How we determine which books should be required reading and which should be available to children in school libraries is complicated and a matter of dispute—and sensible local control. By reducing that dispute to name-calling and bombastic edicts, the library association and PEN are doing more damage to the intellectual freedom and educational development of children than any parent group is.
In a country that protects and praises personal liberty, few charges are more loaded than to call people censors or “book banners.”
Those are fighting words.
Unfortunately, the American Library Association and PEN America, an advocacy group for literary authors, are casually hurling that accusation against school leaders and parent organizations across the country without any concern for whether the charges are reasonable or factually accurate.
The library association and PEN think they can slander others as “book banners” to bully them into acquiescing to their organizations’ preferences, rather than engaging in democratic debate or policy discussions about what books should be required of students and made available to children in school libraries.
There are many places around the world in which large numbers of books are truly banned. In Iran, for example, hundreds of books are legally prohibited, including classic works of literature and philosophy. As the Los Angeles Times describes these bans, “Those who publish, sell or distribute banned books face arrest and imprisonment if caught.”
No one involved in the debate over which books should be required in school curriculums or available in school libraries is advocating banning books, since no one is suggesting that the producers, distributors, or owners of books be arrested or punished.
Rather, the earnest and essential debate is about which books are appropriate for children of different ages; which works have enduring cultural or educational value; and the process by which those decisions should be made in tens of thousands of diverse U.S. schools and districts, which operate under state and local control.
The library association and PEN think that classroom teachers and school librarians should make these decisions unilaterally and unaccountably while parent groups simply want greater public oversight and parental input into these decisions as law and tradition have long allowed and generally encourage.
If we adopt the expansive view of book banning as not having a work physically present in a school library, then we are all book banners.
One hopes that even the American Library Association and PEN would agree that Hustler magazine would not be an appropriate periodical to circulate to children. Neither is the decision by most schools not to carry Donald Trump’s “The Art of the Deal” necessarily evidence of book banning.