Book banning: Freedom on trial

If you were to tell my 12-year-old self that I was not allowed to read a book of my choice, I would not have fought you on it, since reading was not as symbolic in my life then as it is today. If you were to tell me now, I would laugh in your face, and then proceed to read it.

Book bans reached an all-time high in 2022 and continue to increase. Books featuring LGBTQ+ themes are currently on the hot seat. (Photo illustration by Elizabeth McCall/Kokopelli)

In 2014, I stood in front of my seventh-grade class to present my first book report, but got a horrified, wide-eyed look from my teacher and laughter from my classmates when I said, “I chose to read ‘Sleeping with the Enemy’ by Nancy Price.” 

I revealed that the book’s plot is about a woman who is in an abusive marriage and fakes her own death to create a new identity just to be able to exist. Even though the woman had mental and physical trauma, she was eventually able to live a life of her own.

The title of the thick, torn book did not stop me from immediately becoming intrigued by the synopsis on the back and the brilliant story that flooded the old, brown pages. It introduced my mind to one of the many horrors of the world that multiple women face, but it also showed me how I could lose myself in a fictional world. 

If this book had been banned from young readers based on its title, I would not be the avid reader I am today. Like many others, having the freedom to read from a young age is how I discovered my voice and identity. Banning this book would have banned my freedom to understand different realities from different perspectives.

While book banning has dominated headlines recently, it is nothing new. Books were banned as early as 1637 as a way to silence unpopular views, or to block sexual, violent content seen as obscene. For years, novels that are essentially seen as classics today have been on the hot seat.

“Having the freedom to read from a young age is how I discovered my voice and identity. Banning this book would have banned my freedom to understand different realities from different perspectives.”

Books like George Orwell’s “1984,” Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” and John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” have all been challenged or banned in schools across the country. People claimed these books pushed violence and certain political views on readers, but as someone who has read all these titles, I feel they are simply more stacks of pages showing different realities from different perspectives, and all are enthralling stories. 

More recently, racism, politics and religion have played a strong role in the reason some either fight for or against book bans. According to PEN America experts, there were 273 instances of books being banned in the U.S. in 2020. That number swelled to 2,532 instances of books being banned between July 2021 and July 2022. These bans affected 1,648 unique book titles. As of last month, 874 titles have been banned so far this year due to their LGBTQ+ themes or for mentioning sexual experiences. 

Classic or new, children’s books and young adult novels can help craft imaginations and personalities. Judy Blume’s work has influenced countless young adults, but because of Blume’s frankness about puberty and sexuality, her name was added to the list. 

Blume’s “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret” was published in 1970, but began to be challenged in 1980 because school officials were uncomfortable when young girls reading it began asking about menstruation and their own developing bodies. Also, parents were not happy that the parents of the 11-year-old main character, Margaret, allowed her to choose her own religion. 

However, these bans did not stop young people from reading Blume’s novel, which has sold over nine million copies worldwide, nor did they prevent this coming-of-age story from making a comeback. Released April 28, 2023, a film adaptation of the 1970 book is now playing in theaters across the country. “We must, we must, we must increase our fuss!” to misquote a famous line from the book. 

One of my favorite childhood books was banned right after its publication in 1963. “Where the Wild Things Are,” by Maurice Sendak, was banned because psychologists, along with parents, felt the storyline was problematic. They believed this book could traumatize children due to the appearance of “supernatural creatures” and the fact the antagonist, Max, is punished by being sent to bed without dinner. 

I understand that parents worry about what their children read because young minds are so impressionable and delicate, but it is also important for parents to eventually let their children have an “open shelf.” 

Diving into the world of reading is an adventure, but the words you read can absorb you and alter your mind. Being a reader is nothing short of fascinating and educating, but proceed with caution. 

Lastly, as a 21-year-old, I can confirm that Sendak’s creation was never a source of trauma for me. It opened a world to which I could escape and be queen alongside King Max. I was too busy to think about dinner. 

Read PEN America’s reports and data on book banning to learn more about this historical and modern phenomenon. 

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this article belong solely to the author, and not necessarily to New Mexico State University, the NMSU Department of Journalism and Media Studies, Kokopelli, or any other organization, committee, group or individual.

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