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They Tried to Ban My Book

By Mark Weakland
 | Feb 18, 2022

Weakland holding bookOn February 1, NBC News reported that Texas parents, having “swarmed school board meetings to call for the removal of library books that deal with race, racism, sex, gender, and sexuality,” were challenging 50 specific books. On the list of 50, second from the top, was one of my children’s books: When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball (Picture Window Books).

The book, a biography for young readers wonderfully illustrated by Daniel Duncan, recounts the early life of Wilma Rudolph, a Black woman who as a girl overcame poverty, great physical difficulties, and racism to bring Olympic glory to her country. What possible reason would merit its banning? According to NBC, a parent said my book was “opining prejudice based on race.” This, however, is not correct. My biography gives facts, not opinions. In other words, it tells truths, specifically that many White people in the United States acted with prejudice, sometimes extreme, against other people solely because of their skin color.

Other books on the list

Wilma was just one of many books with facts that some wanted removed. Also on the list was All American Boys (Atheneum), Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s story of a Black child killed by police, and White Bird (Knopf Books for Young Readers), R.J. Palacio’s a book about a Jewish teen living in France after the Nazis seized power. What were the objections to these books? White children might “feel ashamed based on the color of their skin,” said one parent. The book is “biased,” said another.

It’s not just happening in Texas. Legislators, concerned parents, and school board members in several states are challenging and banning books. We saw it most recently in Tennessee, where the Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel Maus from Art Spiegelman (Pantheon) was excised from a Holocaust unit. And some efforts go beyond simply removing books and extend to trying to bring criminal charges against school librarians.

ILA Stands Against Censorship

ILA believes that every student should have access to books that reflect their own stories and lives as well as the lives of others. In December 2021, ILA was one of 80 signatories that joined the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC)  in condemning the coordinated political attack on books in schools playing out across the United States.

 

One might assume that censorship is the hallmark of a single political alignment, but it’s not. The Mukilteo School District in western Washington removed To Kill a Mockingbird (HarperCollins) from the ninth-grade curriculum. Why? Staff members said the book “marginalized characters of color, celebrated ‘white saviorhood,’ and used racial slurs dozens of times without addressing their derogatory nature.” I found this ironic, considering the school environment is the perfect place for students to not only engage in critical discussions about how and why people become marginalized but also to learn the history and context of a novel, especially one that was written decades ago.

An authoritarian control of information

In the midst of a global pandemic and an escalating worldwide climate emergency, is book banning really worthy of our attention? The answer is yes and here’s why. I have a best friend in the Czech Republic whose grandfather was a teacher. In the early 1950s, after the country had fallen to the Soviet Union and Stalinism was firmly in place, my friend’s grandfather was one of many teachers removed from the classroom and made to work in the coal mines. Control of information, and ultimately control of the state message, was the goal. This is how authoritarian states operate to this day, from North Korea to Russia to China.

In modern day America, educators and education have been dragged to the front line of our unfortunate culture wars, from mask wearing to book selection, because ways to “win a war” include limiting information, spreading disinformation, and reducing opportunities to become educated. As George Orwell’s 1984 (Penguin) ironically reminds us, “ignorance is strength.” Thus, people who want to dominate others work to limit empowering information housed in public libraries and public schools. The group No Left Turn in Education says high schoolers shouldn’t be allowed to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (HarperCollins) and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Knopf Doubleday) because the books “spread radical and racist ideologies.” But false labels aside, perceived radical ideologies are worthy of consideration because (a) they illuminate the entire landscape of thought, not just the parts someone else wants us to see, and (b) they might actually be saving graces, as in the radical messages “love your enemy” and “turn the other cheek.”

Concerns should not lead to censorship

I do want to acknowledge that some parents frame their concerns in terms of parental rights, saying they should be able to direct how their children are brought up. Others object to the sexual activity and profanity in certain books. I get it and am sympathetic to both positions. I remember reading Push by Sapphire (Vintage), which was on a nearby high school’s summer reading list, and I thought its sexually explicit language was inappropriate for a school setting. And after taking a writer’s course from children’s book author K.L. Going and then reading her 2003 novel Fat Kid Rules the World (Penguin), I was shocked. I’m just not a fan of books that drop the F-bomb like that.

But feelings of concern are very different from actions of censorship, and we can’t treat public schooling like homeschooling. Removing books from public libraries denies the rights of parents who want their children to be able to access all books, and it limits the ability of students who want to experience many viewpoints. Also, when information is erased, there can be no fully realized discourse. Finally, many libraries have mechanisms in place, from stickers to databases, to stop any given student from checking out a book their parents don’t want them to read.

At the end of it all, I am grateful that parents tried to ban my book. It brought home to this privileged older White guy an issue that existed on the edges of my life, even though I’ve been a book lover since I was a kid and a politically and socially aware teacher most of my life. We need to push back on book banning because it stresses teachers, weakens the educational system, allows the few to limit the freedoms of the many, and inches us toward authoritarianism. Civil debate, open-hearted discussion, and carefully considered guardrails that promote freedom of choice while honoring a parent’s concerns are the ways forward.

 

Mark Weakland is an author, consultant, teacher, and musician. He is the creator of teacher resource books, award-winning music projects, and almost 80 books for children, including When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball (Picture Window Books).

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