JURIST Deputy Features Editor Jaimee Francis talked with Professor Megan Boyd of Georgia State University College of Law about her research on the intersection of children’s literature and the law, with a focus on book bans. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
JURIST: What is children’s literature?
Boyd: Dating back to the time of Plato, there were two schools of thought about what literature was supposed to do: it was either supposed to instruct or delight. Fast forward several thousand years to the start of children’s literature, and, initially, children’s literature was written entirely to instruct — primarily religious instruction, and also etiquette instruction. Children’s literature changed at the turn of the 19th century so that it was designed to entertain children, while also having some underlying moral themes. This change eventually sparked the Golden Age in Children’s Literature, in which books, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wind in the Willows, aimed primarily to entertain children. Following this Golden Age, books, like those of Roald Dahl, became pure fun. This evolution resulted in the vast range of children’s literature that exists today. Notwithstanding these changes, children’s literature is pretty conservative, even though literature itself has typically been a very liberal area.
JURIST: What are school book bans?
Boyd: Book bans refer to decisions by boards of education to remove books from public schools so that teachers are no longer allowed to teach certain books or that school libraries are no longer able to purchase copies of certain books. Because these bans apply to schools, children are still able to read the targeted books outside of the classroom. Nevertheless, these bans present an obstacle, as students, especially those from families with lower incomes, do not have the ability to purchase these books on their own or get to a public library. Effectively, book bans can prevent children from having access to the targeted books.
JURIST: Why are school book bans imposed?
Boyd: Historically, book bans have been imposed on books that were thought to contain inappropriate content. Examples include The Bluest Eye, which has faced bans due to rape and incest; To Kill a Mockingbird which has faced bans due to language and race issues; Maus, which has faced bans due to Holocaust-related content. More recently, book banks have been imposed on books written by minority authors about issues related to their communities. Targeted examples include The Hate U Give, which deals with racism and police violence and things like that; or All Boys Aren’t Blue, which deals with LGBTQ+ issues and molestation. This recent trend shows that educators are banning books on the basis that they deal with themes and issues that these educators deem too mature for students, or that these books are not promoting the types of issues that these educators want their students to read. Although book bans have been imposed from both the political left and the right, now the majority of these ban efforts are coming from the right.
JURIST: How can book bans be challenged?
Boyd: Book bans are looked at on a case-by-case basis, consistent with how content-based speech is scrutinized in the public sector. Outside of the public sector, content-based speech is scrutinized in a different way, giving private schools far more latitude to ban books. Even within the public sector, public schools have broad discretion in making curriculum decisions under the law. For example, when resources are finite, which they always are in public schools, schools have broad discretion in choosing how to spend their money. So as long as a school can justify some legitimate reason to ban a book from the curriculum as being inappropriate for students or lacking educational value, then the school has the right to spend its money on other books which it argues have more value for students. And because the constitutional question is answered on a case-by-case basis, the court will generally look at what was said at the board of education meetings, what types of books were replaced, and what types of books replaced those books. Therefore, although these book bans receive high media attention, very few people will challenge them because it is usually not worth the litigation cost. A publisher generally will not challenge a book ban because there is not enough financial interest to cover the affected portion of that book’s profit. A parent generally will not challenge a book ban, because of the high cost. However, interest groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) may step in to challenge a book ban or may fund affected parents in doing so. As such, even though most of these book bans receive a lot of media attention, they remain in place.
I think the best effort people can make to avoid book bans is to speak up at the initial board of education meetings, and to give specific reasons why the targeted book is important. Changing a board of education’s mind at the local level can prevent the ban altogether — along with any potential litigation and related costs. Certainly, having a given book taught in the curriculum is different considering the depth of study and discussion, but making that book available in the library is relatively easy. Furthermore, an alternative to some of the books that are being banned is to give students whose parents are not comfortable with those texts a different book. That way, students who would really benefit from reading and studying those texts and thinking about those themes, would have the opportunity to do so.
JURIST: How do book bans affect schools?
Boyd: I remember as a kid, there were certain things that I did not know how to talk to my parents about and being able to read about them in books was very helpful. For example, I knew nothing about periods, and reading Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret gave me some starting knowledge from which I could then learn about this phenomenon that would eventually happen to me. I think many kids also do not have a jumping off point to talk to adults about things that are happening to them in their personal lives, or things that they just want to learn about. And books give them that starting place to be able to talk to adults about things that are going on in their lives or that they are interested in. So books can be very, very important, and the best way to avoid book bans is to hit the ground running early and get involved promoting widespread acceptance and tolerance of all the books in the library.
Most of the books that are being banned now, like The Hate U Give, are hard to read because they force us to see a part of ourselves and our society that look really ugly. But we read them because we want to be able to see the world through eyes that are different than ours. Or, if we are in the position of the characters in that book, then we want the feelings we feel to be justified, and we want to realize that there are other people out there who feel those feelings. One of the things books do is help us connect with people who are like us — who look like us, if we look different, or who think like us, if we think differently — and who experience the world in the way that we experience it. So it is important that these books are available to people, and particularly to young people, who are in their formative years and trying to figure out where they fit into the world. And even though people might say that these young people can just go buy a book that has been banned, not all of these students have the ability to do that. So if these books are available in the public school system, at least students can get their hands on them and read them. Maybe we cannot get as far as adding The Hate U Give to the curriculum, but maybe at least we can get it in the school library so that people can read about it, which will spark conversation with children about what to do in situations like this, when you encounter police. It is important that these books are there so that they can start these conversations.