Banned Books Week is an annual awareness campaign sponsored by the American Library Association and Amnesty International. This year, the event runs from October 1st – 7th.
Book challenges have a long history in the United States; however, according to the American Library Association, the frequency and coordination of these challenges ramped up in the fall of 2021 with 729 book challenges targeting 1,858 titles. This number increased further to 1,269 in 2022, and within these challenges, 2,571 unique titles were targeted, indicating that the challenges, unlike in years prior to 2021, which targeted single books, aimed to censor entire collections of materials. Although most of the challenged titles pertain to subjects regarding race, sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity, there are some that were targeted for age-appropriateness and heavy subject matter—including those addressing and teaching about the Holocaust.
In Tennessee, on January 10th, 2022, the McMinn County School Board unanimously superseded a state-approved curriculum review and decided to remove Maus, a graphic novel in which author Art Spiegelman recounts an interview with his father about his memories of the Holocaust. A memorable piece of Holocaust-related literature, it was published in 1986; in 1992 it was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. The school board removed it on grounds of its language, profanity, and dark subject matter relating to violence and death, questioning whether it reflected the values of the community. By coincidence, their decision occurred less than three weeks before Holocaust Memorial Day. The removal was heavily criticized by Spiegelman, as well as local and national politicians, academics, and members of the public.
Maus can be found in the stacks of all HUC campus libraries here.
In Texas, on August 16th, 2022, the Keller Independent School District’s executive director ordered the school librarians to remove a list of books that were challenged in 2021 by parents and school board members. A letter submitted to the district had resulted in Texas governor Greg Abbott calling for an investigation by the Texas Education Agency to prevent the presence of pornographic content in the schools. The list of books primarily targeted books that featured themes of diversity and inclusion, but also included the Bible in addition to Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation. Published in 2018 by Ari Folman with illustrations by David Polonsky, the novel was highly regarded by the New York Times. The book made it onto the challenged list because of references to genitalia, same-sex attraction, and pornography. The school district reinstated it a few days later, after condemnation from the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, Hadassah, and other Jewish groups. However, on September 13th, 2023, an 8th grade teacher in the Hamshire-Fannett Independent School District in another Texas middle school was fired and asked to apologize for assigning this work, showing that the issue is far from settled. Anne Frank’s Diary can be found in the stacks of the three stateside HUC campus libraries here.
Censorship is steadily growing in volume and influence in the United States. In some cases, it is the complaint of a single parent objecting to a book their child read on their own without permission, while in others it is a group of organized individuals challenging books. Historically, the First Amendment mediated such discussions; however, media and grassroot campaigns have elevated book challenges to the purview of state governance. The operation of school and library facilities are increasingly impacted by politicians and legislatures, and several states have passed laws that promise to close institutions or even threaten librarians and educators with prison time if they distribute banned materials to minors. These attacks should be answered with community advocacy, open and free spread of information, respect for free speech granted by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, and prevention of misinformation. These are all principles by which the very foundations of libraries were so nobly established, and by which we should all justly align.
Contributed by Joshua Fischer, Assistant Judaica Librarian in Cincinnati