Lauren Richards Headshot

From “The Grapes of Wrath” to “The Adventures of Captain Underpants,” there is no shortage of books that have been banned from the public sphere. Often these calls for removal are made in the name of protecting children from inappropriate content, whether that’s too much farting or mentions of sex. Yet, in the direction they’re heading now, they’re nothing more than discrimination in disguise. 

While literary censorship is nothing new, book bans have been on the rise in recent years. According to the American Library Association (ALA), over 1,500 titles were on the chopping block in 2021, up from 273 in 2020.

The recent uptick in book challenges and removal reflect a changing political climate. Unlike the localized movements of the past where individual parents led the charge, organized groups and government officials are spearheading modern censorship campaigns. According to a report published by PEN America, an organization that strives to protect the rights of writers, at least 50 groups were tied to book ban efforts, most of which were formed in 2021. Despite the fact that over 70% of Americans oppose book bans, these groups seek to impose restrictions on everyone.

Of the books pulled from library shelves, a majority focus on the experience of marginalized groups. Between July 2021 and June 2022, PEN America found 41% of books banned feature LGBTQ content, 40% feature a protagonist of color or prominent secondary characters of color and 21% address issues of race or racism. One such title that falls into both categories, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” has been targeted for removal in 29 districts.

On a more basic level, book bans are a denial of basic First Amendment rights, but they also harm readers, especially those whose experiences reflect the type of content being removed. While studying how children engage with books, Dr. Rudine Bishop, a professor at Ohio State University who studies representation in literature, promoted the concepts of “mirrors” and “windows.” Mirrors refer to material that coincides with the reader’s identity, while windows refer to literature through which the reader can access ideas and experiences that differ from their own. 

For students who are historically underrepresented or stereotyped in literature, mirrors help to increase academic engagement and provide personal validation of their experiences. Windows are just as important in advancing knowledge. When students are exposed to diverse content, they can develop a deeper understanding of the world, which helps to improve critical thinking as well as foster a more tolerant, inclusive environment. 

Limiting access to these stories increases the risk of the opposite occurring. With every removal of a book that discusses gender identity or oppression, the potential for harassment and violence toward members of marginalized groups increases. Furthermore, lack of representation can have an array of negative mental health consequences, from feelings of isolation to imposter syndrome.

Although many of the groups attempting to enforce sweeping bans hold conservative values, this issue plays out on both sides of the political spectrum. In Washington, for instance, one public school banned “To Kill a Mockingbird” because it marginalized people of color and portrayed white saviorism. Yet, regardless of the reasons why, shielding real-world history and experiences will not make uncomfortable topics less of a reality.

While book bans typically concern children, they aren’t the only population being affected. Book bans also place librarians and school officials at risk for losing their jobs, or even facing jail time, as new laws prohibiting certain books in schools are being implemented. As a result, educators are feeling pressured to self-censor and avoid controversial topics altogether. 

It’s high time we put a ban on book bans. The ALA lists several ways we can fight for our intellectual freedom, which includes attending a Banned Book Week Program, purchasing Banned Book Weeks merchandise and donating. At NC State, University Libraries provides the opportunity to show our support through programs celebrating the freedom to read during the last week of September.

Regardless of what you believe, no one can argue against protecting children and fostering their knowledge. Shutting them off from content that goes against their worldview isn’t the way to do that. Instead, we should encourage the exploration of different ideas and viewpoints — that is how we can best prepare students to face the world.

Staff Columnist

My name is Lauren Richards and I am a second-year studying psychology. I joined the Opinion section in 2021 as I hope to spark dialogue around issues that matter.