The Left has been collectively hyperventilating about “book bans” for months. No one should be surprised that liberals are redefining the word “ban” in an effort to stigmatize conservative politicians leading the movement for parental rights in education. But some moderate Republicans have also signaled that they, too, buy into the idea that restricting content based on age-appropriateness constitutes a “book ban.”
“We must abandon the issues that are solely made for social media headlines, such as banning books or issuing curriculum fiats to local school districts hundreds of miles away from state capitals,” New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed. “If we really want to keep our children safe, we need to spend less time banning books and more time stopping the horrific gun violence in our schools,” Liz Cheney tweeted in late March. Book bans “could be a slippery slope that goes to really bad places,” said former Florida governor Jeb Bush. And the George W. Bush Presidential Center promoted an op-ed by one of its employees, who wrote, “Instead of banning books, we should focus on creating strong readers.”
The first definition of the word “banned” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “to prohibit especially by legal means.” So when Americans hear claims from the Left that, say, Florida governor Ron DeSantis is “banning books,” they often incorrectly take those words at face value, assuming that the books have been removed not just from school libraries but also public libraries and bookstores.
I live in Florida and recently tested the availability of six well-known “banned” books that have been removed from some school libraries here. I had no trouble getting any of them at my public library—but I was shocked that anyone would purchase books with such graphic adult content for a school library.
The influential Kirkus Reviews hailed George Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, for example, as “a critical, captivating, merciful mirror for growing up Black and queer today.” But the book’s depictions of sex acts are pornographic. Consider these passages from chapter 15 (you may want to skip to the next paragraph):
I put some lube on and got him up on his knees, and I began to slide into him from behind. . . . I pulled out of him and kissed him while he masturbated. . . . He asked me to turn over while he slipped a condom on himself. . . . This was my ass, and I was struggling to imagine someone inside me. . . . he got on top and slowly inserted himself into me. It was the worst pain I think I have ever felt in my life. . . . eventually I felt a mix of pleasure with the pain.
Meantime, Penguin Random House, along with a coalition of lefty groups, sued Florida’s Escambia County for removing inappropriate books from its school libraries. One of the “banned” books the publisher mentions in the suit is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The novel is full of adult themes like rape and incest that most parents wouldn’t want their children exposed to. Here’s a graphic example (and the same warning applies):
His memories of Pauline and the doing of a wild and forbidden thing excited him and a bolt of desire ran down his genitals, giving it length and softening the lips of his anus. Surrounding all of this lust was a border of politeness. He wanted to f*ck her tenderly, but the tenderness would not hold. The tightness of her vagina was more than he could bear.
PolitiFact recently fact-checked DeSantis’s claim that no books have been banned in Florida. They rated his statements false—not misleading or partly true or needing context—because the American Library Association and other left-leaning groups define the word banned in a much broader way than the commonsense definition. The ALA defines a ban as “the removal of a book based on a person or group’s objection.”
According to a recent report cited in the Wall Street Journal, a total of 1,269 book challenges were filed at libraries (public and school) nationwide in 2022. With more than 117,000 libraries in the U.S., this means that less than 1 percent of libraries received even a single challenge.
The ALA has long been notoriously liberal. While many other library associations around the world condemned the Cuban regime’s closure of libraries and jailing of dissident librarians, the ALA never did. Past ALA conference speakers have included Ralph Nader, Bernie Sanders, Naomi Klein, and Gloria Steinem. At this year’s conference, critical race theory proponent Ibram Kendi connected “book banners” to “segregationists and enslavers of the past,” in what Publisher’s Weekly described as a “powerful message.”
“This atmosphere of conspiracy theories, of alternative facts, of misinformation, of great lies to control people through ignorance have their antecedents in the enslaving south,” he told librarians. “Today we are fighting an old fight from new segregationists. . . . As much as this era is new, it is old. As much as we may feel alone fighting book bans, you have generations of company, and generations of Americans cheering you on in this freedom fight.” The conference also featured Judy Blume, who said in a quote featured in ALA literature, “I’m not sure that children don’t have the right to read what they want to read even if their parents object to it.”
Another featured speaker at this year’s conference will be poet Amanda Gorman. The Left went ballistic recently when her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” which she read at Joe Biden’s inauguration, was supposedly banned at one K-8 school in Miami after a parent complained about it. But the school confirmed that that book wasn’t even removed from the school library; it was just re-shelved from an elementary school section to a middle school section of the same library.
A recent IPSOS/NPR poll indicates that the media has been highly effective in distorting the truth about book-banning in the U.S. and obscuring the graphic content of titles removed from school libraries. According to the survey, only 41 percent of Republicans strongly or somewhat support school boards “banning” certain books. (The figure is just 21 percent overall.)
Biden’s Justice Department branded parents who complained about inappropriate books in their children’s school libraries “domestic terrorist” threats. The Southern Poverty Law Center and other left-wing groups have labeled Moms for Liberty and other groups supporting parental rights in education as “extremist” groups. And the administration recently announced the hiring of a book ban coordinator to work in the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.
In his campaign-launch video, Biden lamented that Republicans are “banning books,” and as he spoke those words, a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird was prominently placed atop a stack of books. But in a fact check last year, even the Associated Press, which is aggressively hostile to DeSantis, has acknowledged that the book was never banned in Florida. It has been pulled from libraries and curriculums in various places—nearly all of them liberal enclaves, like Burbank, California, Madison, Wisconsin, and Seattle.
The Left and apparently now some Republicans as well believe that parents should not question curation decisions made by public school librarians. They want the state to be free to indoctrinate young people. According to an analysis of campaign donations by Zippia, 91 percent of political contributions from library directors went to Democrats in the last election cycle, and this dynamic hasn’t changed in years. A 2005 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education noted that, in the preceding year, librarians donated to John Kerry over George W. Bush by a ratio of 223 to one.
In fact, progressive librarians already practice a form of book banning by not ordering books seen as “conservative,” ordering very few copies of them, or not featuring them prominently compared with liberal titles. For example, the public library system in Pinellas County, where I live, owns no copies of Johnny the Walrus, a children’s book by Daily Wire contributor Matt Walsh, though it has nearly 8,000 reviews on Amazon and a 4.9-star average rating. But the system has seven copies of Let’s Talk About It, a graphic novel by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan featuring sexually explicit images and themes, as well as copies of every other prominently “banned” young adult book.
Just as conservatives have gained traction on gender identity by asking leftists to define the word “woman,” they could also reframe the book debate by asking them to define the word “ban.” They shouldn’t let the Left avoid acknowledging the explicit or graphic content of many of these books, and they should ask defenders of these titles whether they want their own children reading them. When movies and television programs are rated PG–13, R, or X—and consequently restricted for younger viewers—that doesn’t mean that they’re banned. The same principle goes for books.