Censoring Empathy: Let’s Challenge Erasure

Recent History of YA Book Debates

Back in 2011, writing for the Wall Street Journal, Meghan Cox Guerdon began a heated debate over whether young adult literature was too dark and explicit. Seen simplistically, YA fiction represented either a bastion against censorship or a destroyer of adolescents, who could otherwise avoid foul language, absent parents, molestation, or suicide.

Today’s Censorship Erases Reality

That debate was a tiff compared to today’s battle over teen books, with book censorship having reached the national stage. While earlier censors may have feared the violence of The Hunger Games, today’s censors want to erase reality. Sexuality, sexual abuse, STDs, race, oppression, and slavery are verboten. Parents can search school library catalogs for words such as ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’ (as one Spotsylvania County parent did), and demand removal of titles they are completely unfamiliar with.

As a former high school teacher librarian, I find this brave new world alarming. Speaking to the Tennessee House of Representatives, country music star John Rich compared school librarians to pedophiles for including “obscene books” in their collections. The state of Virginia encourages informants to call a tip line to report teachers whose materials are “divisive.” Texas, under the supervision of state Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth), chairman of the House General Investigating Committee, has created a list of over 800 suspect books. 

How to Erase Reality

The Washington Post finds the Texas list “anything but painstakingly curated. It’s as if someone typed in the keywords ‘Black,’ ‘racism,’ ‘LGBT,’ ‘gender’ and ‘transgender’ and simply poured the results into a spreadsheet.” I’m guessing “sex” was included in the keywords since Everything You Need to Know about Going to the Gynecologist is on the list. In fact, many Need to Know books are suspect: About Teen Pregnancy, About Teen Motherhood, About Growing Up Male or Female

And yet, the Everything You Need to Know series is widely available in middle and high school libraries. Teacher librarians purchase these titles because they are ‘hi-low.’ Highly informative and engaging, but written at a level that almost all students will comprehend. 

Erasing the “Other”

Book censorship is far more threatening than it was ten years ago because it erases anyone who doesn’t look or think like the censor. Right now many teens who are stigmatized won’t find books validating their experiences. This matters. As the character of C.S. Lewis says in William Nicholson’s “Shadowlands,” “We read to know we are not alone.” Silencing diverse stories segues into an effort to protect teens from uncomfortable narratives. A parent’s objection to the assignment of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” in an AP literature class made me wonder: When should students study difficult subjects? The goal of AP classes, after all, is to earn college credit. 

A Random Look at My Recent Reading

I recently tried a random experiment using two YA novels I’d read this summer, books I recommend to teens. Do they offend the censors? Are they on the suspect book list? They are certainly in school libraries. Teacher librarians seek recommendations from professional review journals such as Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and School Library Journal prior to making purchases. Both books were positively reviewed. (Despite hysterical accusations, there’s little chance of actual obscene materials landing in the collection.) 

The End of Our Story by Meg Haston deals with the break up of a first love. But it also delves into family secrets, domestic violence, teen sexuality and profanity. The End generates lots of discomfort. It also creates empathy, an understanding that anyone may be fighting a secret, difficult battle. 

Published in 2017, The End deals with topics censors now rally against. Yet I didn’t find it on Texas’ list of suspect books. I’m guessing that’s because it can’t be found in a search using the keywords listed above. Significantly, the characters are White.

Kirkus, a well-regarded review journal, called Bitter (2022) by Akwaeke Emezi “A compact, urgent, and divine novel.” The protagonist studies at a school for creatives. Through her artwork, she joins students from a nearby school to protest social injustice. In doing so, she unleashes an avenging angel who causes damage and death.

The characters in Bitter are, generally, Black and queer. Their desire for social justice serves as an entry to discussion about the subject. Bitter also engenders conversation about the role of creatives and their contributions to society, a discussion that is anathema to censors. It would be a great teen book club choice. It’s a recently published prequel to Pet, which is on Texas’ list of suspect books. If the list is updated in the future, I know where Bitter will land.

Why We Need Books that Challenge Us

Access to such novels provides teens the opportunity to develop a trifecta of life skills: compassion, imaginative thinking, and the ability to analyze and evaluate ideas. As Barbara Kingsolver noted, “Fiction has a unique capacity to bring difficult issues to a broad readership . . ., creating empathy in a reader’s heart for the theoretical stranger. Its capacity for invoking moral and social responsibility is enormous.”

A vocal minority can keep marginalized students from books that validate their lives. The same minority can keep all teens from accessing works that empathize with historically underrepresented people. As a parent who raised thoughtful readers, I can’t imagine allowing other parents to make that choice. 

Anti-censorship parent groups are forming, a positive development. Yet, as if it were a meaningful way to fight back, many people have taken to their social media accounts to make two suggestions: take the books that are removed from school libraries and put them in the public library; and build a little box library in your yard and stock it with forbidden books. Neither of these is a good solution.

Many students, particularly those with few resources, can’t get to their public library, which may not be within walking distance of their home. The school library meets its patrons where they’re at. And little yard libraries, while often very cute, quickly become tiny storage facilities for neighborhood book discards. The school library has thousands of books on hundreds of subjects, and is regularly weeded and updated. It also has, importantly, one or more employees who are dedicated to providing service to the school population. If equity matters to you, fight like hell for the school library and its staff.

A Challenge for You

As the school year begins, encourage any teens you know to read widely. To read wildly! Tell them to introduce themselves to their school librarians. Teacher librarians are a great resource for readers’ advisory. They welcome all and relish getting the right book into the right hands at the right time. 


About Victoria Waddle

I'm a high school librarian, formerly an English teacher. I love to read and my mission is to connect people with the right books. To that end, I read widely--from the hi-lo for reluctant high school readers to the literary adult novel for the bibliophile.
This entry was posted in "Banned Book", Controversial Issue/Debate, Fiction, Human Rights Issues, Young Adult Literature and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Censoring Empathy: Let’s Challenge Erasure

  1. Jacqueline Mantz says:

    Thank you for writing this and I want to share it with my students the first week of school. I’ll have them comment.

  2. pambowen says:

    Good article. I, too, am concerned.

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