By Victoria Chan
Book banning, often thought of as a relic of the past, has found a resurgence in public schools within the U.S. Despite the work of many free expression advocacy organizations like PEN America, many states, including Georgia, have imposed book bans that silence LGBTQIA+ and marginalized voices.
Currently, Georgia ranks 12th out of 50 states in the number of book bans. Georgia has a total of 24 book bans, 13 of which come from Forsyth County schools. Among the books banned at the district level in public schools and libraries in Georgia are Susan Kuklin’s book, “Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out,” for its LGBTQIA+ content, and Toni Morrison’s fictional novel, “The Bluest Eye,” for its sexually explicit content.
Despite the prevalence in book bans, Georgia youth are fighting back. 15-year-old Shivi Mehta from Forsyth County is one of the many youth who have been pushing back against book bans within public schools. As the antiracist education project director of the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition, she has been working hard with other students to testify at school board meetings.
HOW STUDENTS ARE PUSHING BACK AGAINST BOOK BANS
According to Mehta, “book bans censor marginalized voices like mine under the guise of protecting children. I knew that the effort to ban books wasn’t protecting me at all, and it infuriated me that far-right activists wanted to cut out queer folks and people of color from our libraries.”
Despite her young age, she has been actively fighting against groups like Concerned Parents of Forsyth County Georgia that have been advocating for book bans. Mehta first got involved with fighting against book bans when she read a news article about books bans published in the local news.
“I had been speaking at school board meetings prior to the book bans, so really I just kept doing what I did best,” said Mehta.
With the fight against book bans because a group of students that she was a part of was already showing up to school board meetings to speak up in favor of diversity, equity, and inclusion policies. Her suggestion for other students who want to fight against education injustice is to “create a group of people that you may already be friends with that are interested in speaking out.”
As for more concrete steps to take, Mehta has much advice to give. “Make a plan to speak at, if permitted, your local school board meeting. If you cannot speak, contact your school board members and express your concerns and attend school board meetings so that elected officials know that you care,” she said.
While school board meetings are often only attended by politicians and a small scattering of concerned parents, Mehta emphasizes the importance of students attending the local meetings. Consistent attendance and testimonies at these meetings places pressure on politicians and is one of the only ways students can be taken seriously, she explained.
For students new to school board meetings, Mehta stated, “far-right activists may start arguing with you face to face. Know that you absolutely do not owe them anything, and that you can leave the minute you start to feel uncomfortable.”
Alongside the direct confrontations with far-right activists, Mehta noted that one of the most unexpected aspects of fighting against book bans was the people who would go out of their way to find personal information about her on the internet. In spite of the harassment from parents and social media, Mehta has been able to ground herself by taking a step back and finding support through her network of friends.
WHAT TEACHERS HAVE TO SAY ABOUT BOOK BANS
Students are not the only ones voicing their concerns against book bans; teachers, too, have been voicing concerns over book bans. Heath Gibson is a high school A.P. English language and composition and multicultural literature teacher at Discovery High School in Lawrenceville, Georgia. Some of the titles he has assigned are “The New Jim Crow,” “Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town,” “White Rage,” and “Minor Feelings.”
As a teacher, Gibson has faced several upset parents who have approached him with concerns about the content within the books he teaches. Gibson recounted how a parent attempted to ban “The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier three weeks into his first teaching job. In another instance at South Gwinnett High School, a parent tried to remove “Plainsong” by Kent Haruff.
“Those challenges were about sexual references and profanity. Historically, that is what most bans in high school are about,” he said.
On dealing with upset parents, Gibson said, “I try to get them to see their children in a different light. Parents sometimes lose sight of what age their children actually are. They forget they’re not in elementary school anymore. I try to get them to understand the intellectual benefit of the reading[s] and dealing with tough questions.”
As for who is most impacted by the book banning, Gibson said, “Like most things in education, the students who have the most to lose are students of poverty. They have the least access to pretty much everything. Books are no different. Students of poverty are the very students that those in powerful positions don’t want reading controversial books about history and culture.”
Repeatedly, book bans have been used to silence criticisms of societal norms and marginalized voices, and with the current climate surrounding controversial books, not much of this has changed. Book banning within the U.S. emerged as early as the colonial era, when William Pynchon published “The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption.” Since then, book bans have made a strong resurgence, with more than 1,600 book titles banned according to the PEN America report in 2021.
Book banning has also exposed other shortcomings within the education system. Many parents who urge book bans over sexually explicit content do not realize that censoring these subjects limits what students can talk about and how they learn about their world. Books that deal with sexually explicit subjects reveal the shortcomings of sex education within schools.
Gibson stated, “If those students have the veil lifted, if they become real critical readers and thinkers, then they will be in a better position to challenge those who benefit from that veil staying exactly where it is.”