I first read Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak when my seventh grade English teacher offered me some of her books when cleaning out her classroom at the end of the year. I’ve never been the one to turn down books. I looked through the stack of novels after a month of summer, bored out of my mind. An intriguing title caught my attention: Speak. The initial read was quick and just as quickly, it became a favorite. The book still sits on my dresser, or in the hands of a friend who I’ve forced to read it. The annotations become messier as I read it again and again. The messages that it holds—about mental health, sexual assault, and expression—become closer to me with each word. It stings to know that Speak can no longer sit on the shelves in libraries or in classrooms like my seventh grade English room, robbing students of the experience I once had.
Speak is banned in school libraries across the United States. Many of my favorite books are. It hurts my heart to know that the novels I treasure most are being hidden from students. Speak encourages expression through art and also discusses and spreads awareness of sexual assault and mental illness. Mental health and sexual assault are some of the most important things for teens to learn about as they grow up, especially while living in a society where these things aren’t uncommon. The main character is real in her narrations of her struggles. The relatable aspect of the story helps teens understand that they’re not alone. The protagonist is a friend and a teacher. Literature lovers all over the globe, myself included, are inspired and taught valuable lessons by books everyday. And yet, school administrations in the United States ban these books from their libraries, gradually eroding the impact of literature on students.
What impact does literature have on students?
Primarily, students receive historical, social, and ethical lessons. But, textbook learning isn’t enough anymore. Students can also learn vital lessons and create deep connections with history and society through characters and themes that aren’t in textbooks. Some students might enjoy learning about historical events with historical fiction instead of straight-forward and emotionless textbooks.
Books can teach students about racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, as well as the impact they have and why they should be dismantled within society. Students can also understand disabilities and mental illnesses, and can even gain empathy or view the world from another set of eyes. The possibilities are endless when books are left on shelves and uncensored.
The Myths of Censorship
Despite the great world that books open, dozens of parents and school administrators narrow-mindedly think that banning books will help students flourish. In actuality, taking certain books away from students is the worst thing that schools can do. Administrations come up with many reasons for book banning, such as when they include depictions of sexual assault, sexism, racism, LGBTQ+ characters, mental illness, different political and religious views, discussion of drugs, and even violence. However, these issues for censorship are often what needs to be taught the most.
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was banned for racial slurs and mentions of rape after its release in 1960 but it’s now one of the most important books for students to read when learning about the impact of racism on the law. Although the racist content of the novel might make some people uncomfortable or upset, it accurately reflects history and can connect to current events. Kids can’t be sheltered from these situations in real life, so why prevent them from reading reality? Books with heavy themes of racism often spark inspiration in students, as they don't want their world polluted with hate. Despite the original ban, To Kill A Mockingbird is actually part of curriculum in many schools because it teaches prejudice, judgement and justice along with the anti-racist message.
Because some banned books, like To Kill A Mockingbird, are being taught in schools, some people think that book censorship is a dying concept, but it really isn’t. Even in the last year, so many vital books have been challenged and banned, including one of favorite novels, Speak. But the list goes on: Alex Gino’s George, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie are just a few of the titles that made the list.
More recently, it’s the diverse characters that parents and administrations go after. Books with diverse characters make students more aware of the people around them, and sometimes even reveal something about themselves. Books like Drama by Raina Telgemeier and I am Jazz by Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel were challenged and banned in a number of schools for their inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and stories. The religious or political views of the school shouldn't interfere with any student’s chance to learn about social issues like sexuality and gender identity. Open mindedness and acceptance are things that students need to learn, and books are one of the best ways to teach these concepts.
Surprisingly, Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank’s diary of life during the Holocaust, is banned in many schools because it can be seen as “too depressing.” The Holocaust stands as one of the most depressing events in history, so it would make sense that a recollection of the time period would be as depressing as the event itself. But historical events shouldn’t have to be sugar coated when students learn about them. Students need to see the mistakes of the past to correct them in the future.
A Final Thought
When I found out that my favorite book was banned in school libraries I thought about the students who can’t receive the lessons and inspiration that the book gave me. I felt so upset, knowing that someone can no longer find my comfort novel in their school library. So, I recommend the book to everyone, sometimes forcing my worn-out copy into the hands of my peers. I make an effort to make sure that someone else reads the book because censoring the stories that teach students crucial lessons is not acceptable. Every student needs to learn from whichever source they can. Some students might prefer to learn from literature, making this issue all the more pressing. To ensure that students everywhere are receiving the quality literature that they deserve, one should petition and spread awareness of the issue, review and research the policies of schools around you, and read banned books. Read what your community doesn’t want you to see. The power is on the page.
About the Author
Ari Collins (she/her) is a small-town teen writer and poet who loves soup, skirts, and sonnets. Her mind is swimming in a pool of poetry, journalism, art, Emily Dickinson, feminism, fashion, Edgar Allan Poe, and disposable cameras. She loves writing to inspire and express, but the majority of her published work has been more news related. Her work can be found on her school’s online news publication- eSomethin.com- or on her social media. When not writing, she can be found listening to Bikini Kill, re-reading Percy Shelley’s “The Daemon of the World,” or riding her bike in the wrong shoes. She thinks everyone should: read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, own a leather jacket, and wake up early to watch the sun rise.