Quiet as a “Maus”: How Book Banning is Stifling Representation and Free Speech

Anna Gorman, Staff Writer

The practice of banning books started in a few quaint counties and school districts. Parents were upset, teachers were pressured and librarians were at a loss. It didn’t take long for this movement to spread throughout the rest of the United States, and soon titles like “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “1984” were dragged out of their libraries – their safe havens – kicking and screaming. 

Book banning has been happening since the seventeenth century. Scholars would question the Catholic Church through their writings, which resulted in them being ridiculed, beaten and sometimes killed. Their beloved books, which they took so long to perfect, were outlawed and burned. 

Nowadays, however, book banning has been at an all-time high. The American Library Association (ALA) reported 729 challenges to library, school and university books in 2021 alone, as opposed to 156 in 2020. 

Those hundreds of challenges impact the authors negatively as having a book get banned makes selling their copies harder. 

Traditionally, when an author publishes their work, they receive 10-12% royalties for every copy sold – roughly $1.79 every copy. At this rate, a publishing company would need to sell 6,000 copies to give that author so much as $10,000 in earnings a year, according to a table of earnings from Self-Publishing School. 

When a book is removed from bookstore shelves, those royalty percentages are nonexistent – a publishing company can’t sell books if its buyers (libraries and bookstores) won’t accept them. 

This means an author can’t make money off their novels. 

There are two sides of the same coin, however. A banned book isn’t just prohibited from generating profit but is also prohibited from being read in general – read by people who could benefit from the controversial topics discussed in the work. 

Heidi Goldstein is the senior community library manager at both El Cerrito Library and Rodeo Library in the Contra Costa County library system in California. 

Though she lives in “an extremely liberal place,” she said, both the libraries she oversees usually do not carry banned books. 

Despite this, the library community in Contra Costa County — El Cerrito in particular — is very diverse.  

“If [a book] that talks about a nonbinary person in a positive way [is banned], then the nonbinary community who would benefit from this book would suffer,” she said over phone. 

Janine Bixler is a professor of literacy at Mount Saint Mary College in New York and teaches her literacy classes with banned books. Before she worked at Mount Saint Mary, however, she taught at the elementary and middle school levels in Syracuse, New York and Atlanta. 

“The students I taught in Atlanta were more culturally and linguistically diverse than I had ever taught, and the available book choices in the school often didn’t reflect my students lives,” Bixler said in an email. “So, I had to make an effort to find more books that they could connect to. Many of these books were challenged or banned.” 

When Bixler was browsing for books that would appeal to her students, she said she was experiencing what Rudine Sims Bishop, who is a member of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and scholar who specialized in analyzing African American children’s literature, called “mirror books” and “window texts.”  

“This past year’s theme for banned books week was ‘Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us,’ and this theme is exactly why I address the freedom to choose all books and to consider that, when we read about books that are different from our own experiences, even if we don’t share the same values, we can respect and understand new viewpoints and perspectives,” Bixler said. 

Lauri Goodling, professor of English at Georgia State University, believes that book banning (and censorship as a whole) is harmful to everyone. 

“Yes, the content of some [books] is unseemly, but there are ugly parts of the world, too,” she said in an email. “Reflecting on and conversing about some of these topics provides space for tremendous personal growth – and even develops in students a resilience for the ugliness that may one day be a part of their own lives.” 

Marginalization of certain groups is another issue when it comes to banning books. 

Goodling said those who are 15 to 25 years old and live in secluded areas are most affected by this.  

“This age group is at a critical coming-of-age moment where their curiosity about the world must be satiated and nurtured in order for them to become truly engaged citizens of it,” she said. 

Bixler had a similar ideology when it came to this topic.  

“Any individuals who lead real lives that are full of challenges and differences have been marginalized,” Bixler said. “It’s so important for everyone to see others going through experiences they live, and sometimes those experiences might contain crime, violence, tense relationships, drugs, alcoholism, gender identity, language, discrimination… the list goes on.”  

According to the ALA, the right to speak and publish under the First Amendment has been interpreted widely to protect society from government attempts to suppress ideas and information. 

However, in 1982, the Supreme Court in Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico ruled school boards “could not restrict the availability of books in its libraries simply because its members disagreed with their content.” 

This ruling, however, still allowed for books to be barred if school boards and faculty deemed a work unfit for the curriculum or pervasively vulgar. Also, the ruling only applied to the removal of books from school libraries, not other public libraries or bookstores. 

In her lessons, Goodling puts focus on finding why censorship occurs in the first place. 

“This challenges students to question authority, question motivations, push against political structures and understand why it is not safe to trust powerbrokers blindly and thereby going along with them,” she said. “Probably 90% of the time when I’ve had my students read a banned book, they are shocked at how mildly offensive the topic actually was.” 

Like Goodling, when Bixler teaches about banned books, she focuses on the ‘why’ and discusses how the practice limits perspectives. 

“If banning a book prevents teens from having access to books, it has a detrimental impact. However, learning about books that have been challenged or banned can intrigue teens to read a book and open up a deeper conversation on why a book is challenged or banned,” she said. 

Goodling said that books are “just information and entertainment.” 

“I don’t believe that books create bad people or invoke bad behavior any more than video games do,” she said. “Books are just information and entertainment, and if individuals’ exposure to ideas could influence bad or harmful behavior, that is a character flaw or weakness on the part of the reader and not on the writer or substance of the book.” 

Sophomore Peyton Zawodzinski, the president of Cambridge’s book club said, “reading banned books is especially important.” 

“A lot of the time these books are banned because they discuss ‘controversial topics’,” she said. “But I think if we don’t read and discuss these topics, we will never learn from past mistakes or even current ones and we won’t be able to grow.”