Incombustible Ideas: The Subtle Bigotry of Book Banning by Jennifer LaGarde and Travis Crowder
Books are powerful. They have the unique ability to transform, inspire, and educate, all while wrapping us in the singularly connective tissue of story. The ideas in books also have the potential to challenge the status quo, make us think differently, and encourage change in our world: a power which some find frightening. In her 2010 poem Manifesto, written in honor of Banned Books week, beloved young adult novelist Ellen Hopkins wrote, “A word to the unwise./ Torch every book./ Char every page./ Burn every word to ash./ Ideas are incombustible./ And therein lies your real fear.” Hopkins’s words are incisive, probing an issue that’s as old as the art of storytelling itself. Change, though inevitable, can be difficult and frightening, particularly when it forces people to confront their own biases or challenges complacency. Which is why, throughout history, when people oppose change, they often also oppose the books that spark change or fan its flames.
Of all the books published in 2017, Angie Thomas’ debut novel, The Hate U Give, is one of the most celebrated. This seminal book for young people tells the story of Starr Carter, an African American high school student who is the only witness to the murder of her unarmed childhood friend, Kaleel, at the hands of a white police officer. Mirroring recent events in cities all across America, Starr’s community is torn apart by Kaleel’s death, resulting in an explosion of racial tensions that have long festered just beneath the surface, leaving Starr to choose between doing what is right and doing what is easy. An unflinching and compelling portrait of a deep and painful wound in American society, The Hate U Give has captivated readers, spent a remarkable 49 weeks on the NY Times Best Sellers list, has been nominated for numerous literary prizes, and has been optioned as a feature film.
Recently, however, The Hate U Give has been in the news for another reason. In early November of last year, the book was pulled from the shelves of all school libraries in Katy, Texas after a parent complained about its content at a school board meeting (admitting that he’d only read 13 pages of the book). Eventually, thanks in large part to a massive public outcry that received national attention, students were allowed to once again check out The Hate U Give from libraries in Katy, but only with written permission from parents. What may be most remarkable about this case is that the book was banned from school collections, on order of the Superintendent, without due process. Like most school districts around the country, Katy has a procedure in place for reviewing challenged material. However, this policy was not followed in the case of The Hate U Give. Rather, teachers and librarians were directed to remove the book without any such review taking place. The current requirement that students provide parental permission in order to check out the book is also interesting/troubling because for some students, obtaining parent signatures on ANY form can prove difficult.
While the circumstances surrounding the removal of The Hate U Give from bookshelves in Katy, Texas may be unique, there are other equally (if not more) important ways in which this situation is similar to other book bannings throughout the United States. Each year, the American Library Association shares a list of the books which were most frequently removed from school library shelves during the previous year. Statistics from 2017 are not yet available, but let’s look at the numbers from 2016:
While the reported reasons why each book on this list was challenged may vary, one thing that all of the titles have in common is that they feature the voices and stories of diverse characters representing marginalized populations in our society. This bears repeating: whether LGBTQ, Hispanic or African American, the most frequently banned books in 2016 all featured characters whose stories reflect the life experiences of underrepresented or marginalized groups. Alone, this fact is distressing, but let’s look at it in the context of another image:
The publishing world has long been faced with the challenge of producing and supporting titles that fully represent our diverse global family. And while many wonderful books exploring and celebrating the experiences of people of color, non-traditional families, LGBTQ characters, those who identify as transgender or gender non conforming, diverse religious backgrounds and physical and cognitive differences, etc., have been published in the last few years, as the image above shows, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Indeed, as recent statistics pertaining to diversity in children’s literature show us, while people of color makeup 37% of the population in the United States, only about 11% of books for children and young adults feature diverse content. Couple this with the fact that titles featuring diverse and marginalized characters are also the ones most frequently challenged and pulled from school/classroom library shelves, and the results are devastating. Not only is it easier for young readers to find books in which animals are main characters than it is to locate those featuring characters of color, but also books that do fall into the latter category are more likely to be challenged or removed. In short, we’re silencing stories that are already not being told nearly enough.
This is where we come in. Narratives from marginalized, underrepresented groups matter. Books provide the lens through which to see and be seen, giving readers a tool to understand people and cultures different from their own. It is critically important for teachers and librarians to diversify their collections and seek literature that is reflective of everyone. Recent research has explored the connection between reading and the development of empathy, finding that people who read are more empathetic than those who do not read. Also, researchers found that the types of books we read influence how we respond to others’ emotions. If we want students to understand and respect differences among people in the world, it is imperative that they have access to books that include diverse characters, settings, and ways of thinking (from Novel Finding: Reading Literary Fiction Improves Empathy & Can Reading Fiction Actually Make You a Better Person).
Access alone is not enough, though. Readers must interact with these texts. Having a well-stocked, diverse collection is wonderful, but that’s only the first step. We must also do everything we can to guarantee that students actually read them. That’s where teachers and librarians can use the power of the book talk. Book talks give students time to listen and think about diverse literature, while also giving educators the opportunity to share their own reactions and connections to these texts. It gives us the chance to model for young readers, how to talk about people who may be different from us or how to grapple with uncomfortable topics. Book talking not only furnishes an opportunity to excite student interest in a particular book, it also affords us the chance to demonstrate how stories connect us. As you plan for book talks, consider the types of books you are discussing with students. Who are the authors? What characters have they created? Are these characters and authors representative of only one group of students? Book talks are amazing opportunities for educators to breathe life into students’ reading experiences. Selecting inclusive literature for these book talks encourages readers to develop reading lives that are reflective of experiences different from their own.
Additionally, the use of mentor texts is an important method for promoting and championing diverse works. Mentor texts are usually short pieces, often excerpted from a larger work, and they are used to teach analysis, writing skills, and deep thinking. Teachers can use mentor texts as a vehicle for giving students a different view of the world, while also enticing them to read books and works by the author of the mentor text. Mentor texts represent one more way that we can bring students into the world of diverse books. By reading passages from them, and using these texts as examples of powerful writing, we can engage their hearts as well as their minds. That said, when we select a text for this important work, we are endorsing it. As such, we must be careful cultivators of mentor texts that reflect the reality that talent knows no bias.
In the end, however, we cannot book talk inclusive titles, or use them as mentor texts, unless our collections are rich with titles that feature diverse books. That said, diversifying any collection requires diligence and an understanding that this is a marathon, not a sprint. The best and most effective school and classroom libraries are ever evolving. As curators of book collections for young people, it’s essential that we not only add books to the shelves, but that we also constantly check to be sure the existing collection represents our diverse global family: both authentically and sensitively reflecting the lives and experiences of the students we serve, while also exposing them to stories, that are told with the same care, of kids whose lives are entirely different from their own.
With that in mind, for educators who are already struggling to find enough time in the day to accomplish all that is expected of them, this can be a daunting task. Here are some resources to help:
Resource 1: Tips for Cultivating Inclusive School and Classroom Library Collections.
- Celebrate all types of diversity: Don’t limit your efforts to create an inclusive collection to race alone. While it’s imperative that all races and cultures are represented in the stories we share with young people, we must also be intentional to feature titles that include characters of diverse religions, socio-economic backgrounds, disabilities, sexual orientation and gender identity. These books are rich with culture, identity, and humanity. There is a danger in allowing our collection to tell a “single story.” We have an opportunity and an obligation to ensure that the books we promote, and provide access to, help illustrate the truth that we are, in the worlds of Maya Angelou, more alike than we are different.
- Judge books by their covers: There’s a reason some bookstores have moved towards forward facing shelving models. Readers DO judge books by their covers and so should we! Selling students on the idea that books and reading should be an important, relevant and joyful part of their lives is one of our most solemn responsibilities. For all students, but especially for those who have yet to find the first book to change their lives, the cover can be incredibly influential. When selecting book for our collections, it’s important that we remember that not only do all students deserve to see themselves, both in the text and on the cover, but that book covers may also entice other students to explore stories that feature people and cultures that are different from their own. To celebrate diversity, we need to see it. The physical act of seeing diverse titles is analogous to the metaphorical act of seeing diversity. Seeing a character on the cover of a book that looks like you is incredibly meaningful for any reader, but especially so for children. Having others interact with that same book, facing out to be seen, is equally powerful.
- Authorship and authority matter: When seeking out inclusive books, it’s important to also search for the voices that are best positioned to represent diverse characters: that means seeking out diverse authors, authors whose life experiences mirror those they are writing about and well researched titles that tell stories in both authentic and respectful ways. One way of convincing publishers to support more titles by diverse authors is for those books to sell. As those responsible for providing students with access to what might be their only reading material, we must consider the authority of the authors we support. Additionally, too much of what students read in schools continues to be written by “dead white men.” We should strive to make sure that our collections send the message that all people, from all backgrounds, can be authors and that their stories matter.
- Take a close, critical look at the classics: While some of the books we read as young readers continue to occupy special places in our hearts, that doesn’t mean they continue to deserve a place on our shelves without the additional support of context. It’s important that we reread these titles, as adults, to make certain they do not rely on stereotypes and/or perpetuate outdated views of diverse cultures. Many of the classics are gorgeously written, but the canon itself is very narrow. It has always been necessary to include authors of diverse backgrounds, but now, at this moment, inclusivity is a moral imperative. Reading and studying ONLY the classics sends a clear message to students, one that teachers and librarians may not intend, but one that is audible to students of diverse backgrounds nonetheless. Rudine Simms-Bishop wrote Windows, Mirrors, and Sliding Glass Doors (1990), prompting people to consider how reflective collections were of all students. Books are windows when readers see into different worlds, sliding glass doors when readers can step imaginatively into the world created by the author, and mirrors when readers see themselves and their world reflected. Inclusivity matters. Toni Morrison, Pulitzer Prize winning author of Beloved, has spoken publicly about how she read classic literature in her youth and was well-versed in canonical literature, but found that there was no representation for her culture in the canon, no voices to speak of her experience as an African-American woman. So she wrote her own stories. In her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, she told the story of a blind woman who is approached by a group of young people. They ask of the woman, “Is there no context for our lives? No song, no literature, no poem…?” Stories are powerful, and it is critical that they weave a narrative of inclusion, not cultural dominance. Helping the readers we serve develop authentic reading lives is one of the most important part our work. As such, it critical that we reflect on the books that make up our collections and determine how well they represent all students.
- Build Bridges and Maps: What good is having diverse books in your collection if readers can’t find them? Think about organizing your collection by genres and/or feature sections that show inclusivity: stories of people, social justice, struggles of humanity, etc. as opposed to realistic fiction, non-fiction, scifi and so on. School librarians, harness the power of subject tags to help students locate books they might be uncomfortable asking an adult for. Take every opportunity to create a collection that students can navigate without your assistance.
- Crunch The Numbers: Comparing your school’s demographics to the demographics represented in your library’s collection is a good place to start this process. If your school’s population is made up of 50% Latinx students, but there are only a few books in your library reflect the lives and experience of those readers, you’ve got a problem. But the good news is, this analysis gives you a starting point for the work ahead. That’s not to say, of course, that if your school’s population is fairly homogenized, that your collection should be too. It’s true that every child in your building deserves to see themselves reflected in the books on our shelves, but it’s also just as important that they see diverse experiences depicted in those titles as well. Either way, the demographic make up your school can prove to be informative as you consider what types of characters your students need to see represented in your collection.
- Amplify Student Voice: Enlist the help of your students as you seek to diversify your school or classroom library collection. We know that it’s essential that every student in your school be able see themselves in your collection, alongside characters that give them glimpses into stories that are dissimilar to their own. Not only can your learners help identify gaps in your collection, but giving them a voice in the process of curating an inclusive collection that values a broad and diverse worldview, will also help them take ownership of the library. They’ll be more likely to see it’s their library as much as yours, and that kind of connection makes it more likely that they’ll read the books they, and their classmates, helped select. What’s more, engaging in the process provides them with practice in looking at the world with diversity in mind, something they may not have had the opportunity to do otherwise. Plus, knowing the diverse backgrounds of students enables teachers and librarians to make quality decisions about the books and resources needed to make a collection inclusive. Check out reading interest inventories from Reading Apprenticeship and Donalyn Miller to use with your students or synthesize your own inventory from the questions and ideas housed within those documents!
There’s an old saying that goes “what gets observed, gets done.” And while it refers to the belief that people are most productive when they think someone is watching or evaluating them, it also speaks to the idea that visual reminders can be helpful tools for achieving goals. After all, as another old saying goes, “outta sight, outta mind.” To that end, we’ve created this infographic for two reasons: 1) as a visual reminder of strategies for creating an inclusive collection and 2) as a way to let anyone everyone perusing your shelves know that being inclusive is your goal. We hope you find it helpful.
Resource 2: Tips For Successfully Navigating A Book Challenge:
It’s unfortunate, but data collected on books that are challenged, and eventually, removed from school and classroom libraries in the US tend to be those featuring diverse characters and storylines. And while it’s true that, ultimately, the fate of these books may be above your pay grade, there are some steps you can take to help to improve the odds that those who do make the final decision will err on the side of inclusivity:
- Follow policy. If you don’t know your school district’s policy regarding challenged instructional material, now is the time to find out. Once you know it, make sure you follow it. However, as you contribute to this protocol, be sure to…
- Acknowledge the concerns of the person challenging the book. While you may not agree with them, it’s important to acknowledge that every reader has the right to respond to a book in their own way.
- Remind the deciding body that every parent has the right to choose what their own child can read, but that no single parent should be able to take that right away from other parents by deciding what every child can read.
- Emphasize both equity and intellectual freedom. In reading the challenged material, make note of which students will be underrepresented in your collection if the title is removed. While no school district wants to be viewed as censoring educational materials, they also don’t want to be seen as implementing policies that silence the voices of specific students.
- Gather data: have a copy of your collection development plan ready to illustrate the criteria used to select books for your library. Gather reviews and other items related to the challenged materials in order to paint a complete picture of why it belongs in your collection.
- Solicit support from other stakeholders. For every parent or school board member who wants a book removed from classroom or library shelves, there are likely others who will support the view that access to diverse titles is critical for helping students develop robust reading lives.
- While collecting reviews or praise for the challenged book can be useful, be sure to also include any stories, anecdotes or written responses from students or parents who have connected with the book in meaningful ways. For some, an endorsement from people they know carries more weight than praise from a professional writer in a far away city.
- Report any banned titles to the ALA’s office of intellectual freedom. It’s important to have a record of which titles are being kept off of shelves and where.
There is a troubling narrative woven into the fabric of book banning, and it speaks to the uncertainties and fears that fan the flames of ignorance. Too often challenges arise when themes, characters, or events within books are not aligned with a community’s perceived values, or, in some cases, the values of a very vocal minority. When this happens, we have a choice: allow the fear of what we don’t understand, and of confronting the growing pains that sometimes accompany expanding our world view, win the day. Or we can come together to consider the benefits of exposing young readers to new ideas; of celebrating stories that reflect the experiences of some of our readers who so rarely get to see themselves in the pages of a book; and of supporting art that helps us spread the light of empathy and understanding in our increasingly dark world. And while the latter is the more difficult choice, the choice is, indeed, still ours to make.
When students’ reading lives are hindered, and a community’s understanding of the world remains malnourished, eventually, they atrophy. Ray Bradbury is right–we don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. We just have to get people to stop reading them. Our goals in writing this were two-fold: first, encourage teachers and librarians to create library collections for students that are full of rich, meaningful, diverse books and second, provide educators with tools to help with that endeavor. We want students to have access to books and be filled with a desire to read them. But moreover, we know that helping students cultivate a reading life that includes all types of literature and is representative of a wide range of cultures, experiences, and ideas, extends to the even more important work of creating a kinder and more empathetic world. When students stop reading, culture erodes. When books are banned, and literature that represents marginalized groups is pulled from collections, cultural understanding suffocates. It is, in so many words, destructive.
But we have the power to change that narrative. No matter what your collection looks like right now, the good news is that you have the opportunity change that picture for your students tomorrow. The bottom line is, it’s okay to be where you are. It’s just not okay to stay there. Put another way, to paraphrase Maya Angelou (again) we do the best we can, until we know better. Then we do better. No matter what your collection looks like today, we can open our libraries to diverse books and voices and educate students, and those around us, about the power of an inclusive collection. We have the ability to grow well-rounded readers, exposing them to a chorus of literary voices, ones that give us insight, and teach us about people different than ourselves. Finally, whether we diversify our collections or not, the books we choose to put on our shelves reflect what we value. When we seek to create collections that are inclusive, we send the message that we celebrate all students, that we value the diversity of our global family, and that we believe in the power of incombustible ideas.
Postscript: We want to acknowledge a few truths about ourselves and the suggestions offered here. Throughout the writing process (and in our daily lives) we’ve both been keenly aware of the privilege we are afforded based on our skin color and other aspects of our identity. As such, we don’t pretend to have all the answers. However, we are both passionate about helping all students develop robust and authentic reading lives, ones that are fueled by stories that honor and celebrate the diversity of our global family. Both of us felt called to share what we’ve learned over the years about creating those opportunities. Our most fervent hope is that these suggestions will be helpful to educators, no matter where they are on this journey. And we look forward to learning from others as we continue on ours.
Jennifer LaGarde is a lifelong teacher and learner, with over 20 years in public education. Her educational passions include leveraging technology to help students develop authentic reading lives and meeting the unique needs of students living in poverty. A huge fan of YA Literature, Jennifer currently lives, works, reads and drinks lots of coffee in Olympia, Washington. Follow her adventures at http://www.librarygirl.net or on Twitter @jenniferlagarde.
Travis Crowder is a National Board Certified language arts and social studies teacher in Hiddenite, NC. He has worked in middle and high school settings, but is currently teaching 7th grade. Since his career began ten years ago, he has been interested in helping build the reading and writing lives of his students, as well as helping other educators do the same for their students. He is co-author of Sparks in the Dark, a book that explores reading and writing in all content areas. If you are interested in reading stories from his teaching life and the lessons and ideas that have engaged readers and writers in his classes, check out his blog at www.teachermantrav.com/blog. You can also follow him on Twitter: @teachermantrav.