The books pictured throughout this Forum have also been censored, removed from libraries, withdrawn from publishers’ catalogues, or re-issued in new “expurgated” editions.
Introduction: Censorship and Book Banning
Nonpartisan research institutions such as the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) and the U.S.-based Freedom House have been monitoring declines in democracy around the globe for years—a November 2022 IDEA report noting that “democratic institutions were being undermined by issues ranging from restriction on freedom of expression to increasing distrust in the legitimacy of elections” (emphasis added). In the United States, the American Library Association recently reported an unprecedented upsurge in attempts to ban books (https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/23/books/book-ban-2022.html ). And, as recently noted in the Washington Post, at least seven states have passed laws making librarians subject to substantial fines or imprisonment “for providing sexually explicit, obscene, or ‘harmful’ books to children” — though the definition of “harmful” seems vague in all these laws. Similar bills are pending in other states. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2023/05/18/school-librarians-jailed-banned-books/ )
As a journal of the arts, Persimmon Tree is dedicated to freedom of expression (though we understand that does not include shouting “fire” in a crowded theater that is not, in fact, aflame). The growing threats to that freedom moved us to ask our readers to comment on censorship and book banning—and we have received many thoughtful and thought-provoking responses. As one of our commenters eloquently notes—and as we noted in our call for comments—attempts at censorship are coming from all areas of the political spectrum, although those on the right are being much more aggressive. How are we to deal with these growing restrictions?
We thank all those who have submitted comments. If you would like to add to this discussion, please use the comment form at the end of this page.
So someone was uncomfortable after reading an award-winning book or listening to an uplifting poem of hope? Cry me a river! Who said that life is about being comfortable? Life isn’t a leisurely ride on an inner tube down a lazy river. For anyone! So pull up your big girl pants and join the rest of us here in reality.
We’re all uncomfortable with a whole lotta different things, Princess. But eliminating those books won’t make those uncomfortable situations go away. Those things happened. Some of those things are still happening and we still have to deal with them. But if we don’t understand the foundation which allows those things to come about, things will become exponentially worse —worse than you could ever imagine. Your discomfort today could turn into abject terror tomorrow and good luck with that.
But, hey, if you do survive that future, maybe you can write a book about it.
San Francisco, California
I know something about censorship. Having taught French literature for 40+ years, I took pleasure in opening my students’ minds to the talent of two authors who ran afoul of the censors, Gustave Flaubert and Charles Baudelaire. The famous trial of Madame Bovary, in which the writer stood accused of “insulting public morals,” ended in an acquittal; but six of the poems of Baudelaire’s first edition of Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil) were ordered removed “on the grounds of obscenity.” Ridiculous!
Obviously, protecting children from “evil” influences is another matter, and book banning has a long history in the U.S.A. But the current craze for banning books that make parents “uncomfortable” is beyond the pale, and the Utah parent who pointedly requested (wink, wink) that the Bible be banned on the grounds that some verses were too vulgar for young children has taught us all a lesson on the stupidity of extremism. Ironically, the same parents who flout the First Amendment with their censorship demands are staunch supporters of the Second Amendment, which they cite in defense of their opposition to gun safety legislation. What is more dangerous to our children, an AR47 or a book entitled The Bluest Eye? I’m not the first to have made this point.
Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin
Author, Finding Home: Everland Bay Series, Book One (Spring, 2024)
What is the purpose of a book? Far from being a tool of indoctrination, as some have suggested, it is an invitation to discover another vantage point, to be exposed to complexity, to enter a world heretofore unknown. A voyage.
Combine that with critical thinking and you have education.
And to reassure those who oppose the free dissemination of ideas, it is good to remember that readers too are free. They needn’t espouse the ideas they encounter, they are not forced to blindly adopt an author’s point of view. In fact, just an awareness of different viewpoints and their validity is enough to expand the mind.
Unfortunately, I fear the book banners are not readers. If they were, they would know that a book does not carry the truth, but it contributes something to seekers of a truth. And the act of discerning meaning – mulling it over, considering it, ultimately to refine it, alter it, or even to reject it – is in itself a valuable act on the road to understanding.
May I paraphrase un bon mot of Fran Leibowitz? “Before you speak, think. And before you think, read.” And I might add: read the whole thing.
In the late 1990s, my older sister contracted breast cancer, so in order to ease her load, she was transferred from teacher to librarian in an elementary Catholic school in British Columbia, Canada. She is a devout Catholic, married to a fanatic Catholic who controlled her life and their five children. Becoming a librarian was strange because she didn’t read books, not even the religious ones her husband read exclusively. Her first acquisition task was to ban Judy Blume’s books. I asked her at the time why she was doing this to a brilliant writer of topics that protect children. She had no answer, as she didn’t know their content. It was simply that the Church had banned them for the past two decades. I reminded her that our own mother, who prayed the required daily rosary, owned books listed in the Index, forbidden books I grew up with in 1950s Philippines. She had rejected blind submission to some belief.
I wonder today how this absurdity persists.
Burnaby, British Columbia, Canada
Mary Schelling Burke
Santa Monica, California
The objecting parent says the poem includes “hate messages,” and could “cause confusion and indoctrinate students,” but I don’t remember words of hate. I don’t remember thinking “Oh dear, this could be really confusing for young children.” But I am an old woman and I forget where I put my phone or my favorite pen, so perhaps I needed to re-read the words. I read the poem aloud, pausing often, asking myself, “Is this phrase full of hate?”
I found no hate. Instead, I found hope wound in and out of the hard work required of us all.
I believe children generally know what they are ready to read–usually more than what we give them credit for. People who want to ban books often claim to do so to protect their children. Instead, I believe those parents are protecting themselves from exploring hard questions [and] confronting their own fears.
Nancy L. Agneberg
St. Paul Minnesota
Walnut Creek, California
I was saddened and sickened to hear that Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem The Hill We Climb has been removed with other titles from the libraries of Florida public schools. I was awestruck when I saw her deliver the poem on inaugural day, yellow-coated with a glittery red headband and shining eyes, gesturing with her hands like a magical conductor. She delivered those words with a cadence reminiscent of Hamilton.
When she declared
“we will rebuild, reconcile and recover,”
her message of reconciliation and consolation
rang bells sounding across our nation,
We witnessed, awestruck,
as she streaked across the sky,
a rare super nova,
leaving contrails of possibility and positivity
in her furious wake.
This talented young poet, standing arm in arm with five other illustrious inaugural poets including Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, gave solace to our nation at a most precarious moment when we were poised on a precipice. How can her precocious wisdom be questioned? How can her voice be blocked? This travesty, all because of the misguided right-wing political agenda. Simply put, I’m afraid for our nation. Where are we headed when books are banned?
If walls of homes, schools, and libraries could talk, they’d beg to be covered with
shelves filled with a rainbow of books written by an even wider rainbow of authors so vast as to comfort during calamity, provide panaceas for problems, immerse minds in the imaginable, uncover the uncertain/unimaginable, wake the wonders of the world so we can continue to grow, breed, perfect, make, speak, invent, refine, discover, protect, conceive, legislate, enforce, adjudicate, create, invite, love, admire, while remarking how much we need each other to change the world.
From a book I learned the Irritant’s job, quite important–distract, stir up, pique, and challenge, typically actions that are discordant. Looking deeper, Latin reveals the Irritant’s influence can be good: it can excite, stimulate, encourage, clarify what perhaps has been misunderstood.
So, here’s to the Irritant, the banner of books, who is challenging the norm.
I wouldn’t dare deter the beach bully who kicks sand in the face of the 97-lb. weakling, not knowing (s)he’s read stories—“David & Goliath,” “The Lion and the Mouse,” and “The Iron Ladies.”
There’ll be pushback. For it is the Irritant that causes, over time, a pearl to form.
The right, and especially the Christian right, has forgotten what that committed Christian, Milton, proclaimed back in the seventeenth century in Areopagitica, perhaps the best argument against censorship ever penned: that you cannot combat what you consider “evil” by banning it, but rather by having arguments against it:
And he warns – without using the word – against a dictatorship of thought:
No doubt in today’s USA, Milton’s tractate would also be banned from libraries on the grounds that it makes some people uncomfortable.
The Editorial Committee for Persimmon Tree from the outset has placed a finger on the scale. The left has also censored or banned books. Please refer to the following sources:
ABC January 12, 2023, “How conservative and liberal book bans differ amid rise in literary restrictions”
Philadelphia Inquirer Oct 25,2022, “Liberals decry book bans—then ban ‘Huckleberry Finn’” (https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/book-ban-pennsylvania-left-huckleberry-finn-20221025.html?query=Liberals decry book bans )
Newsweek www.newsweek.com “When it comes to Banning Books, Both Right and Left are Guilty,” (https://www.newsweek.com/when-it-comes-banning-books-both-right-left-are-guilty-opinion-1696045 )
CNN www.cnn.com” Banning Books Is a Nasty Habit Whether It Comes from Right or Left.” (https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/17/opinions/york-pennsylvania-school-district-book-ban-parini/index.html )
A research study published online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology April 9, 2020, titled “Censoring political opposition online who does it and why,” (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7415017/ ) was very enlightening.
Valley Forge, Pennsylvania
This is all so disheartening. I feel like we are returning to the 1600s. This is not new. Religious persecution has been going on for centuries. Now the religious are doing the persecuting. Designing society based on one person’s feelings is dangerous. This also has been going on for some time. I think it all relates back to the white middle-class society’s idea that a person has the right to feel comfortable all the time. Thank you, therapy and support groups.
American society has been falling behind the rest of the world because of this entitlement idea Americans have—that whatever you need for comfort is a right, not something to be worked for. Life is work. It is up to individuals to act on their own behalf. Americans need to realize that nothing is a given.
We must get rid of the idea that we are owed anything at all. The oppression of others has functioned to allow the people at the top to believe they have earned or deserve a good life.
Alberta Lee Orcutt
St. Paul Minnesota
The U.S. Constitution leaves education to the states. Some state officials and school boards claim to uphold “democracy” and “freedom of speech and expression” even while banning “offensive” books or removing them from public or school libraries and curricula. In fact, personal digital devices and a wireless Internet have made such tools of censorship ineffective. Book bans can’t “erase” pupils’ access to “information about troubling history or present issues.” Indeed, online controversy has boosted sales of Amanda Gorman’s poetry, publicized “banned” classics, and stimulated discussion of intersectional conflicts throughout the United States.
With federal regulatory agencies eroded, campaign financing corrupted, and funding for public broadcasting reduced, the greatest threat to “making informed choices” via elections is economic. Private, for-profit corporations dominate the mass-media outlets from which most Americans get “information.” News reports, weather forecasts, drama series, quiz shows, sports competitions, movies (historic to recent), political analysis, election results–all are reduced to “entertainment” on screens of many sizes. Viewers may never know who funds these shows, whose interests they promote, or how accurate they are. Millions of Americans can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality, let alone evaluate candidates, officials, ballot questions or proposed legislation—if and when they can vote.
Never would I deprive a parent of the right to decide what books her own children can read. But I ask myself how many parents are able to restrict ideas and images that their children have access to in social media. Professional librarians and educators are certainly more discerning about what is appropriate for children and adolescents than the disseminators of social media content.
Susan K. Glassman
St. Louis, Missouri
Books broaden our minds, expanding our resources to think and feel, enabling us to make better decisions in our actions. Free reading exposes us to situations we may not be aware of, providing us with tools for sympathy, empathy, and action. In a democracy, open access to literature is imperative for freedom of thought, an inalienable right for each individual to fulfill her/his potential to become the best human being one can be.
Growing up in a family with little concern for books, struggling to make a living, we did have an encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge, which I perused with pleasure. We must not forget the pleasure of reading and learning for our well-being. This banning of books reminds me of Fascist Germany leading up to WWII. Small-minded people allowed and participated in book burnings and the banning of what they considered degenerate art. Joseph Goebbels, minister of propaganda for Hitler, was a fan of modern art, but soon switched, siding with the latter to destroy what was considered degenerate. There is no difference between this action and the banning of books in our schools and libraries. It is crucial to fight for our rights, to insure our children’s chances for a bright future spread before them like the opening of a new book.
—Judy Blume, on recent book censorship in Florida
April 3, 2023
Evening sun warming our shoulders
we stand in long lines edging our bodies
closer to the red carpet lining the street
in front of the Tropic Cinema in Key West
the girls who read Are You There God so many times
when they were asking the same questions
as Margaret did mothers of those girls
who thought we’d finished the fight
for women’s rights when our girls were young
Tonight we all wait to see the stars who have brought
Margaret to the big screen more than fifty years
after she became a hero to pre-adolescent girls
all over the world but mostly we’re waiting
for a glimpse of Margaret’s creator
Judy Blume who braved the censors
who weathered the bans and kept on writing
what young girls wanted to read
books about jealousy bullying religion
divorce budding sexuality menstruation
and masturbation interest in boys
And who now in Florida in 2023 where
she lives works writes runs a book store
has to fight to keep her books in schools
has to keep on speaking out making her voice heard
over the loud din that is so afraid of the truth
Rehoboth Beach, Delaware
Key West, Florida
Not elected officials of a democracy.
What can be done?
Vote him out.
Or what is next?
Florida, the state where people go to die.
Kurrajong, New South Wales, Australia