Why We Should Care About Diversity In Literature
By: Olivia Brown
June 21st, 2023
This article is part of our Winter 2023 magazine. Click here to read the full edition.
Having the opportunity to read is like sitting down and leaving the world behind to step into an entirely different life. It allows for a person to learn about something new, to open their eyes to another culture or perspective that they might not have had the chance to see before. This is an experience that everyone should have, to choose whatever book off of the shelf that catches their eye. However, some appear to disagree with this freedom.
A new spark of controversy has lit up the nation as this not so new practice of “book banning” has begun again. Book banning is when administrators, school boards, or social groups revoke access to certain works based on their content. Examples crop up in states such as Oklahoma, Florida, Texas, and Utah, among others who have previously or are in the works of creating new restrictions for schools and libraries. All of these restrictions are in hopes of limiting what books should be accessible for students of all ages. This has led to over 1,500 book bans spanning 86 school districts within the past year.
When asked about book banning both in the present and in the past, high school English teacher Stacy Fritz said, “I have heard about book banning recently and in the past. Often, the ban was centered around banning a list of books in schools. Though there have been times I’ve heard about groups trying to ban books from public libraries. There are also groups that support banned books specifically.”
One such group is one known as Moms for Liberty. In a Grid News article, writers Christian Thorsberg, Matt Stiles and Anna Deen define this group as one that is “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America” and advocating for parental rights at all levels of government, “including the right to control what their kids read in school.” The article states that the goals of groups such as Moms for Liberty is to ensure some books are removed and inaccessible to students until they’ve left high school.
The question here, though, is why should parents care about what books are available to students around the country and within their local school districts?
Fritz attempted to answer that question,“In my opinion, banning age-appropriate books stymies the potential growth of the reader(s). It denies them the opportunity to learn about other people and thus to develop understanding and compassion for those who have different backgrounds, experiences, etc. Those earlier exposures can make for a more aware and thus kinder adult, as well as foster other attributes that would be useful (like flexibility, critical thinking skills, etc).”
“Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe, is currently the most challenged book in American schools for its depictions of LGBT themes. By removing access to books like this and others like “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thompson, students may go through K-12 without their perspectives being challenged.
The solution is introducing students to new identities and experiences outside of what they’ve lived or what their parents have deemed “appropriate.” In a world where a person will undeniably be exposed to people who are different to them in terms of sexuality, gender, race or culture, it’s critical that these skills and broad moralities are created early in order to further create a world full of more accepting individuals. An elementary school teacher who wished to remain anonymous said, “I encourage my students to read whatever they can because our classroom isn’t full of kids who look or act or think the same way, and I want them to understand that that’s okay. Reading will help encourage that.”
Representation is defined, generally, as a depiction or description of a person or a thing However, representation in literature is when a character resembles the reader or a group of readers in any aspect, whether that is race, sexuality/gender, etc.
The ability to see this representation is important to a child’s own self esteem as well. A Humanium article titled “The importance of children’s representation in literature and media” by Arianna Braga, cited a 2004 study that claims that identifying with characters with similar identities leads to higher self esteem. By taking away books that showcase main characters that are people of color, queer or disabled, the chance for children and teens to feel accepted and uplifted are also taken away.
Adolescence in the public school system is difficult, especially as teens find out who they are, what they identify with, and where they belong amongst their peers. Having books such as “George” (newly renamed “Melissa”) by Alex Gino, a story about a transgender kid, or “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, a coming of age novel about trauma and high school, banned in schools because of their content will further the stigma around topics that the conservative demographic of society desperately tries to sweep under the rug.
Fritz said, “I was a pretty precocious reader and curious about learning, well, whatever I could. Many of the books on the list that I read are books that helped me see the world with more understanding.”
Not every parent, teacher or even book seller agrees with the censorship of books, and many are looking to fight the ban. From the creation of Banned Book Week, where books and reading are celebrated by encouraging readers to indulge in a banned book, to the unionizing of Unite Against Book Bans,a national initiative that aims to push back against book bans in public and school libraries. Bookstores around the nation are setting up tables and displays that specifically put a spotlight on banned books, bringing attention to what’s being left out of libraries. And parents are taking a stand in their own school districts to put a stop to those who seek to censor important messages.
The NPR article titled “Book bans and the threat of censorship rev up political activism in the suburbs” by Oddette Yousef, recognizes the actions of a group of primarily left-leaning parents who are called Red, Wine & Blue. This organization, growing from just Stephana Ferrell to over 300,000 members, uses their numbers as a way to fight against these bans.
In light of Ferrell’s work, Yousef said that “Ferrell hoped her experience organizing a campaign against book challenges might be instructive to others who similarly oppose what she views as a politically-driven campaign at children’s schools.” This is just one example of many parents, organizations and initiatives who are all trying to keep censorship out of schools and libraries around the country.
Banning books in schools is a step to silencing voices, stigmatizing what should be part of the norm and taking away representation that boosts children and teens’ self identities and worths.
The anonymous teacher said, “I remember being in school myself, looking through the library shelves and being ecstatic to find books that I could relate to in some way, even if it was miniscule. I can’t imagine taking that away from students just to align with a certain narrative.” But this teacher isn’t the only one who had this revelation. Parents, teachers, librarians and more are fighting for action– hoping to showcase silenced voices that rise from BIPOC, queer, and other marginalized communities–in classrooms all around the nation.
Oliviah Brown is a 5th year senior double majoring in English and professional writing, and minoring in digital humanities. Her aspirations are to use her studies to pursue a career in editing. When she’s not studying, she is usually reading or figuring out new recipes to bake.