A ban on knowledge – how book bans harm adolescents by blocking them from representation

Oluwaseun Adeyemi | Mercury Staff

When your future child is interested in reading about Scout’s adventures in Maycomb, Alabama in the classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” or wants to dive into Huckleberry Finn’s adventures with Jim along the Mississippi River in “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” they might have trouble finding it on their school bookshelves. As a Literature major and a future secondary teacher, book bans directly concern the entirety of what I stand for and what I will teach my future students. To withhold knowledge is to live in the world of Guy Montag in Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and we are well taught by Montag that withholding knowledge only leads to illegal doings and inevitable destruction. 

To ban books is a form of censorship that takes away students’ rights to reading book from public and school libraries, and even buying them from bookstores. These bans target institutions and organizations, preventing them from selling or lending out certain books that children and adolescents might want to read.

According to the LA Times, many activists and politicians object to an entire genre of books that deal with LGBTQ+ topics and other targeted books which deal with race.​​​ The most banned book in the academic year 2022–23 is “Gender Queer: A Memoir,”which lawmakers said contained inappropriate sexual content unsuitable for children and teenagers. To ban books because they are inappropriate is understandable. Some books, such as those that are pornographic novels or have extremely explicit content throughout the entirety of the book, do deserve to get banned. But some book bans are completely random and seem political, with no true good intent in mind. 

For example, some more books that have been banned are “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, which is a memoir about the author’s life as a black queer person that is challenged for being sexually explicit, and “Flamer” by Mike Curato, about a boy trying to accept his sexuality, which is banned because of sexual-leaning content. These books don’t necessarily classify as pornographic or extremely explicit — in fact, they contain no more romantic content than the average book featuring straight characters. If so-called inappropriate sexual representation were really the reason for banning these books, why aren’t more books being banned that feature straight couples?

These political book bans can only harm students. In a world of social media, less and less adolescents pick up books for leisure. According to American Psychological Association, less than 20% of adolescents report reading a book for leisure and more than 80% say they use social media every day. If these adolescents’ school libraries start banning books that are important for students to feel representated, how will they be encouraged to keep reading?

Historical books, even with sensitive content, are crucial for students to learn what has happened in the history of our country. “To Kill a Mockingbird” is a classic book that has been taught for decades; it is a novel that depicts the realities of racism from different perspectives and shows exactly how people responded to it in the 1930s. It shows a white character, Atticus Finch, speaking up for a black character that had been accused of doing wrong. The only things that could be considered inappropriate within the book are harsh depictions of racism and the usage of slurs.

To get around that, schools could start censoring slurs or explicit scenes in new “school editions” while still keep those books on the shelves, and start teaching students why those words cannot be used and are disrespectful. When I was in 8th grade and read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” no one told me that the “N-slur” was a word that could not be used. I never said it or used it, but I look back at it now and question why my teachers never gave me that sort of education about these topics. When I become a teacher, I will make sure my students know how to be respectful and accepting, and I think current teachers should strive to do better with teaching their students as well.

Lack of representation is inevitable in books and other media until laws are passed that finally keep people of color and the LGBTQ+ community in mind. To completely ban books because of these political and cultural changes is to take away students’ rights to learn more about themselves and see themselves represented. Additionally, banning books infringes on authors’ freedom of speech to rightly express themselves and have creative freedom. By taking away these books that these authors have written from students is taking away that knowledge that these writers have put out to be seen.

I’ve noticed that there’s already less — or more tokenized — representation of people of color and the LGBTQ+ community in the media. If schools take away these books that could help students find comfort in seeing themselves in the story, they’re taking away the right for students to expand their minds and condemning them to once again live a life like Montag’s, where knowledge is extremely fundamental yet rare. 

Although students have access to books through many other sources, school libraries are more easily accessible to them. If students cannot find books at their school or public libraries, that might cause them to take routes such as downloading books illegally or pirating, which then affects the publishing economy. We need to do our part to discourage students from engaging in this illegal behavior.

“The Librarian of Burned Books”by Brianna Labuskes has a quote that’s fitting for the times: “Books are a way we leave a mark on the world, aren’t they? They say we were here, we loved and we grieved and we laughed and we made mistakes and we existed. They can be burned halfway across the world, but the words cannot be un-read, the stories cannot be untold. They do live on in this library, but more importantly they are immortalized in anyone who has read them.” 

To take away books is to take away stories that deserve to be read over and over, generation after generation, to immortalize them as classics — and stories that are told again and again. Books do not deserve to be banned, and banning books is fundamentally wrong. Let’s not jump into the world of Montag where books are burned for being books, and instead make ways to alter books to where students can read them without the explicitly inappropriate content.

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