The <i>Flight of the Puffin,</i> by Brattleboro author Ann Braden, was recently the target of an anti-diversity controversy library board in Sterling, Kansas.
Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo; (inset)
The <i>Flight of the Puffin,</i> by Brattleboro author Ann Braden, was recently the target of an anti-diversity controversy library board in Sterling, Kansas.

A book ban backlash

Far-right attempts to ban books for youth in schools and libraries have unleashed a serious revival in the importance of books and reading

GUILFORD — About 15 years ago, many of us bookstore owners wondered if we were still relevant. The behemoth Amazon was attempting to recreate the destruction of the record shop.

Some independent booksellers even closed preemptively. Some stores actually joined in the e-book "revolution," trying to sell an alternative to the big bully's product, but Amazon retained a firm grip on e-books.

I made up my mind early: we would not be a digital portal. We would be there for our community as a physical space with real books, or we would not continue to exist.

But a funny thing happened.

In the face of the massive, hugely financed tech industry, readers fought back, refusing to take the bait and eliminate paper books from their lives. People continue to want to read beautiful picture books to their kids in bed at night.

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So now it is 2023, and we are dealing with a totally different - and, to most of us, thoroughly unexpected - role for books.

Everyone in the independent bookstore community has had occasional deep concerns that youth are not reading books, not thinking that books are relevant in their otherwise-digital lives.

Thanks to the Hitler-loving Moms for Liberty, we are seeing a true renaissance in how books are perceived. When this well-funded group of far-right Christians began pressing for bans of books under the pretext that they were just moms looking out for their kids' rights in school, they unleashed a serious revival in the importance of reading.

Like so much of the far-right culture wars, their activism is a double-edged sword.

Youth in most Southern states and some Rocky Mountain states have had their possible reading options seriously limited. We have all seen photos of empty library shelves in Florida. In a high school English class, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and so many other writers of both classic and contemporary books are now prohibited.

Many of the banned books were written specifically to help young people who do not identify as white, Christian, or heterosexual, who are dealing with differences in learning, in ethnic background, in religion, in sexual orientation, in physical abilities. Books can help kids learn that kids live with a parent in prison, or with two dads, or with autism. They can help kids learn how to build healthy relationships.

* * *

These books are all being erased by these white supremacists.

Last year, Florida's Department of Education, following the lead of their governor, Ron DeSantis, a Republican presidential candidate, banned 54 math textbooks that included such concepts as SEL (social-emotional learning).

One banned textbook had cute little drawings encouraging kids who were nervous about math. In Florida, math textbooks are to teach only math, and for those many kids with math anxiety - well, tough. (And let's also keep the students guessing about why their cities are getting hotter, dryer, and more prone to fire.)

Some of the books the right have attacked are expected; others are absolutely ludicrous.

We love Everywhere Babies, a lovely book with watercolor illustrations showing the amazing accomplishments of a baby in the first year of life. It's a popular baby shower gift. I often cry at the end - it is so beautiful.

Yet some fascist book banner decided that the watercolor picture of two men pushing a stroller or the image of babies of different racial backgrounds lying together on a blanket - or something else equally trivial - makes it unacceptable.

* * *

Preteens and teens are smart and likely can get around the book bans by many different means, but the teachers who are forced to teach from a severely limited curriculum, and the students who do not choose to go outside of the many limits imposed in their school districts, will be poorly prepared citizens of the 21st century.

As much as the MAGA fascists are eager to turn back the clock on the past 60 years, it is doubtful that they can keep the truth hidden for too long.

Kids are still finding ways to read books like Gender Queer: A Memoir, All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto, The Hate U Give, and so many more.

I wonder how many will be angry when they discover that the Republican party dominating their states has forced them to learn from a banquet of lies - that they are being taught bogus and incomplete history, science, and literature.

* * *

In 2016, I was fortunate to travel to Berlin, where one major tourist stop is a place where books were burned.

When I stood on that plaza, I could never have predicted that we in the United States would soon be dealing with a serious threat to the freedom to learn, to write, to read a true account of history.

In 50 years, will we create a similar monument to the shame of book banning?

Will this period in history, where terrible people briefly tried and failed to impose their attempt to create a Christian republic?

Or will we let them win by refusing to resist?

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