Book Banning Works

I’ve spent some of today trying to figure out whether, in fact, a Pennsylvania school district has banned the series Girls Who Code as was being widely reported. It seems that the book was banned in 2020-2021, the ban was reversed thanks to awesome local activism, but a new PEN AMERICA report on book banning included the coding books, and that sparked a news cycle.

I’m glad to hear that the activism worked and students have access to these and other books in the school district, because the gist of report from PEN America is that more and more books are being banned. And that book banning is in fact a highly effective way to keep books out of the hands of children (and others).

A recent article in The Atlantic talks about what happens when a book gets banned. Yes, sometimes there’s a public backlash, and if the book is already famous, it might shoot up the best seller lists. That’s what happened to Maus earlier this year, as I wrote about for CNN. That’s great for the author and publisher, but it doesn’t change the fact that the books have been taken out of a classroom or library. And most of the time, there isn’t even a good impact on sales.

From The Atlantic:

The ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has a telling statistic: It estimates that a staggering 82 to 97 percent of book challenges go unreported on. That means these books, the overwhelming majority, don’t even make it beyond the school-board minutes and into the local paper…

Connor Goodwin, the author, talks about the books that were boosted by bans (Maus, The Bluest Eye, Gender Queer) because they were already famous or got media coverage in elite outlets. Then Goodwin continues:

More typical, though, is what happened to the author Trung Le Nguyen. His young-adult graphic novel, The Magic Fish, was on a list compiled by a Texas state representative last year of books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” The campaign successfully removed 414 titles from a school district in Texas, including The Magic Fish. There was little recourse for Nguyen and seemingly nothing his publisher could do. He never got the media attention that accrued to Maus, so he was left with the more common realization that now fewer kids would be able to find his work. “It’s just kind of an unfortunate reality where my book’s longevity on bookshelves and exposure to audiences in publicly accessible spaces would be severely diminished,” he told me. “It feels terrible.”

To me the lesson for me is this: We can’t defeat book bans by being consumers, and we need to stop celebrating banned books on the best seller lists as if we’ve made any real structural change. There’s nothing wrong with buying books that are being banned; please keep buying them! But the solutions have to involve activism, especially politics at the local level .. which is what happened in Pennsylvania, so kids can once again check out Girls Who Code.

[This post is free and open to the public, but if you can afford it, it would be great if you subscribed here. Your subscription lets me keep this site free.]

Leave a Reply