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Shattered Mirrors, Dirty Windows, Locked Doors: How banning books affect kids

Thanks so much to each of you who offered feedback on last week's blog post. Grounding ourselves in the basics of the book-banning issue allows us to communicate on a level playing field. For those of you just joining the conversation today, check out Post 1 and Post 2. Inspired by local debate in my home school district, I want to explore this issue as a way to promote better awareness and understanding. As I learn more, my opinions on the topic continue to evolve - I hope the same is true for you.

As we talked about last week, most challenges to books come from some kind of outside organization, like a parent, religious, or advocacy group. Often, the challenges stem out of a desire to protect kids from concepts the individual or group finds offensive. (For a list of the most common reasons, click here.) The problem is, inherent in requests like this is an attitude that says, "My views are the only views that matter, and what is good for me should be good for everyone else." Topics that clash with personal beliefs become positioned as a threat or danger, but just for some, not necessarily for all.

And yet, it is that "clash" that can offer opportunity for growth. Now, before we go any farther, let me just say that in my own personal evolution on this topic, I am in favor of a vetting system that determines the age-appropriateness of a book as well as its educational value. In my opinion, this process should include multiple and diverse voices. So I'm not advocating for a free-for-all when it comes to text selection, but rather a process where many voices thoughtfully consider the merits of a given book.

So back to growth...much research and exploration has gone into the ways that books influence and affect kids. In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop gave the keynote address at a California reading conference. (Take a minute to read the address in its entirety right here. It starts on page 11). As many educators know, Dr. Sims Bishop become known as the "mother of multicultural literature" as a result of her work and this speech. Dr. Sims Bishop likened diverse books to a mirror or a window - a window to look through or a window to climb through. Ground-breaking at the time, her clear-cut analogy sounded the call for more inclusion of diverse texts and laid the foundation for the importance of diverse literary offerings.


Any one who reads knows that one of the best things about books is when we see ourselves in one. As a kid, I loved books with spunky heroines who were smart, awkward, and showed a measure of courage. The Paper Bag Princess, Anne Shirley, Ramona Quimby, and Laura Ingalls reflected traits I possessed, from a fiery temper to the desire for a close family. I still gravitate toward gutsy girls in my book choices: Katniss Everdeen, Hermione Granger, and Enola Holmes represent some recent favorites. No matter our age or genre preference, we naturally seek out books in which we see ourselves. It gives us a sense of place and value.

Now imagine NEVER seeing yourself in a book. Or imagine what it feels like to only see yourself in books as a victim, a criminal, or as comic relief. How does this relate to banned books? According to the American Library Association (ALA), in 2014, 80% of all banned books represented "diverse content" meaning that they had LGBTQ, characters of color, or disabled characters and/or dealt with the issues of racism, mental illness, or religion. On the ALA's 2020 Top 10 Banned Books list, 90% of the books had "diverse content." Banning books featuring diverse and inclusive characters and subject matter disproportionately affects marginalized sub-cultures in our society.

Access to books about different culture groups - the kind of access that banning a book denies - is important. Dr. Sims Bishop notes, "They [books] give subtle messages about who and what we value in society. When children cannot find themselves in books, or when they see themselves presented as only laughable stereotypes, they learn a powerful lesson about how much they are undervalued in the society in which they are a part." (13)


Books also function as window through which we look at and observe other people, places, times, and attitudes. The safety of being behind the glass, so to speak, offers security through which to explore with limited risk. Interacting with a book in this ways provides two benefits. First, as Dr. Sims Bishop explains, "Students from dominant social groups needs to be able to look through the window of books to come to know people whose cultures are different from their own." (15) Instead of difference being a threat, through books, it's an opportunity to examine, an invitation to come close and see. It might be that up-close-and-personal view that some fear. Yet, this is what builds empathy in children (and adults). It's much easier to stereotype a person with whom you have no direct, personal contact.

Books as windows also help keep an over-inflated sense of superiority in check. Dr. Sims Bishop explains, "If they [students] only see reflections of themselves, they will grow up with an exaggerated view of their importance and value in the world - a dangerous ethnocentrism." (15) In homogenous communities, this aspect of diverse books becomes even more important. Books reinforce our social values, things like courage, honesty, love, and redemption. They connect us to one another, showing us that we each have a unique story to tell, something to offer up into the world. Through books, we begin to "know" - to see both the distinctiveness and universality of our human experience.

In Dr. Sims Bishop's estimation, books can also open up to let the reader into a new world. Fully engaging the imagination, readers of all kinds "enter" into worlds that exist only on paper. Interacting in this tangible way sparks critical thinking, facilitates real-world connections, and develops a deep sense of empathy. Here is where we laugh out loud at a character's antics, get mad at a bad decision or plot twist, or cry at the heroine's tragic demise. This is the place where real learning happens, the place where the most sophisticated comprehension occurs. It's the space where every teacher wants her student to do. It's authentic learning.

When Mirrors are Shattered

Banning books severely, unfairly limits access to stories, specifically (as data shows) those that represent diverse and inclusive characters or issues connected to them. Those challenging and banning books misinterpret "different" to mean "dangerous." A blanket restriction on a book for everyone means that other readers get marginalized instead of protected, devalued instead of encouraged, and sheltered instead of guided.

In his 2016 article from The Atlantic entitled, "How Banning Books Marginalizes Children" Paul Ringel summarizes the topic, writing, "[Giving kids choices when it comes to books] doesn’t mean providing them with unfettered access to everything on the library shelves. Instead, it means that librarians, teachers, and parents curate children’s choices with the goals of inspiring rather than obscuring new ideas. Such an approach allows kids to learn how to navigate imaginary worlds filled with differences, with the faith that they will apply those lessons to their own lives."





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