Frontiers in Psychology research journal found that reading books can support empathy if it highlights differences between groups of people, and seeks to minimize bias between those different groups of people.
It also found that “identification with characters who are dissimilar from the readers is the most valuable contribution of children’s storybooks to cognitive empathy.”
Alexander said that a lack of diversity in education has helped shape some of the efforts to ban books now.
“They didn’t have an opportunity as children to be able to experience the full capacity of the world,” he said. “And so therefore, when they became adults, their imaginations are so limited, that all they can see is what they know. And so they’re afraid of things they don’t know. So that could be slavery. You know, that could be the tragedy and the triumphs of Black people in America. That could be the experiences of LGBTQ+.”
Caldwell-Stone says the organization is also seeing a rising number of challenges to books on LGBTQIA topics amid a wave of anti-transgender legislation.
Authors urge parents and educators to promote banned books and literature despite calls, in hopes of preparing children for an ever-intensifying social and political climate.
“It’s a product of the political climate that we’re in,” Sheth said. “The idea that you would take away a book where they might see themselves or be able to have a conversation or whether it be a window to them or a mirror for them — if you want to teach our kids empathy, and kindness and love, the best place to start is in the books that they read.”
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