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This year I decided to give my grandchildren banned books.

Yup. Real banned books. There is a certain amount of sweet satisfaction in giving banned books.

There are lots of choices:

Should I pick books that some think are too scary or that promote the occult or contain objectionable language? How about books that people want banned because they are too violent or include racial themes? Or because they recognize the LGBTQ+ community?

In 2021-22, more books than ever were banned from libraries and schools — 1,648 unique book titles according to PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans. The most frequent targets are books with LGBTQ+ themes and books about racism or fiction featuring non-white characters.

Unlike past book bans generated by individuals, some of these bans have been orchestrated at the level of state legislation as political statements. Attempts to “protect” students from the written word have become so widespread they have a name: educational gag orders. While they may not specifically say “book ban,” they have a chilling effect on the selection of literature and teaching about sensitive topics.

The surge in book banning reflects America’s great political divide and coincides with efforts to change the political makeup of local school boards. Most book-banning efforts are taking place in Republican-dominated states. The top 10 states are Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas, Indiana, Tennessee, Virginia, Missouri and Georgia.

California is not immune. In the Bay Area, for example, there were unsuccessful efforts to ban books in San Ramon Unified School District, Dougherty Valley High School, Charlotte Wood Middle School and Dublin Unified School District.

In Southern California, Burbank Unified removed five books from its required reading list: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “Of Mice and Men,” “The Cay” and “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.” In Santa Clarita, the William S. Hart Union High School District removed “This Book is Gay” from the library.

Some of the efforts to ban books are well-coordinated. According to the PEN Report:

Broadly, this movement is intertwined with political movements that grew throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, including fights against mask mandates and virtual school, as well as disputes over “critical race theory” that in some states fueled the introduction of educational gag orders prohibiting discussion of “divisive” concepts in classrooms. While many of these groups use language in their mission statements about parents’ rights or religious or conservative views, some also make explicit calls for the exclusion of materials that touch on race (sometimes explicitly critical race theory) or LGBTQ+ themes.

In California, book selection (and censorship) is a matter of local control. Each local board approves literature. The California Department of Education recommends that districts have literature selection policies for both school library collections and literature that is used in the classroom. The state has a list of Recommended Literature: Prekindergarten Through Grade Twelve to help districts select literature, but the database is hard to use and poorly maintained. In any case, decisions are made by the school board, not by the state.

The American Library Association provides a toolkit for libraries and schools to help create a book selection process, and — in case a book is challenged — a reconsideration procedure.

What I really wanted to give my grandchildren is the idea of freedom of speech. That they have the right to read books that others may not like and that age-appropriate history lessons about uncomfortable events are important. That they can learn about a diverse and complex world.

In looking over my shopping list of banned books, I discovered that many of the banned books were ones I had read to my own children when they were young.

“Where the Wild Things Are.” Be warned. It promotes witchcraft and supernatural events. “Charlotte’s Web” — talking animals, really?

Harry Potter? “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz?” Dr. Seuss? Where’s Waldo? “Where the Sidewalk Ends?” “The Diary of Anne Frank?”

You’ve got to be kidding.

My grandchildren and I sat down together and reviewed a list of banned books to make selections.

The 7-year-old went for “The Call of the Wild,” banned in some countries as being too radical. He loves graphic novels, so “The Witches: The Graphic Novel” is on his list. Why is it banned? Some say it is satanic and conflicts with religious and moral beliefs.

Rounding out his selections is “Refugee,” about a Jewish boy fleeing Nazi Germany, a Cuban girl seeking safety from political unrest, and a Syrian boy fleeing violence. It’s been banned because of its “mature theme.”

The 13-year-old picked “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book about racial injustice in America. “The Glory Field” also is on the list, banned for racial themes. It is about the history of an African American family.

Banning books from schools and libraries threatens freedom of speech and our commitment to teaching our children well. Children need to learn about other cultures. They need to be exposed to ideas and perspectives. They need to learn history, uncensored.

This holiday season is your chance to speak out against censorship and to support the free expression of ideas. Whatever you celebrate, there is a banned book that can help children learn compassion, value diversity and think critically. You can use this banned books reading list from the New York Public Library.

Let the shopping begin.

•••

Carol Kocivar is past president of the California State PTA and a frequent contributor to Ed100, a website that explains California’s education system.

A version of this commentary first appeared on Ed100 and on KQED Radio Perspectives.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Brenda Lebsack - Teacher 1 month ago1 month ago

    Classic Books such as Huckleberry Finn, Dr. Seuss, Diary of Anne Frank, Where the Sidewalk Ends, etc... were banned by radical liberals, not conservatives. As a teacher, I was shocked when I saw books showing up in our elementary school libraries telling kids that their gender could change like the weather based on their feelings and that there are infinite pronouns to choose from. These books are: It Feels Good … Read More

    Classic Books such as Huckleberry Finn, Dr. Seuss, Diary of Anne Frank, Where the Sidewalk Ends, etc… were banned by radical liberals, not conservatives. As a teacher, I was shocked when I saw books showing up in our elementary school libraries telling kids that their gender could change like the weather based on their feelings and that there are infinite pronouns to choose from. These books are: It Feels Good To Be Yourself by Teresa Thorn and What Are Your Words? (A book about pronouns) The picture on the back of one of the books has a child looking anxious and confused with a big question mark over his head. Is the goal to intentionally confuse kids about their gender and cause a mental crisis? Since the Q in LGBTQ means QUESTIONING? It sure seems like it! I made a video about some of these preschool and primary books endorsed by our Teachers Union.
    https://brenda4kids.com/index.php/our-media/videos-and-resources/school-choice-now

    Interestingly enough, when I challenged these two books, I was told that the School Library Journal recommends these books as read-alouds for classrooms or story time and says they are exceptional and a must have for libraries serving children. I work in a Title I District, so I started showing parents in our community these books. Our Hispanic Parents became angry. Here is one father’s speech about it at a board meeting (his Spanish is translated) https://brenda4kids.com/index.php/our-media/spanish-videos/sausd-board-meeting-eddie-torres

    In 2018 I read the books the Calif Dpt of Ed were recommending for “Health” in the Health Framework. The board of education recommended a school-wide read for grades 9-12 featuring the book, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-to-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties (2016) by Heather Corinna. I checked out the book from a public library and saw full descriptions of Bondage, Dominance, Sadomasochism, Restraint, Fisting, Kink Play, Anal Play, Oral/Anal Rimming, etc… Irate parents read these sections out loud to the State Board Members, so they removed the book from their recommendation, however, the state board said it was to prevent misunderstanding from the public, because as a board, they believe the book represents inclusion and diversity. It appears to me that under the banner of diversity and inclusion, there are no boundaries. In fact, the introduction of the book starts with a Sex Rights Pledge. It states, “We all have the the power to choose our sex life from who we are and what we want no matter our age or gender.” Yes, you read that right. No matter our age. When I say all boundaries are gone, this is no exaggeration.

    Ms Kocivar mentions that each district practices local control. However, when I was a board member in 2018, the Calif Dept of Ed gifted every school district Library Data Bases which included lesson plans. They provided three comprehensive data bases. As a board member, the majority of our board saw this as a way to circumvent local control so our board did not accept the free gift from the state, however, most school districts did. There were many books in the data base that we knew our community would not approve of and we were elected to represent them. One of the books was a Preschool /Kindergarten book titled WHO ARE YOU? This book tells children there are more than two choices for gender. Some choices are: trans, genderqueer, non-binary, gender fluid, transgender, gender neutral, agender, neutrois, bigender, third gender, two-spirit, and there are even more words in the gender spectrum. It includes a circle game where they can explore their gender choices with lessons attached. Parents, don’t trust everyone who has a fancy title and says they represent you. That candy coated apple might not be what you expected.