On Banned and Challenged Books

Art, like morality, consists of drawing the line somewhere.

G. K. Chesterton

While I am the first to throw out the essentially arbitrary reading level “restrictions” that most schools use, as I read many “above age” books to my children and taught my daughter to read before she was four years old, I am okay with restricting books. Shocking, perhaps, but true. I became interested in this “book banning” phenomenon supposedly sweeping the nation a couple of years ago when people made a fuss about books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Charlotte’s Web supposedly being banned in schools and libraries. This was surprising to me. The first is well-loved and respected as one of the best criticisms of racism in the U.S. The second, a seemingly harmless children’s book. But as I dove deeper into this discussion, I realized there was both more and less to this outrage than what meets the eye.

But before we get too deep into the weeds of what books should or should not be challenged, restricted, or banned, perhaps we should talk about what these words mean or even what we first think of when we hear those words. Maybe like you, when I hear a book has been banned, I think of places like Maoist China, which banned books like the Bible and a good number of pieces of what we’d call classic literature. I think of the Nazi book burnings, which included basically any work that was or could be perceived as critical of the Nazis or those written by “inferiors.” And there have been other periods of history where the Puritans or Catholic church banned heresy, actual or otherwise, or governments banned obscenity. Moreover, some books have been permanently banned because they were fraudulent, stolen ideas, or contained sensitive information. But these literal bans are seldom what we are discussing when we talk about current “book bannings” in U.S. public schools or libraries. Instead, we are talking about challenged or restricted books.

What’s the difference? For starters, you can still get your hands on those books by buying them or accessing them from a free resource. Challenged books are simply that: challenged. They didn’t go anywhere; people simply made a fuss about them. Restricted books are also just that. You might not find them in one library – say, a particular elementary or middle school library – but you can find them in other age-grouped libraries or public libraries. There are also those books that have been removed from curricula for no other reason than the teacher wanted to read a different book. After all, there is only so much time in the day and room on a shelf. And you can still get ahold of such books by purchasing a copy, borrowing from the library, or finding them online. 

So why should certain books be “banned,” or rather, restricted or challenged? There are some good reasons and some bad reasons. Certain zealots have chosen to challenge certain books because they disliked some elements of them. I read once that a Christian mother tried to get Charlotte’s Web removed from a school library because the animals could talk. Many organizations have tried to get To Kill a Mockingbird removed from school libraries because of some language and its content, often ignoring the message of the work. Some people have suggested removing certain books from curricula because they were written by the wrong type of person. Even more shockingly, some publishers have taken a page from 1984 and decided to rewrite books they found uncomfortable.

But there are some decent reasons to restrict a book from or to certain areas. I phrased that specifically. Some books need to be restricted from an area. Young children should not have easy access to books on sexuality or those addressing subjects or using language that would be inappropriate for their age. Romance novels and even classics with sexualized language or scenes should not be available for young children. Books on the Holocaust or lynchings should not be within reach of a kindergartener or elementary student. But, I would expect such books on these difficult points of history to be available, and taught, to older students, not to mention the general public. Furthermore, there shouldn’t be books that teach racism to any students. Not about, but teach racism. Schools are meant to instruct our children on the core subjects, not destructive ideologies. But, such controversial subjects can and should be addressed by a certain age, though preferably by parents.

Yet these restrictions, I hope, are not shocking to you. Certain subjects have always been restricted from certain age groups to another. We allow books and subjects to build upon each other. If you received a classical education, you likely learned cyclically, always coming back to old material so the new could build upon it. This is most helpful with history. You might teach generally about a certain point in history (say, the Pilgrims, the American revolution, or slavery) and teach specifics later as the children matured, discussing in-depth the complexities, successes, and failures. But are there subjects or content that is not appropriate for any child? Further, what rights or responsibilities do we have to restrict such content to certain spheres?

To the first question, I say yes, certain subjects are not appropriate for any child, and there are certain books whose content is also inappropriate. For some books, we seem to be able to use our common sense to restrict them from certain areas that children may access. We don’t put romance novels or Mein Kampf in the children’s section of a library, school or otherwise. We likely also wouldn’t find Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, or War and Peace there either. Yet these, and others, are the books often linked with other more radical works that are being challenged or restricted to tone down the content matter and turn up the response to supposed “book bannings.” And to be completely clear, I am talking about books that are full of vulgarity, excessive sexuality, and outright pornography.

And here is the crux of the matter. Yes, I believe books with such obscene content, if allowed at all, should be restricted to certain areas of access, even in public libraries. We could also discuss violent content, but that seems to be on the back burner for most of the culture at the moment. No child should have unlimited access to such content as it is emotionally, mentally, and physically destructive to them. 

So what rights and responsibilities do we have as citizens and parents to actively work to restrict such books? For starters, as citizens, we fund public libraries. While a more difficult (but possible) case can be made to completely restrict such explicit content from public libraries, a simpler case would be to restrict such books to a certain area of the library that can be accessed only by adults. But for school libraries, citizens and parents alike have a right and duty to be informed on what children are being taught and exposed to and to decide the appropriateness of it. And let us not be hyperbolic. Schools are meant to teach core subjects. I am not talking about parents deciding if their child should be taught how to read or learn math or history or any other core subject. But they do have a right to know the ideologies behind certain subjects, such as racism or sexual perversion. Parents have the right, not teachers, to be informed and decide what and which ideologies are appropriate for their children. Teachers do not have the right to teach any ideology they want to students.

It would seem that we could have come to such a conclusion simply and amicably, yet here we are. We are in a culture equating liberty with licentiousness. So who gets to decide, and by what standard? It seems like the standard should be simple enough. Racism, sexism, and sexually explicit material should not be taught to students of any age. As I have laid out above, this is not to arbitrarily throw out all classics from all age groups. Let us be reasonable. I recently read an article on a school whose teachers decided to punish their students by overreacting to a new law that was being put in place that stated you can’t teach racism or sexually explicit material to children. Instead of acting rationally and compassionately, the teachers took out all the books from their classrooms, so the children had nothing to read because they claimed they didn’t want to get in trouble because they missed a book. This is hyperbolic and childish behavior. It is not a big ask to say you shouldn’t have certain content in your classrooms. Everyone knows what books we are talking about, yet some organizations and even teachers prefer to be obtuse and ignorant of our meaning.

There is also something ironic that some educators and activists are fearful of exposing children to harmful words like “fat” or “ugly” and concepts such as mother and father to the point where they want to restrict or even rewrite such books, yet are completely fine with obscenity, sexual degeneracy, and overt racism. Too many activists and even educators have taken Brave New World as a playbook rather than a warning. It baffles the mind. I don’t believe we should spare children every discomfort, but we should introduce subjects appropriately. And we should, as adults, deal with these books reasonably.

As a Christian, I know how often books can be banned. Religious books are often restricted due to a false understanding of a separation of church and state. But this is where we must use wisdom. Liberty is not licentiousness, and the limit is rights. You have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (which once meant property). You are then limited from taking another’s life or liberty, even to improve yours. You cannot steal from another so that you can be happy. So too do rights end in certain spheres. I have more rights (and responsibilities) as a parent to my children than you. So in the case of what my children are taught and what they can read, I have the ultimate responsibility and right to that decision. And as I mentioned above, citizens and parents have the right to decide what books and content school children are exposed to. Though we lived for a brief moment in a “live and let live” society, that was a vague and not entirely moral dream. We need guiding principles. Not everything is good and moral, or even appropriate. And despite the catchy slogans, legislating at all is legislating morality. We have to draw the line somewhere.

There must also be a distinction between what is sold and what is taught when discussing “banned books.” I don’t want there to be a limit on freedom of thought or voice, although there is something to be said for the publisher or distributor to have a right to limit what they choose to print (although I would argue that just because they print something doesn’t mean they endorse it. Again, let’s be reasonable). I want to be able to share my ideas and for you to share yours. I also want the two of us to be able to engage each other in the market of ideas. But children are not the place to have that engagement. I’m not naive to think that education is neutral. It clearly is not. We are always teaching what to think and not just how to think. But as a parent and citizen, I also have a right to push for truth and goodness in the classroom.

This is why we must use discernment and wisdom, not act like powerless or ignorant people. We have responsibilities with our rights, and many of those are to the service of our nation’s children. We can protect the minds and hearts of students while encouraging freedom. We can have morality and truth and freedom.

Not every book is good or appropriate for children, at least not for every age level. There should not be anything groundbreaking about that statement. We should not want our children to grow up being taught how to be a racist or hate themselves or wish they were something other than what they are, or be exposed to sexually explicit material. I don’t want them to learn vulgarity and lies. And despite what many agitators are pushing, I don’t think most parents do either. Parents have the right and duty to decide what they want their children to be exposed to within reason. As far as I am aware, every book on the “challenged and banned” list can be bought or found in most libraries. Further, many can be found for free. This alone demonstrates the hyperbolic nature of the banned books theme. You can access them.

Restricting or challenging books is not inherently bad. It can be done for good or bad reasons, but this is also part of the marketplace of ideas. There is nothing wrong with questions of why, where, what, or when. To say books and ideas cannot be challenged is a tyranny of its own, and children will be the first casualties.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

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