Removing books from library shelves is not what America is supposed to be about.
Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are two of our country’s core ideals. Writers are free to express themselves as they so desire. Readers are free to read a book, or not.
Yet every year, we read or hear the news that parents or citizens somewhere — earlier this week, in west suburban Downers Grove — are clamoring to have a book they deem offensive taken off the shelves of their child’s school library or their local public library.
It happens scores of times every year, when words or stories make people uncomfortable and America’s “culture wars” flare up. The American Library Association publishes an annual list of the top 10 “Most Challenged Books” — those most likely to be condemned and targeted for removal. In 2020, 273 books were targeted and among the top 10 were three acknowledged literary classics: John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”
In case readers are not aware: Morrison and Steinbeck both won the Nobel Prize for literature. “To Kill a Mockingbird” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1961.
Not mandatory reading
On Monday, as the Sun-Times’ Nader Issa reported, the issue flared up in Downers Grove when about 200 people packed a school auditorium to demand that the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir” be removed from the libraries at Downers Grove North and Downers Grove South high schools. According to protesters, the book exposes children to “homoerotic” or “pornographic” content.
The book is the story of author Maia Kobabe’s journey of gender identity and sexuality as a teenager and young adult. A few pages include illustrations of sex acts, but the book’s publisher says it is appropriate for high school-aged students.
“Gender Queer: A Memoir” has come under fire elsewhere too. Virginia’s largest school district removed it from its high school libraries earlier this fall while it considers parents’ concerns. A Florida district banned it altogether. Schools in New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington have had the book challenged. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster told the state’s education department to investigate the book, which he considers “sexually explicit” and “pornographic.”
It’s worth noting that “Gender Queer” is not mandatory reading at either Downers Grove high school. In fact, there’s only one copy available for students to check out at each school’s library at Downers North and Downers South high schools.
Lauren Pierret, a senior at Downers Grove North, said at the meeting that she didn’t even know “Gender Queer” existed until last week.
“This isn’t being forced upon your kids,” Pierret said, “but it gives kids who would be interested in this story a choice to read it.”
Trying to ban 850 books
It is not the job of this editorial board to judge whether a book is too sexually explicit, profane, violent or otherwise unfit for a child, teenager or another adult to read.
Nor is it the job of conservative culture warriors — or anyone else.
Some of the past attacks on “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it should be noted, came from people who were bothered by racial stereotypes and slurs they said would have a negative impact on students, according to the ALA.
Good literature can sometimes make us uncomfortable, for any number of reasons. Censorship is never the right response.
Besides, once it starts, where does it end?
Consider the case of Texas Rep. Matt Krause, who is running for attorney general in his state and made headlines when he compiled a list of about 850 books that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex,” as the Texas Tribune first reported. Most of the books on his list were written by women, people of color and LGBTQ authors.
We’ve got to ask: Did Krause bother to read all 850 books? Or is his list just for political theater?
Books in our schools and libraries must be protected. Even when we don’t approve of them.
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