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Everything You Wanted to Know About Banned Books

Before we start out, let me be clear: I am not an expert. I'm going to keep repeating this because I want you to know that I don't have the answers, I'm still researching and learning, and I'm here to share what I've found and not position myself as the final word on this topic.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my local school district has been wrestling with this topic after recommending that the book All-American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely be included in the curriculum for 9th grade. Friends and neighbors started describing the book as "filth," frequently posting their objections to the text (and the school board members endorsing its inclusion). Having read the book (and LOVED IT) I felt saddened and confused by the opposition.

I know this kind of reaction is not unique to my area - a thriving small town in Central Pennsylvania with fairly conservative, middle-class values. But like many who find themselves participating in the on-going discussion of race in America, I thought maybe we had progressed farther than this.


But we're going to save that discussion for another post. Today, I just want to share with you some basic FAQs around banned books and point you to some reputable sources for more information.


Banning books goes back a long way. In the early days of the printing press, people who objected to a book's content burned that book, essentially eliminating it from public consumption and stopping the spread of ideas the book promoted. Today, instead of burning, we ban books. But before a book can be banned, it has to be challenged. A challenged book is one that a person or group has flagged as inappropriate or objectionable for some reason. A banned book is a text that has been removed, from a library or curriculum. Most books are banned from school libraries as opposed to public libraries.


Interestingly enough, I learned that government institutions cannot ban books. In fact, it's illegal. This mandate extends to school officials. In 1982, the case of Board of Education, Island Trees School District v. Pico states that according to a student's First Amendment right "to receive information and ideas" a school board may not restrict access to a book based on "narrowly partisan or political" reasons. Supreme Court Justice Blackmun also noted that school officials’ removal of books “for the purpose of restricting access to the political ideas, or social perspectives discussed in them, when that action is motivated simply by the officials’ disapproval of the ideas involved” was a violation of the First Amendment.

So when a movement for banning a book comes, it typically comes from another group, like parents.


Books get banned for a variety of reasons. Proponents of banning texts argue that it is a "protective" measure, finding the book's content to be inappropriate in some way for the targeted reader. Arizona State University has a great description of the motivations for banning books here, and I encourage you to take a second to read it. But commonly (and historically), most books are challenged because of:

  • Racial issues

  • "Damaging" lifestyle portrayals

  • Sexuality

  • Vulgar language

  • Violence

  • Religious affiliations

  • Age inappropriateness


It goes against my nature to provide a "how to" for banning a book, but I think it's worth sharing the process for the sake of understanding. It is likely that individual institutions will have their own policies and procedures around removing a book. For example, our local public library puts a form on their website. If the form is filled out, it goes to the library director and Board of Trustees for review. If you want to ban a book at a particular institution, it is best to acquaint yourself with their policies. However, in general:

  1. An individual or group brings a complain about a text. Usually, within their complaint, the individual must articulate their objections to the material. The complaint needs to be formally filed.

  2. Once the complaint is filed, it goes before a board or committee for review. The review group takes into account the target reader, institutional policies, and the larger community.

  3. When the review is complete, the book is either removed from the shelves or left there. Depending upon the outcome, further action can be taken in the form of actual court action.


In my next blog posts, we'll explore this issue more in depth. But I think, regardless of what side of the argument you fall, these action steps apply:

  1. Read the book. It's impossible to argue for or against a book you haven't read. Don't go off of the reviews of others. See for yourself what the fuss is all about and come to your own conclusion.

  2. Ask questions with respect. The bulk of books that get banned are connected in some way to a school. Most teachers choose books because they bring something of value to the student. Before you decide about a book (for or against), take the time to find out why it's being chosen. What is the book's literary merit? If it's a contentious topic, why (and how) does the teacher want to deal with it in the classroom? Is there a less-objectionable alternative that the teacher is willing to provide alongside the challenged book?

  3. Consider the problem. Ask yourself why you object to (or support) the book. Be able to articulate this and pair it with text evidence. Make your argument about more than just your personal feelings.

The quote from Stephen Chbosky says it best: "Banning books gives us silence when we need speech. It closes our ears when we need to listen. It makes us blind when we need sight." Wrestling with banned books offers an opportunity for important discussion. Making the most of this opportunity - not being afraid of the tension - results in greater understanding.





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