Banned Books: Exploring the power of prohibited words and ideas

Illustration by Sydney Smith

In a country where diverse voices and stories are more important than ever, considering the implications of book banning is essential. Although book bans may seem like a relic of the past, they didn’t end with the Red Scare or the Holocaust. Prohibitions on certain books based on content often restricts communities from freely exchanging ideas and stifles intellectual and creative expression. 

A historical overview of book bans

The history of banned books is a complex and longstanding one, dating back to ancient times. The banning of books has occurred for various reasons, including political, religious, moral and social concerns.

Chelsea Major, the owner of The Lit Room and founder of the Boise Banned Book Club addressed how book bans have taken place throughout history.

“We’ve historically seen books banned, generally in relation to what’s going on politically,” Major said. “You generally see a narrative around control in the media, about what people can learn about, what people can discuss. That’s been done consistently throughout time.”

Book bans can be found throughout history, taking place as far back as the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and colonial America, and this literary censorship is still very prevalent in the world today. 

The practice of banning books can be traced back to ancient times. For instance, in ancient China, the emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered the burning of books that were deemed subversive or critical of his rule in the 3rd century BCE. Similarly, in ancient Rome, certain texts were banned, and the Catholic Church later followed suit by placing restrictions on certain books.

This type of book banning continued into the 20th century, with bans on literature being heavily present in many cultures. Governments and organizations increasingly targeted books they considered subversive, offensive or dangerous. 

Throughout history, book burning has been a common method of censoring books. The most infamous example of this was the Nazi book burnings in 1933, where thousands of books considered “un-German” were burned in public displays of censorship.

The risks that book bans pose

As book bans remain in our culture today, it is important to consider why they are so harmful to society. Major addressed this, saying, “Never in history has book banning been a positive thing, it has never indicated a positive change in society. It is usually representative of backlash from progress and from movement.”

There are a wide variety of dangers that book bans present, and they affect society as a whole by limiting what they can learn about and what perspectives they can understand. 

Banning books can be seen as a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression. It raises concerns about government overreach and censorship, potentially setting a dangerous precedent for further restrictions on speech and information.

These bans can easily result in ignorance and the denial of reality. For example, censoring books that discuss important social issues can prevent people from understanding and addressing those issues effectively.

Major discussed the topics of books that are being banned across the country.

“You’re seeing books pulled off the shelves and people not having access to books about representation,” Major said. “What we’re seeing across the United States is that the stories often center around people of color, people from other perspectives like the LGBTQ+ community, and things that maybe not every group agrees with. That doesn’t mean we should be taking away those books.” 

Banned books often include works by authors from marginalized or underrepresented groups. The censorship of these voices can perpetuate systemic inequalities and discrimination by limiting the reach of their narratives and perspectives.

In addition, these bans strengthen taboos around topics that need to be discussed. Banning books that address sensitive or controversial topics discourages open discussions. This can make it difficult for society to address pressing issues such as racism, sexuality or mental health. 

Book bans often take place in public libraries, which deeply impacts people who may not be able to afford to purchase the books they want to read. When so many people depend on libraries for the stories they consume, maintaining diversity and telling a variety of stories is critical. 

Major pointed this out, saying, “Not everybody can come to a bookstore, not everybody has access to that, especially when you’re younger.”

Book bans in Boise

This is an active issue in Boise, and in 2023, all copies of the following books were removed from the Ada Community Library System: “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison, “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M Johnson, “Out Of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez, “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson.

Book bans are incredibly prevalent in today’s society in education systems, specifically in school libraries. Some parents feel that banning books is necessary to protect their children from certain topics that they feel their children should not be exposed to. While protecting children from inappropriate content is important, much of the book banning that takes place is in fact detrimental to young readers. 

Kurt Zwolfer, the executive director of The Cabin, discussed the implications of book bans in Boise. 

“The Cabin staff and board always believe that parents should have a say in the age-appropriateness and content of what their children are reading,” Zwolfer said. “It should be the job of parents to make those choices in their homes, and it should be the job of teachers and librarians to make those choices in public libraries and classrooms. This is all an access issue more than anything else. By demanding the removal of books from public spaces, parents who want reading restrictions in their own homes are making decisions for all students in the community.”

Pen America states that, “Hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric about ‘porn in schools’ and ‘sexually explicit,’ ‘harmful,’ and ‘age inappropriate’ materials led to the removal of thousands of books covering a range of topics and themes for young audiences. Overwhelmingly, book bans target books on race or racism or featuring characters of color, as well as books with LGBTQ+ characters.” The organization reported 3,362 instances of book banning from 2022-2023, including 25 in Idaho.

Kallie King, the marketing director at Rediscovered Books, discussed reasons why books are banned and how it inhibits learning. .

“It’s been really challenging because a lot of the books that have been banned are simply banned because they have diverse characters or diverse stories,” King said. “Because they are not on the shelf in the library, many kids won’t see them. A lot of children only have access to books when they go to the library, so they will not be exposed to a lot of the diversity that exists in our culture and that they should be able to learn about.”

Controversial Idaho House Bill 314, passed in March 2023, “Amends and adds to existing law to prohibit certain materials from being promoted, given, or made available to a minor by a school or public library and to provide a cause of action.” This recent bill has sparked intense debate in Idaho about how book bans affect children. 

Cathryn Oakley from the Human Rights Campaign responded to the passing of this bill.

“Government should never be in the business of deciding what we can read, see, or hear,” Oakley said. “This bill is a despicable attempt to silence LGBTQ+ stories and further isolate LGBTQ+ kids who should feel safe and welcome whether they’re going to school or checking out books from their public library. Idaho deserves better.”

A wide variety of books have been banned in Idaho schools, including “The Kite Runner”, “The Giver” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”. These stories -– and many others that have been banned -– make important commentary on society and tell stories from a variety of perspectives. 

Access to diverse literature, especially for children, is critical for a society to have empathy and an understanding of the people around them. Mary Aagard, the head of acquisitions and collections for Albertsons Library discussed this. 

“Access to diverse literature is really important, it’s how we learn about the human condition,” Aagard said. “We learn about emotions, about people, about time periods, about countries or orientations that we would never be able to experience in our own lifetime. Fiction gives us a portal to those worlds. Promoting and encouraging diversity is a way to understand who people are.”

There is hope for the future of diverse literature, and individuals can work to promote a more inclusive and open approach to literature.

“The biggest thing people can do is talk about what’s going on and support the legislators that are going to make sure everybody can read freely and have access to the books they want to read,” King said. “It’s going to take a huge community effort and awareness to do that.”

Zwolfer talked about how people can be active in their community to stop book bans. 

“One of the things people need to do more than anything else is to think locally,” Zwolfer said. “A lot of these decisions are made on library and school boards. If citizens are concerned about the right to read freely, they need to be active in local elections.”

Another way people can take action is by seeking out books that have been banned, reading them and facilitating conversations about them. Today’s world is populated by people from all backgrounds, and everyone should be able to be represented in the available literature. When communities are able to hear stories from and about a diverse collection of people, they are pushed to understand perspectives other than their own and to be as empathetic to others as possible. 

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Kendra-lee

    Thank you so much for this article, I found it so helpful for a school project.

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