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Speak Up for the Freedom to Read!

Books Education

Hello, GeekFamily. It’s been a while since I’ve written here. Plague-(two)-year stress has knocked my spoons down, and I haven’t had the brainpower to write an article—even this past summer, when family trips gave me several ideas for articles, the writing wasn’t happening. But now, something has made me angry, and that anger has given me that extra drive.

It’s like I said, plague-year stress is getting to everyone, but it affects different people in different ways. Some people have gotten exhausted. But other people have gotten mean. And mean people make the exhausted people even MORE exhausted. Unfortunately, that means the mean people have gotten away with their meanness more because the exhausted people don’t have the energy to fight back.

I’m here to beg you to fight back, if only by speaking up. Specifically, I want you to speak up for the freedom to read.

I’m making some assumptions here because you’re all geeks. Geeks come in all kinds of political persuasions. My husband and I have extremely different political philosophies, but I wouldn’t have married him if he wasn’t a geek. And geeks love having access to information. That’s just part of the definition. We, as geeks, can all agree on that, regardless of politics. We love to learn, to find out more, and that most likely includes reading.

This is why I know you’ll take my side in this, and we can jump to the next part, which is that I need you to speak up.

There has been a—can I use the term “pandemic” here?—of attempts at book banning across the country in the past few weeks. Several years ago I wrote an article that explained the terminology, procedures, and philosophies about various types of censorship-and-not-actually-censorship. I’m not going to repeat myself, so I encourage you to read that so you truly know what I mean and don’t argue about things I already answered in that other article. As I mentioned in that article, frequently would-be book banners have not even read the book in question: they have heard or seen out-of-context themes/subject matter or even specific passages, and base their crusades on these. So then they approach school and library boards with impassioned pleas about “protecting our children” that sound reasonable or even wise.

EXCEPT that anyone who actually knows about the books in question, or about serving a diverse community of kids, knows this isn’t so. In fact, our children are in much greater danger if we remove the books.

The two most common arguments in this current wave of book ire are that the books are “pornographic” or that they “teach CRT.” Let’s briefly look at each of these in turn, just so we’re all clear on what we’re arguing about.

It would indeed not be right for a school library to include truly pornographic materials. That’s why they don’t. But first, let’s be clear about how muddled the phrase “protect our children” makes these arguments. There’s a vast difference between what’s appropriate for a teenager and what’s appropriate for a kindergartener, and let’s face it, teens ARE interested in at least the topic of sex. It’s not only unrealistic to expect a Young Adult library collection to suggest otherwise, but it’s also dangerous. Library books are a place where teens can actually get safe, accurate information about topics they are probably too embarrassed to ask their parents about. If you take away that resource, they’re going to look for that information online—which is just as likely to find them ACTUAL porn—or from their most-likely-just-as-ignorant friends.

So the presence of sex in teen books is not pornography, just as it’s not pornography in adult books (that are not specifically labeled pornography). But another, unspoken factor, is that “pornography” or “sexually explicit” in book challenges often does not actually refer to explicitness at all, but is a code word for “includes LGBT+ representation.” Look, maybe you truly believe that your kid should not see LGBT+ representation in a positive light, but no one has the right to take that opportunity away from other kids. We don’t (contrary to some people’s beliefs) ban Christmas books because not everyone believes in celebrating Christmas. Taking away everything that doesn’t align with your beliefs is no different. This is why we fight against book banning, even books we disagree with—because who’s to say somebody else doesn’t want to ban something intrinsic to your identity?* More importantly, again, let’s talk actual danger to kids. When LGBT+ kids never see this part of themselves represented, they feel even more isolated and persecuted than they would otherwise. Hiding these things does not keep kids from being gay, it just builds up the feeling of “wrongness” they have about themselves, and that leads to LGBT+ kids having a disproportionate rate of suicide. There’s a reason why The Trevor Project was created to deal with this specific issue! Representation not only matters, but it also saves lives!

That brings us to the second popular complaint in this current wave of book challenges, “teaches CRT.” CRT stands for “Critical Race Theory,” and is a college-level field of study about interracial relations. It actually has nothing to do with children’s books, but people have started using it as shorthand first for “teaching accurate history from all points of view, including things that portray our ancestors in an unsavory light,” which morphs into “teaches kids to be racist against white people” in people’s minds. This makes me, personally, really tetchy, if only because I’ve been devoting most of the past few years of my library career to exactly the thing they find so offensive.

During the shutdown, I started a series of storytime videos explicitly focused on sharing the stories of marginalized voices. The focus is on making everyone’s story heard. Yet somehow people confuse lifting up marginalized voices with being “racist against white people,” as if the very presence of alternate views cancels out the Default view. When I wrote about the importance of amplifying non-Default stories here (while putting together the very booklist that inspired this video storytime), I got comments claiming I was now excluding Default kids, despite my carefully explaining in the article that that was not true.

So let me say it again: you’re not excluding anyone by making an effort to include everyone. The trick to countering Defaultness is by getting specific with identities—someone can be Default in some ways but not in others. The video I’ve been working on this week includes a book by Tomie De Paola, a dead white cis man. He also happened to be gay,** but that’s beside the point because it doesn’t have to do with the book in question. But the book does have to do with his Italian Catholic heritage. “White Christian” is Default. “Italian Catholic” is a specific, NOT-Default voice. See, white people can be Not-Default, too! For this video series, I’ve read books about white kids who are deaf, who live in Norway, who stutter, who are homeschooled. Inclusivity is not anti-white. Assuming that letting kids know the stories of people where the bad guys were white will make them anti-white IS really selling the stories of white people short though. If you can’t see the difference between individual white people and all white people, that’s sad.

But what’s worse is assuming that the stories of non-white people are anti-white by their very existence. I was shocked to see Grace Lin’s A Big Mooncake for Little Star on a list of the books people were trying to ban. This is the most blatantly obvious case of people not having read the book in question: Lin said in this article in School Library Journal that she suspects it made the list because someone saw it on a list of “diversity”-themed books and assumed that meant it was anti-white.

PEOPLE. The only characters are a girl and her mother (who happen to be Chinese) who are baking mooncakes (which also happen to be Chinese). There is absolutely nothing in the least bit controversial about it. Here, let me read the book to you to prove it, in the second half of this video.***  Yes, I used the story in my explicitly anti-racist video series, but only because it was a perfect story to help celebrate the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival.

But I hope this illustrates the nonsense of attempting to ban books just because the characters are different from you. Further, I hope you see the danger of it. Do you really want other people deciding that you can’t read a book because the characters are not like them?

I mean, when I really stretch I can possibly see someone objecting to the fact that, in A Big Mooncake for Little Star, Little Star is disobedient to her mother. But do you realize how many books you would have to ban from the library if that was your justification for banning it? A good percentage. Most of which are about white children. And some of which you probably loved growing up. If you don’t approve of a book, don’t check it out. But don’t take it away from other people.

But as I said, I know I’m preaching to the choir. You’re geeks. You get it. Freedom of information is important. So let’s return to the real point of me writing this.

Fight back. Make your voice heard. Write to your school board, library, and individual teachers to show your support of the books in question, if you don’t have the energy to attend a board meeting in person. Don’t just share a meme on social media where only the people who already agree will see it.

Use your public library, and make an effort to check out books about the widest variety of people.  Make sure the circulation numbers show that those books ARE wanted, so when the Loud Mean Types come in to demand their removal, we’ve got evidence that the books should stay.

For that matter, speak up to local government on behalf of your public library. People who don’t like people to have freedom of information inherently don’t like the entire mission of libraries, and in this economic climate, people are looking for any opportunity to cut programs they feel are extraneous. So make a point to prove that libraries are not extraneous.

Thank you.

By the way, while I was writing this, The Mary Sue put out THIS post on the very same subject—and she’s not even a librarian! So, as another famous (non-white) promoter of multicultural books often put it, you don’t have to take my word for it.

*Here’s where I’m going to nip the counterargument in the bud—in a footnote, so it doesn’t detract from the main point of the article—but a lot of the same people trying to ban books right now are the same people who recently got up in arms about Dr. Seuss being “canceled” because Seuss’s own estate decided to stop publishing six of his many books earlier this year. (I wrote an explanation of the facts behind this on my own social media, and then only weeks later realized that could have been a good GeekMom article—if anyone’s interested, I’ll resurrect it into a proper article for next spring’s Read Across America Day, so let me know). So the potential counterargument goes, “Well, the OTHER side did it with Dr. Seuss and Laura Ingalls Wilder, why shouldn’t we do it, too?” Except they DIDN’T. Those books were not banned. Both Wilder (who isn’t even out-of-print) and the three of the six now-out-of-print Dr. Seuss books our library had are still in our library collection and will remain there for as long as people still want them (see previously linked article on censorship vs. not for an explanation of how library weeding works). The current uproar is specifically a call to take books out of libraries so that no one can have access even if they want access.  See the difference?)

**Suddenly the anti-LGBT+ people who did not know this gasp and wage war against Strega Nona. The children’s minds are being warped by excessive amounts of spaghetti! But I jest because you’ve read this article and you know banning books is bad, right?

***I’m cringing a little at this video in retrospect, but only because my video editing skills have improved MUCHLY over the past year. The STORY is still excellent!

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