Bleaching Bookshelves: An Analysis of Recent Book Bans in America

In March 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed Florida House Bill 1467, which, among other conditions, requires all schoolbooks to be reviewed by a district-appointed “media specialist” to ensure they are appropriate for children. Soon after, videos started appearing of empty bookshelves in Florida classrooms and school libraries. Surely, book bans like Florida’s don’t mean every title is suddenly inappropriate. Or do they?

Empty book shelves in Florida
Figure 1: These shelves are as empty as Bush’s 1988 promise of “no new taxes.”

No, they don’t, but teachers weren’t willing to take any chances. In order to make Florida House Bill 1467 appear a little less bigoted and fascist-y, DeSantis cited preexisting Florida Statute 847.012, a criminal obscenity law that makes it a third-degree felony to knowingly distribute “harmful” material to minors. It is crucial to note that the only kind of material that is specifically mentioned as “harmful” in the entire statute is sexually explicit material. I would know: I read the whole statute so that you wouldn’t have to (you’re welcome). Under Statute 847.012, anyone knowingly distributing harmful material to a minor would be convicted of a third-degree felony punishable by up to five years in prison or a five-year probation period, as well as up to a $5,000 fine. With that threat looming over them, those very real consequences of defying book bans, teachers took every book off of their shelves, reducing the chance that they would be caught with an “offending” book to zero. 

Now, you might be thinking: “But wait, as long as the books don’t have any sexually explicit scenes in them, they should be good to go, right?” Congrats, you have great critical thinking skills and should run for Florida Governor! But, not only does House Bill 1467 require books to be approved by media specialists, it also states that parents can review the books in school libraries in the name of “curriculum transparency.” 

Essentially, if enough parents in the community complain about a book in the school’s library, it can be put up for review or taken off the shelves. And that’s exactly what they’ve been doing. With an infamously conservative voting population (read: conservative media specialists and activist parents are flagging these books), it’s a pretty sneaky way to ensure that every book in schools is at risk, whether or not they feature pornographic material. Say what you will about DeSantis, he knows his audience and loves doing a little crowd work. 

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at a podium, flanked by men in suits. A placard reads "Curriculum Transparency"
Figure 2: Everyone in this picture seems very excited and confident about doing the right thing for their children. Love that.

I’ll dismount my high horse for a second and admit that I don’t think schools should supply Playboy magazines to their students. Sue me. However, I’ll ask you if you think that the same kind of content found in those magazines would be found in books titled The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, I Am Not Your (Perfect) Mexican Daughter, and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You. No? How about in the books of Black Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison? Or Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes or The Storyteller, stories about school shootings and the growth of anti-Semitism and fascism in Nazi Germany, respectively? No? That’s interesting because all of these titles were subject to book bans in Martin County, Florida this year. I assure you, I am not cherry-picking these books because I think they support my position the best – 40% of the books banned in the United States between July 1, 2021 and June 30, 2022 were about protagonists of color, and 21% of the total directly featured issues of race and racism. Don’t even get me started on how 41% of the banned books feature LGBTQ+ themes and characters (if you would like to read someone getting started on it, check out this piece by Christy Leos).

Chart of "Subject matter of Banned Conent by percentage of unique banned titles, July 1, 2021-June 30, 2022" from Pen America. The two highest categories are LGBTQ+ themes (41%) and characters of color (40%). The next highest is sexual content at 22%
Figure 3: Sexual content seems a little low on this chart, don’t you think?

No other “edutainment” medium (music, movies, theatre, video games, etc.) is experiencing this growing level of censorship and restriction. If anything, we have the opposite. Famously, every single one of the 2019 nominees for Best Picture at the Oscars (Green Book, Black Panther, BlackKklansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, Roma, Vice, The Favorite, and A Star is Born) centered around racial and/or class inequality, homophobia, substance abuse, or war. This year was considered by many to be a “banner year for movies”. What gives?

The difference lies in the fact that these other kinds of media are not made available to students in public schools the same way that books are. Parents have the choice as to whether or not they want to expose their children to these stories. This “parent’s choice” thing seems to have worked for us so far, so, DeSantis, I have a proposition.

In the other two most accessible forms of traditional entertainment, movies, and music, we have rating systems in place that tell us about the content of the media instead of banning them outright. For music, the “Parental Advisory” warning sticker is in plain sight on the front of an explicit album, and individual explicit tracks are indicated with an “E” next to their name. The film rating system divides films into five categories (G, PG, PG-13, R, and NC-17) based on who the film is deemed appropriate for. Importantly, there are only five main rating components as defined by the Motion Picture Association (MPA): violence, language, substances, nudity, and sex. That’s it.

A black and white pin that reads "this Kindle contains explicit content" held in front of bookshelves
Figure 4: Someone get me one of these immediately.

Well, that’s almost it. A film rating content descriptor (the box next to or under the rating briefly explaining why a film got its rating) may cite the infamously tricky “thematic elements” in a movie for its rating, which includes just about everything that doesn’t fit in the above categories, including death, gambling, infidelity, and much more. Note, though, that nowhere in the vast number of lists of subject matters that are included under the “thematic elements” umbrella is there any mention of the inclusion of protagonists of color or stories about race. The issues that the rating system would have with these stories are the “hate,” “discrimination,” and “verbal abuse” typically featured in stories about race and racism. Critical thinking hat, now: who do you think are the typical executors of these “explicit” behaviors in most of these stories? Spoiler alert, it’s not the protagonists of color.

While I understand that ratings are subjective and there is no perfect rating system, it is a place to start. I posit that if you are so concerned about giving parents a say in the media that their children consume, give them the tools to evaluate their child’s books by implementing an accessible and universal rating system for them, using a system comparable to the MPA, rather than implementing book bans. These parents seem very concerned about what their children are consuming, so I’m sure they won’t mind taking a glance at the books that they bring home and having a thoughtful, meaningful discussion about their values and helping their child make informed choices about what to read instead of stripping the choice away from them completely. Right?

This is not a question of what subjects are and are not appropriate for children to learn in school. It is a question of how the prejudices and racist actions of individuals can influence the accessibility of essential educational and entertainment materials for all children through book bans.

We’re paying attention, Governor. I’ve read Fahrenheit 451, and I’m not afraid to use it. 

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