Banned Books Week highlights impact of censorship on students



A Banned Books Week event at the New York Public Library, Photo by Amelia Valery

The New York Public Library’s annual “Banned Books Week” showcased the latest titles that have been censored or flagged by various local and national entities.

This year’s week of events, held across the country from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7, featured books, films and photographs that have been banned by school boards, religious groups or parents’ associations, targeting content about racism and gender identity, in particular.

Banned Books Week launched in 1982 inspired by a New York censorship court case. Since then, librarians, teachers and authors have been holding annual week-long events on the importance of free speech and expression. In response to an uptick in censorship attempts on books in the last three years, various authors gathered on Oct. 3 at the main library, the Stephen A. Schwarzman building on Fifth Avenue, to encourage the public to fight book bans and discrimination. 

Titles meant for younger audiences, such as books found in young adult, middle grade and picture book sections are frequently targeted for censorship, according to PEN America, the non-profit group that supports literature and free expression. 

Mark Oshiro, author of “Each of Us a Desert,” a banned book with an LGBTQ main character, spoke at the library event.

“It’s important for teens to see themselves represented in books,” said Oshiro, who shared with the audience that growing up in Southern California, he didn’t see himself or his culture represented in books. Oshiro’s work is also the first selection for the New York Public Library’s Teen Banned Book Club. The digital version is available to readers over 13 for free until Nov. 30. 

Anson Ferguson, a high school English teacher at Inwood Early College in Upper Manhattan, said he encourages his students to explore banned books that speak to their interests. This includes material on discrimination, civil rights and LGBTQ history.

“In terms of sort of creating a revisionist history, banning books is part of that, right?” said Ferguson, who believes people in authority want to hide painful parts in U.S. history. 

In New York, from January to August, there have been 33 attempts to ban 82 titles, according to the American Libraries Association, which also reported that the most challenged book in New York last year was “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe. The top three reasons given for the ban were  “sexually explicit” topics, “offensive language,” and materials “unsuited for any age group,” according to the ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom website. 

“For many, a book that is considered dangerous can be a key to representation or answer questions about the work a young person may have,” said Siva Ramakrishnan, director of young adult programs and services at the New York Public Library.

Banned books also encourage distrust of teachers and librarians, she added. Instead, such material can provide “open access of information, narratives and cultural touch points that are important for young people’s development as citizens of the world,” said Ramakrishnan.

Parents make up 30% of book ban attempts, followed by political and religious groups who account for 17% of book challenges, according to an ALA study.

Young adult novels that have female, nonbinary, or LGBTQ main characters are the most likely titles to be banned, said a study by PEN America. 

And the bans are having an impact on young readers.

In a survey done by Yahoo Finance, 72% of students said that restricting book access decreases their engagement in reading. The study also showed that more than a third of educators said book bans prohibit students from thinking critically.

Author Alicia D. Williams, who spoke at the library event, said that book bans are about controlling a narrative.

“It’s not about protection,” said Williams, whose novels featuring Black history have been threatened with censorship. “It’s about limiting your knowledge to run this world any way you want it to.” 

“Banning books is like banning the idea of learning,” said Ferguson.