Attempts to ban books on the rise in New Jersey schools

In revisiting The Bluest Eye last year following author Toni Morrison’s passing, writer Hilton Als explored in The New Yorker what reading the book, which explores race, identity, beauty, class, love and sexuality, meant to him as a young person. Als wrote, in part:

“When you’re a kid, a black- or brown- or yellow- or red-skinned kid, most of the time you don’t start the morning thinking about how racism will ruin your day. What you want to know is who will love you, and what surprises that love will bring you that day. It’s the world that brings hate to your front door, and it’s hate that makes you hide who you are. As a kid, I responded viscerally to The Bluest Eye, for a number of reasons, starting with the book jacket. Morrison, in the photograph on the back cover, looked like the kind of person my family might have known, and if she was one of us that meant that one of my four beautiful older sisters could, perhaps, write a book, too.”

What a gift. It’s why the book is commonly read in New Jersey high school literature classes. But it’s also one of the most frequently challenged books in the country—that is, parents think it’s too explicit for high school students—with the latest challenge coming in New Jersey. In fact, it’s one of several books that have been challenged in the state this year alone, many of which deal with race, and gender and sexual identity.

In Wayne, community members challenged Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer at a recent board meeting. The book addresses the author’s own journey understanding their identity, and the School Library Journal recommends it for students in grades 9 and up, calling it a “great resource for those who identify as nonbinary or asexual as well as for those who know someone who identifies that way and wish to better understand.” 

The complaints: That the book is too graphic and mature for high school students.

In the North Hunterdon-Voorhees School District, community members asked the school board to remove Gender Queer and Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy, a coming-of-age young-adult novel about a 20-something Mexican-American man. The complaints revolved around the depictions of sexual situations. Both books were challenged in Fairfax, Virginia earlier this year, with the school board declining to remove the books from libraries. 

Parents in North Hunterdon-Voorhees previously tried (unsuccessfully) to ban Alison Bechdel’s excellent graphic novel Fun Home, which also deals with finding one’s identity.

And in Westfield, parents read excerpts from The Bluest Eye at a board meeting in which they asked for it to be removed from a class reading list, claiming its depictions of rape and incest were inappropriate for high school students.

These episodes tie into a broader, national debate about what books should be allowed in schools, and what agency concerned parents have to remove books from curricula or library shelves. 

On one hand, it’s reasonable for parents to want to protect their children from pornography or triggering material. On the other, books—and excerpts of books—don’t exist in a vacuum, and the merits of the books mentioned above, in the right context, serve great value to students as they grow into adults.

Many of these challenged backs are particularly resonant for those in marginalized communities, as they feature characters with whom they might identify. (Though, of course, matching identity and life circumstances are not requisites for reading The Bluest Eye and gaining massively from it, for instance.)

In its handbook for educators, “Responding to Book Challenges,” the National Coalition Against Censorship, puts a fine point on how often-challenged books can reach those in certain groups: “The targets of censorship are often the narratives of underrepresented groups. Censoring those narratives leaves ignorance and prejudice unchallenged. This, in turn, can reinforce feelings of isolation, marginalization and shame among the students from those groups, while denying other students the opportunity to learn about the experience of those who are different from them.”

The ALA’s most challenged books in 2020 include Alex Gino’s George (LGBTQ), Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, The Bluest Eye and others due to their incitement of potential “anti-police views.” Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak appears on the list, which people claim is biased against male students.

But just as we entrust school cafeteria workers to prepare food safely, and school nurses to provide responsible medical care, and administrators to ensure safety, we also entrust librarians and curriculum designers to provide the necessary context to understand books that deal with sensitive issues—because teenagers deal with sensitive issues, and their friends and siblings and parents do, too. Offering a wide array of literature creates one more avenue to help kids who are navigating those sensitive issues, while cultivating empathy and understanding for those who haven’t. 

The pushback from the NJ Association of School Librarians, recognizing the uptick in book challenges, came recently in a statement that supports school librarians who resist the pressure to ban books. The statement reads, in part: “Censorship denies free access to information and stifles intellectual freedom.

“School Librarians are committed to upholding the highest standards in providing information and resources,” it continues. “We firmly believe that it is our responsibility to provide equitable access to diverse and inclusive material that is representative of social and racial justice, the pursuit of truth and opposes efforts to suppress world views. School library media specialists are committed to curating material that reflect multiple viewpoints.”

The ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom has tracked 155 attempts to ban books (and provided support in 120 of those cases) this year alone. 

“We’re seeing an unprecedented volume of challenges in the fall of 2021,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, OIF director. “In my 20 years with ALA, I can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis.”

The ALA pushed back on claims that books are “subversive” or “immoral” by saying they’re a smoke screen that prevents intellectual growth.

“In recent months, a few organizations have advanced the proposition that the voices of the marginalized have no place on library shelves. To this end, they have launched campaigns demanding the censorship of books and resources that mirror the lives of those who are gay, queer, or transgender or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color. Falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral, or worse, these groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections.”

Too, if subjective arguments about a book’s value and level of appropriateness lead to removal of certain books from school libraries and curricula, it could create a slippery slope of censorship that robs students of the ability to grow from literature. Books that are now seminal reading in public schools (Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men) modern classics (The Kite Runner, Persepolis) and even goofy kids’ books that might inspire a love of reading (Captain Underpants) have all appeared on the ALA’s most challenged books list. Allen Ginsburg’s Howl and Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass—two NJ authors—were challenged upon their publications. Do students gain anything from missing out the chance for a guided, contextualized reading of those books?

To be clear, there is a line books can cross that would prevent them from appearing in schools. Many (many) books don’t make the cut. School libraries follow guidelines to determine what books meet standards for potential inclusion; for instance, books must “support and enrich the curriculum and/or students’ personal interests and learning,” “meet high standards in literary, artistic, and aesthetic quality; technical aspects; and physical format,” and “be appropriate for the subject area and for the age, emotional development, ability level, learning styles, and social, emotional, and intellectual development of the students for whom the materials are selected.”

Now, in some districts, as in North Hunterdon-Voorhees, control of resources is given to school administrators, which was determined after the aforementioned Fun Home debate. But stripping librarians of their duty to qualify books, and placing it in the hand of one administrator, is folly. Writes the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund: “​​Regardless of the Superintendent’s qualifications, it doesn’t benefit the students or the faculty to have one person solely responsible for instructional materials, even the fairest person in the world has subconscious biases. Collection and curriculum development benefit from many people, with a variety of life experience, being involved to make sure that no one narrative is prized above any other. It is difficult to know what we don’t know, so policies must prioritize collaborative networks to ensure that instructional materials are a fair representation of the world we actually live in.” 

So, as more books (or the same) get contested at board meetings, the question facing board members and school administrators is: Should determining what books meet standards for inclusion include parents and members of the community? 

In theory, sure. But, should a few, loud critics of certain books (without irony, given that what kids hear on headsets in a video game is eighteen million times worse, and infinitely less useful than any one word Toni Morrison ever wrote) be able to remove books from shelves? 

Regardless of our own individual answer to the question, each NJ school district will have to answer that for themselves.