As a child, I had a very specific taste in novels.
I was banned from reading J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series because of the use of magic, and Judy Blume’s novel “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” because of its exploration of puberty.
As a fifth-grader, I devoured Blume’s book underneath my covers at night after my parents fell asleep. It took a few more years for me to muster the courage to dig into Harry Potter.
I recently learned that my mom preferred I learn about puberty from a more educational perspective. She did not want me to first engage with menstruation through stories about a preteen girl kissing boys and stuffing cotton balls in her bra.
“There’s no telling what you would have done with that book,” she told me.
She’s not wrong. At 10, I was so enamored with Blume’s book, I stuffed cotton balls in my training bra. (Kissing boys came much later.)
Parents have long been concerned about the books their kids read. And while some are satisfied with just regulating their households, others want to act more broadly — banning books from schools and libraries, ostensibly to protect all children.
When should kids be allowed to explore more mature themes? What role should governments play in approving, or banning, books?
Hello, friends. I’m Erin B. Logan, a reporter for the L.A. Times. Today, we are going to talk about the power of the written word.
Why are people banning books?
Censorship is not new, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Assn.’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, which closely tracks and catalogs books that are most frequently targeted for removal from library shelves.
Books that top the list often mirror social upheaval in American society.
In the ’80s and ’90s, a conservative “moral panic” led to books about magic and others about puberty and sexuality being banned, Caldwell-Stone said. In recent years, the ALA’s list of most frequently banned books has swelled with tomes exploring LGBTQ issues, racism, anti-racism and police brutality.
The protests following George Floyd’s murder in 2020 led to a wave of anti-racist training in corporate America, generating a conservative backlash that spread beyond the C-suite and into schools and libraries.
Just days before President Trump left office in January, his administration published a federal report promoting “patriotic education,” praising the Founding Fathers and downplaying the American government’s role in slavery. (President Biden disbanded Trump’s 1776 Commission and withdrew the report on his first day in office.)
More than two dozen states have weighed limiting how racism is taught in the classroom and at least eight have banned or limited the teaching of what is purported to be “critical race theory” and critical assessments of U.S. history from schools, despite little evidence of critical race theory being taught in K-12 classrooms. (Critical race theory is a framework legal academics use to study the manifestation of racism in American institutions.)
In June, at the request of Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the state’s education board affirmed that teaching critical race theory violated state standards. In June, New Hampshire Republican Gov. Chris Sununu approved limits on how teachers can talk about race in the classroom. In the same month in Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill aimed at preventing critical race theory from being taught in the classroom. All of those actions, advocates say, will lead to schools banning books that delve into such subjects.
A Texas state Republican lawmaker who chairs a legislative committee, for example, in October sent several school districts a list of 850 books that did not comply with this new law.
Advocates and scholars say such bans go too far and undermine American principles of open discussion and debate. An essential component of a democratic society is the free exchange of ideas, said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, a historian at Ohio State University.
“We should be teaching the truth,” Jeffries said. “We should not be banning books. We should not be creating this fear among teachers that [teaching the truth] would make little Suzie uncomfortable.”
Why do people think books are dangerous?
Not everyone agrees with Caldwell- Stone or Jeffries, or we wouldn’t be having such a raging debate about books in schools.
Tiffany Justice, a former school board member for a district in Florida and co-founder of Moms for Liberty, believes parents should be more involved in their children’s curriculum. Justice contends that if books in classrooms and school libraries run afoul of state laws, including ones that ban critical race theory and obscenity, parents have the right to demand those books be removed. If those state laws don’t exist, she said, parents could push to create them.
Justice is concerned about the effect of younger children reading books with mature themes — especially in an uncontrolled setting. She said George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue” — which explores race, sexuality, sexual abuse, consent and statutory rape —was simply too heavy a topic for young children to read without their parents around. The book has been removed from several school libraries, including in Texas, Kansas and Pennsylvania.
“Johnson had every right to write [that book],” said Justice, adding she was sorry for the experience Johnson endured. “But there are lots of ways to teach a child about not encountering some type of sexual trauma in their lives.”
“We don’t need a book from someone’s experience in the library for a child to come across without any explanation,” Justice added. “That’s not a resource.”
The author disagrees with such assessments, saying children can handle such difficult subjects. In an interview with CBS News last month, Johnson said: “The reality is there is no topic that is too heavy for a child who could experience said topic. If a child can experience sexual abuse at the age of 7, a child should understand what sexual abuse looks like.”
The debate over banning books is becoming a popular topic on the campaign trail.
In Virginia, for example, the Republican gubernatorial candidate this last fall turned education, parental control of schools and questions about “Beloved,” a Toni Morrison novel that won the Pulitzer Prize, into a winning campaign strategy. It’s one that Republicans, tapping the angst of parents, are sure to replicate across the country during the 2022 election cycle.
Political analysts say we should expect more of this kind of rhetoric and attacks on the written word.
Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said the strategy is effective and Republicans will likely use it in the midterm elections.
“They’re going to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Democrats,” he said.
(Newsletter author digression: It is fascinating that people get so worked up about what’s in a book, but there does not appear to be the same kind of anxiety about what’s on television or the internet. My mom, for one, didn’t care that I was watching “Bad Girls Club” at age 12! That was much raunchier than anything Morrison or Blume ever wrote.)
So, a book discussion?
Is there a better way to assess whether a book should be banned from schools or libraries than to read it? In the spirit of exploring these difficult issues, I’m going to host a Zoom discussion about one of my favorite books — one that is frequently banned — by Laurie Halse Anderson. “Speak” is about a ninth-grader who finds herself shunned by classmates after being sexually assaulted by an upperclassman at a party.
The first 10 people who email me and agree to join our virtual book discussion will get a copy of the book. We’ll give you a few weeks to read it before joining our talk. To join the discussion, contact me at email@example.com. The talk will be recorded and potentially turned into a multimedia project for The Times. (Don’t forget to send me your mailing address. Don’t be shy about sending photos of your pets, either).
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The view from Washington
— On Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris announced $540 million in private investments in Central America as part of the Biden administration’s plan to reduce migration, Noah Bierman reported. The investment will bring the total private commitments in the region to more than $1.2 billion since May, when Harris began soliciting groups to spend money in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.
— On Tuesday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti testified before a congressional panel weighing his nomination to be U.S. ambassador to India. He testified that he never witnessed misconduct alleged by a former police bodyguard who says in a lawsuit that an advisor to the mayor sexually harassed him, Nolan D. McCaskill and Dakota Smith reported.
— On Tuesday, the House voted to hold former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with a special committee investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, setting the stage for the second possible criminal prosecution of an advisor to former President Trump, Anumita Kaur reported.
— The Supreme Court on Friday allowed a narrow challenge against a Texas law banning most abortions, David G. Savage reported. The law makes abortions illegal after six weeks of pregnancy and authorizes private lawsuits in state courts against anyone who violates it.
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The view from California
— After the Supreme Court declined to block that Texas abortion law, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would push for similar legislation that would empower citizens to file lawsuits to deter the manufacture and sale of assault rifles in the state, Liam Dillon reported. Newsom said the court has effectively endorsed states’ ability to create similar legal mechanisms to safeguard laws from federal court review.
— Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) plans to introduce a bill that would block freeway expansions in underserved communities across California, Liam Dillon and Ben Poston reported. The legislation would prohibit California from funding or permitting highway projects in areas with high rates of pollution and poverty and where residents have suffered negative health effects from living near freeways.
The latest from the campaign trail
— After a failed Republican-led effort to recall Newsom in September, the governor seems poised to glide to reelection. He has socked away $23 million for his reelection campaign, Phil Willon reported. At this point in the last California gubernatorial race, the field of candidates was wide and two debates had been staged. This cycle, Newsom is all but alone on the public stage just six months ahead of the June statewide primary.
That’s it friends! Don’t forget to follow me on Twitter for updates about my iconic fur-child Kacey. Sign up for our California Politics newsletter to get the best of The Times’ state politics reporting.