Book bans have no place in Illinois

Books open our minds and are a powerful tool against bigotry, misunderstanding and “other-ism,” state Sen. Mike Simmons writes. Yet more than 1,600 book titles have been banned across the country. A bill would prohibit book bans in Illinois.

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A bill sponsored by state Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, would prohibit books bans in Illinois.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Mike Simmons, D-Chicago, would prohibit books bans in Illinois.

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Books opened doors and changed the course of my life. Every person, but especially every child, has the right to free and robust access to books, just as I did. Reading with comprehension is a crucial developmental milestone, and books broaden perspectives, exercise minds, challenge biases and prejudices, and provide the important opportunity to process information independently.

As chair of the Illinois Senate Human Rights Committee, I proudly sponsored a bill that would outlaw book banning in our state, which passed the Senate recently. The proposal would explicitly protect the kind of books that have been under attack in our schools and libraries — books that explore race and ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual health and reproductive health, religion and faith background, biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs about rights and activism.

The attacks on books today are unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime. Book-banning now is not about the book. It is intentional and willful discrimination, erasing people and their identities from our society. Six states have proposed legislation to ban books. Florida specifically has enacted a notorious “Don’t Say Gay’’ bill, which prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels.”

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Make no mistake, banning books is about more than removing literature from public institutions or “protecting” vulnerable minds. It is about forcibly denying people access to information and knowledge. It is about dividing us in a culture war, rather than empowering us.

According to PEN America, more than 1,600 book titles have been banned across the country. Nearly a third explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes/characters; nearly 700 contain protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color; more than one out of five directly address issues of race and racism; more than 350 contain some level of description of teen sexual experiences, stories about teen pregnancy, sexual assault and abortion, or are informational books about puberty, sex or relationships; 161 have themes related to rights and activism; 141 are either biography, autobiography or memoir; and 64 include characters and stories about religious minorities, such as Jewish, Muslim and other faith traditions.

All of these fall into categories protected in my legislation.

Books are a lifeline for young people

Banning books directly harms people for whom books can be a last lifeline. As a Black, LGBTQ+ youth in the late 1990s, I can’t imagine not having had access to authors who lived decades before I did and who walked a similar path — queer, Black authors like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. I can’t imagine a young person today who is suddenly told that Angie Thomas, author of “The Hate You Give,” is banned for writing a book that gave me a new vocabulary, as an adult, for many of the experiences youth of color grapple with as they navigate overwhelmingly white spaces while remaining in touch with their own identities, often while carrying the weight of trauma.

Book banning can be detrimental to youth mental health, depriving young adults of an outlet that would help them navigate a society that rarely affirms who they are or where they come from, or provides context for the society they live in. That is pointedly cruel; it is an assault on the mind.

My mom, Ramona, raised me right here in my Senate district on the North Side, which is one of the most ethnically, culturally and socially diverse districts in the nation. She showed me how to embrace other people and cultures and to have an open mind. She had friends from all walks of life who brought a steady stream of ideas into our modest Lincoln Square apartment and into her colorful salon in Rogers Park.

And as the son of an Ethiopian refugee, I can wholeheartedly say that access to information — to competing points of view — is one of the sweetest privileges of America, one I deeply value and appreciate.

That’s why I wanted to make sure book banning is prohibited in Illinois. Now, we can ensure that future generations in this state can know the power of their own, and other people’s, heritage and culture.

Equitable and free access to books — ALL books — is one of our greatest tools in combating misunderstanding, bigotry and “other-ism” in a peaceful and powerful way. That is one of the greatest gifts that books gave to me, and it is what all residents of this state deserve.

State Sen. Mike Simmons represents the 7th District in Chicago.

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