Dear Realist Librarian,
I read your two previous articles about banned books, but I’m still confused. Shouldn’t inappropriate books and subjects be kept away from children until they’re old enough to understand?
Sincerely, Looking Out for the Kids
Dear Looking Out,
In a word, no. No, they should not, because they’re old enough right now. In a few more words…
The majority of fiction and nonfiction books that are currently and soon-to-be banned in the US are on one or more of the following subjects: LGBTQ+ issues, race relations and Black Lives Matter, reproductive rights including abortion, sex education for children and teens including teen pregnancy. I’m going to focus on LGBTQ+ issues for this answer, but the same argument could be made with any of the other subjects.
Let’s talk fiction first. The amount of time the picture book, graphic novel, chapter book, or novel spends discussing the topic is completely irrelevant. Whether the main character is a pregnant transgender teenager with a drug addiction, or an every-day human with a seldom-mentioned family member on the LGBTQ+ spectrum, the book is automatically banned because of the mention of the subject.
The Texas proposal in late 2021—mentioned in previous articles—calls for almost 500 books to be removed from school library shelves on the grounds of LGBTQ+ content (fiction and nonfiction, all age groups). Since you’re worried specifically about children’s books, let’s compare two picture books published in 2018: Neither by Airlie Anderson, and Love is Love by Michael Genhart. Love is Love tells the story of a child bullied because he has two dads. Neither is based in a fantasy world of This and That where you are born an Either or an Or, and Boths and Neithers are frowned upon. The characters in both books learn by the end that love is the most important ingredient in a family. Both books call for diversity, inclusion, and acceptance. These are all widely accepted to be objectively positive things that children should be taught.
So, which book would you pull off the shelf? Probably just Love is Love, right? Because the subtitle, An Important LGBTQ Pride Book for Kids About Gay Parents and Diverse Families, is just too specific for children in the recommended age group of 4-8 years. Neither, also recommended for ages 4-8, has no subtitle and the delightfully simple description, “This colorful, simple, and touching story promotes diversity and offers a valuable lesson to the youngest of audiences: it is our differences that unite us.” If you were the government, deciding à la 1984 what information the public should and shouldn’t consume based on level of appropriateness for children (because that’s what this is all about, right?) which of these books would you remove from every school and public library in the country based on LGBTQ+ content?
Trick question, it’s both. If you’re surprised, you haven’t been paying attention. Neither’s welcome message of including everyone, even if they have a confusing amalgamation of features you’re not used to seeing on one person, has been deemed a metaphor for prejudice and racism, as well as acceptance of the trans and nonbinary community. How dare Airlie Anderson? I mean, seriously, how dare she try to slip acceptance of those people (either group, you pick, I’m being sarcastic anyway) into her sweet story about bunnies and birds and bunny-birds?!
Maybe it’s because being bullied for the way they look is something children ages 4-8 experience every day. Maybe some of those children feel othered for being biracial, being a feminine boy or a masculine girl, or never being sure whether to choose Easter or Passover when they coincide on the calendar in their household with one Christian and one Jewish parent. Maybe children ages 4-8, and even younger, should be given an outlet to discuss these feelings in a way that makes sense to their developing brains. There are countless studies on how fiction helps children understand the world around them. How can we help them do this if we won’t even show an unintroduced family with two mothers going about their day in the background of a picture book illustration?
The story with nonfiction banned books is even worse, but that will have to wait until next time. Until then, explore the wonderful world of banned fiction for yourself and your children. My best recommendation is to do what I’m doing: treat Matt Kraus’ list as a reading recommendation list. He picked out some real diamonds in the rough that deserve to be read and enjoyed.