Seventh time I learned that my novel Nineteen minutes was banned in a school district, I saw a book burn.
I was in the UK auditioning for a musical I co-wrote based on Markus Zusak’s novel the book Thief, which takes place in Nazi Germany. The director was determined to physically set a prop book on fire every night because of how shocking and powerful it was to watch. We tested it for the first time when the message popped up on my computer screen: of yet another parent complaining that my novel was inappropriate for high school students.
In the past six months, my books have been banned dozens of times in dozens of school districts. Sad as it may seem, I was getting used to emails from PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman telling me that my novel was once again under attack. But this week something truly terrible happened. In the Martin Country School District, 92 books were pulled from the school library shelves. Twenty of them were mine.
The 92 books fell into three categories: those with mature content, those written by BIPOC authors, and those written by LGBTQ authors. My books were removed because, according to the only parent who did the challenge, they were “adult romance that shouldn’t be on school shelves.” It’s worth noting that I don’t write adult romance. Most of the books that were targeted don’t even have a kiss in them. What they do have, however, are issues like racism, abortion rights, gun control, gay rights, and other topics that encourage kids to think for themselves.
As I read through my list of 20 novels pulled from Martin County School District bookshelves, one surprised me the most. The Storyteller is a novel about the Holocaust. It tells of the growth of anti-Semitism and fascism in Nazi Germany. There was a strange irony to a parent wanting this particular book removed because it felt a bit like history repeating itself.
Of course, not all books are suitable for all age groups, and no one wants porn on a school shelf. In the past, teachers and librarians used their professional training to determine what was age-appropriate for certain groups and listened to input from parents and students. Now Florida has passed very broadly worded laws that limit what books can and cannot be in schools. Teachers who do not obey are fined. Each book at a school must be reviewed by a media specialist, and schools are told to “err on the side of caution.”
Some activists and parents have taken these laws as free reign to remove the books they personally do not consider acceptable. Some districts take the books off the shelves “pending review” – but months and years go by without a review and the books remain locked away. The result has been empty shelves in Florida classrooms and school libraries, where teachers and media specialists not only ban books that have been challenged, but, fearing future retaliation, remove other books that power result in punitive measures. The result? Students do not have access to certain titles.
Lately, these removals happen without the review process that allows books to be checked for age appropriateness. The 92 books pulled from the Martin County School District’s shelves were based on the complaint of a single parent. In Martin County, a parent can challenge a book without having to identify the allegedly inappropriate material — or even without having read the book. After that, the principal has 15 days to review the book and talk to the challenger, and then the director of curriculum and instruction has 15 days to review, and finally, after 45 days, the school board makes a decision about the book. But submitting 92 books at once ensures chaos, as principals don’t have time to do their job and read all the challenged material – which is precisely the point. The challengers know that they are putting the district in a situation where it is impossible to meet the law’s standards regarding response time.
Media specialists and teachers who fail to remove a book deemed inappropriate could face a third-degree felony, loss of teaching license and a $5,000 fine. Some media specialists, fearful of noncompliance, consult with other districts to see which books have been pulled. Others simply remove every book on the parent’s list. The books in Martin County were removed in a matter of weeks—far too quickly for all 92 to be read and evaluated.
In most school districts where one of my novels has been challenged — including Martin County — the impetus has come from Moms For Liberty, a nationwide group that has a binder filled with offensive titles they find “relevant” that are passed on to local chapters, who in turn give the titles to their local school boards or principals. Those who make it challenging often haven’t read the books themselves. In the few cases where a group of parents was called in to read the books that had been removed from the shelves, several books were deemed appropriate and returned. The rest remain off the shelves of school and classroom libraries, because of a single parent or a small group of parents who object to their children being exposed to what’s on the pages.
Look, I’m a mother. I used to read books before my kids did to make sure I felt they were emotionally ready for the content. If it was a difficult topic, we used the book as a springboard for discussion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a parent deciding that a particular book is not right for her child. There is a colossal problem with a parent deciding that none child must be allowed to read that book.
The banned books on these lists are not bad or revolutionary. What children are actually to be exposed to are lives different from their own and mindsets different from their own – creating compassion and empathy. In other cases, children are exposed to ideas and mindsets Exactly as their own, providing representation and validity and a sense of belonging. We know categorically that children who feel marginalized and who read books with characters like themselves end up feeling less marginalized. Children who have never met anyone other than them can do so in the safe space of a book and this leads to understanding. Books help people find common ground; book bans focus on the differences between us.
My most banned book in the last six months—Nineteen Minutes— is about a school shooting and the effects of bullying. However, the reason it is inappropriate for children is not the mention of violence, but rather a single page depicting a date rape using anatomically correct words for the human body. It’s not a gratuitous scene, and it’s not sensational. What does it say about our world when “keeping kids safe” means banning a book about school shootings because it has a word for genitalia in it… but we don’t regulate the guns that cause the real shootings?
In the years since Nineteen minutes has been published, I have received thousands of emails from bullied children – some who said the book was the reason they decided does not bringing a gun to school; some who said the book was the reason they didn’t attempt suicide. Reading my novel did not irrevocably damage them. In fact, it made them realize that they were not alone in their thoughts and feelings. The most common phrase in letters I receive from readers is, “I’ve never really thought about this question before.” That’s what books do. They introduce children to worlds and situations outside their own. They help children see themselves in a different way; they help children see the world in a different way.
“We’ve historically seen what the next chapter looks like when we don’t speak out against book challenges.“
Last fall, as I sat in a theater every night and watched a prop book burn, I was reminded that this is not the first time we have seen bans and challenges to literature. Because of that, we can say with historical accuracy that we know what happens next. If you want to control a nation’s thoughts, you start by controlling what they read. Removing books from a library or flagging them as problematic is the first step on a very slippery slope. We have already seen school districts begin to cancel school drama productions they deem problematic. We have had challenges with the curriculum from people who do not have degrees.
Many of my author friends whose books have been challenged hear the same refrain: “Kids can just get those books somewhere else!” Unfortunately, not all children have access to a public library or transportation to get there; for many, a school or classroom library is their only resource. We also hear, “Oh, that will just increase sales!” Trust me, none of us want that. What we want is for children to be able to read what they will have to read, instead of being told what they ought to Read. We want the vast majority of people in communities who support the freedom to read to be as vocal as the select few who make so much noise against it.
With Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop’s brilliant words make books windows through which children can escape and mirrors in which they can find themselves. We want you to stand in solidarity with us, the authors who create these books. Because we’ve historically seen what the next chapter looks like when we don’t speak out against book challenges… and that story doesn’t end well.
Jodi Picoult is #1 New York Times bestselling author of 28 novels