In June, at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago, Governor JB Pritzker signed legislation banning book bans in Illinois public libraries. This legislation, initiated by Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, passed the Illinois House and Senate in March by substantial majority.
The bill charges the Illinois State Librarian with the task of either adopting the American Library Association's Bill of Rights or developing its own declaration protecting the freedom of state libraries to meet the reading needs of Illinois citizens. The ALA Bill of Rights states that reading materials should not be proscribed, removed or restricted because of partisan or personal disapproval.
In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed legislation banning book bans and censorship in that state's public schools and libraries.
These state initiatives to protect the literacy rights of its citizens were provoked by the ever-increasing attacks on forms of instruction, books and other types of publications in public education and libraries by individuals and groups pursuing their own ideological agenda. In many counties and states, a complaint by one citizen can result in a book being pulled out of circulation or a theme being removed from a school curriculum until the matter has been adjudicatedusually a slow tedious process.
The most commonly banned books deal with topics such as race, gender and sexuality. LGBTQ+ books are easy targets for the righteously aggrieved who comb libraries and school curricula for offensive materials. Narratives that reveal the ugly elements in our nation's history are equally bannedat times simply because such factual accounts cause discomfort.
Some Oklahoma school teachers have expressed reluctance to assign Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, the non-fiction book by David Grann upon which the just released Martin Scorsese film Killers of the Flower Moon is based, for fear of violating an Oklahoma law proscribing books that cause discomfort because of race. Ironically, the state of Oklahoma has been trumpeting the movie because of its commercial value to the state.
Most great literature perhaps all great literature would fail the discomfort test in one respect or another.
Groups such as Moms for Liberty scour library shelves and school curricula to eliminate all books that do not fit their criteria for acceptable reading for students. The list of books banned by Moms is astonishing: The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende; Forever, Judy Blume; The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini; Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut; Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck; The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood; The Color Purple, Alice Walker; To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee; Milk and Honey, Rupi Kaur; and many more.
As of October, book bans have occurred in 37 states with Texas and Florida posting the most bans.
PEN America, a member of the PEN International NGO network of writers worldwide working for the promotion of literacy, freedom of expression and the protection of writers persecuted for the pursuit or publication of their work, issues an annual report of books banned in the United States. Full disclosure: I am a member of PEN San Miguel Center.
This year's report recorded 13 districts in Florida banning books, followed by 12 districts in Missouri, seven districts in Texas, and five districts in both South Carolina and Michigan. Texas districts had the most instances of book bans with 438 bans, followed by 357 bans in Florida, 315 bans in Missouri, and over 100 bans in both Utah and South Carolina.
It is important to note that book bans occur on different levels: school districts, libraries and individual classrooms. Accordingly, the exact number of banned books is difficult to determine. PEN America has tracked over 1,400 book bans across the country since the start of the 2022-2023 school year.
The banning of a single book title in one school because of one complaint can mean anything from the removal of one copy to hundreds of copies pulled from all the libraries or classrooms in a school district. Some districts place a permanent prohibition on books cited in complaintssometimes just a single complaint. According to PEN America, books are sometimes removed before they are even read, or before objections to books are checked for basic accuracy.
In August and September, there were many ideologically-driven bomb threats against Illinois libraries. All Chicago public libraries and some Illinois libraries were shut down for at least one day in September because of bomb threats citing State of Illinois policy not to ban books.
Giannoulias said in the announcement of the bill's signing, "The concept of banning books contradicts the very essence of what our country stands for. It also defies what education is all about: teaching our children to think for themselves. This landmark legislation is a triumph for our democracy, a win for First Amendment Rights, and a great victory for future generations."
Proud to be a citizen of the State of Illinois. Read a book!
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago; president of Chicago Network for Justice and Peace; member, Writers in Prison, San Miguel PEN; member, TOSOS Theatre Ensemble, NYC.
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