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A display of children’s books at Van Pelt Library on Jan. 31. Credit: Hannah Shumsky

In the midst of my visit to Yad Vashem last summer, I approached an exhibit with books scattered across a shallow divot in the floor of the concrete building. They are symbolic of the over 25,000 books destroyed by the Nazis in 1930s Berlin during World War II. 

I stood beside my fellow visitors in silence as we watched eerie footage of the national event: a mob of people saluting Hitler’s reign of terror while they cheerily threw heaps of books into the fire — setting ideas, history, and lives aflame with them.

Thousands of pages were obliterated, blackened with ashes instead of ink. This act of censorship marked the very beginning of a period of extensive oversight contributing to the massacres of Jews, nomadic groups, and many others. The video concluded with a quote by Heinrich Heine: “Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” 

Immediately, I was brought back to the news of escalating book bannings between 2021 and 2022. I quickly recognized that book banning and book burning are means to the same ends: erasing history, suppressing culture, and preventing freedom of thought by deliberately limiting access to information. 

It is a tyrannical method to keep the public at bay, to maintain subservience to a regime without rebellion, and to preserve a status quo curated by the few in power. Those who ban books want a complicit, submissive society. 

Inherently, the implications of book banning move beyond primary schooling. Book purges are problematic for institutions of higher education because students’ deficiencies in sociocultural capital in their primary years trickle into their post-secondary education. This perpetuates disproportionate gaps of information to stunt well-rounded, diverse thinking.

The History

Last January, by a 10-to-0 vote, Art Spieglman’s Pulitzer-winning graphic comic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale about the Holocaust was banned by a school district in Tennessee for “nudity” and “profanity.” 

Spiegelman used animals as characters instead of people to symbolize the hierarchical views of Nazis – Jews as mice and Germans as predatory cats. The “nudity” in question was in reference to one minuscule image in the comic when the author’s mother was found to have committed suicide. 

The school district claimed that they were protecting children from offensive imagery while simultaneously flattening the larger messages of the novel and disregarding how Spiegleman unveils the unspeakable through a unique literary medium. It should be a given that works on the Holocaust are bound to contain unpleasant imagery. Ironically, banning a book highlighting fascism is a form of fascism itself. 

Maus was just one of 2,532 instances of individual books banned between July 2021 and June 2022 alone, according to PEN America’s Index of School Book Bans list – a record high. 

Deemed inappropriate among others were: 

Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which is set in the Reconstruction era and depicts slavery’s horrors and legacy with sexually explicit and violent scenes.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, which details Kobabe’s personal journey in their gender identity formation, aimed to be a “useful and touching guide on gender identity,” according to its publisher.

Both books are understood to be inappropriate for students by their critics when, in actuality, they are anything but. The intent of these books is not to promote dangerous ideologies or movements but to work against them. Awareness of these stories has the potential to prevent and reduce inequality through unique lenses. 

Because stories generate emotional connections, they inspire us to act to overcome hatred. Those opposing these books would recognize that, if only they read beyond the snippets they are deliberately citing out of context. Often, these efforts manipulate and obstruct the broader meanings of the materials. 

If you take a look at the PEN America list of banned books, there is a clear-cut trend: intolerance and exclusion buttress these efforts. 

The books that were challenged or banned last year and into this year contained common themes of “LGBTQIA+ content,” “divisive language,” and “anti-police messag[ing],” were considered “sexually explicit,” dealt with topics such as history, or were centered around protagonists of color. 

Evidently, minority voices that have persistently sought to amplify their stories are under profound attack as their identities are vanishing from the shelves that they fought so long to be on. They have become the direct targets of efforts to micromanage education as a proxy to further oppress historically marginalized groups. In essence, then, banning books restricts history to the lenses of those who have always had voices, or, in other words, the winners. 

Students crave information. These removals send a message that certain stories should remain untold, forgotten, and hidden. In turn, students of these marginalized identities may then feel this way about themselves.

And now, in 2023, the fire continues to burn as more books are up for contention in Texas and Florida. But this fight is also occurring in our backyard: Pennsylvania is ranked 3rd for having the most banned books in the country, and districts including Central Bucks County challenged over 60 books in February. Further eastward, another Pennsylvania school district, Central York, continues to add to its list of over 300 banned books, primarily relating to minority groups. 

The Harm 

There are extensive risks to censorship, especially as book banning targets marginalized groups to conceal unsettling — but true — injustices of the past and present. 

Although some proponents of book banning may argue that educational curricula should not be politicized through these books, human rights are not political, and neither is teaching history through personal narratives that cannot be encapsulated in textbooks. When education is highly controlled, that is when it becomes politicized — that is when human rights are debated. 

Storytelling is power. English teachers often turn to the metaphor of “windows, mirrors, and glass doors” when unpacking texts. Literature can offer windows into experiences that students would not otherwise have exposure to, mirrors for introspection for self-identity, and glass doors that open for readers to become part of the characters’ world, inducing a shift in perspective. All three exercises can move students to develop more nuanced perceptions of humanity – and those unlike themselves. 

That said, coming face-to-face with others’ narratives can arouse previously unconsidered notions and lead to new outlooks about issues, granting provisionality to our beliefs. Through literature, we can alter our worldviews to be more holistic and respectful rather than judgmental and insular. 

But when restricted to only select literary resources, opportunities for growth decline dramatically as education centered around homogenous outlooks festers uniform thinking. Reading renders appreciation for individual differences, legitimizing others rather than diminishing their vitality.

Michelle Maiese, professor of Philosophy at Emmanuel College, finds that affective and conceptual frameworks combine to construct our habits of thinking, responses, and actions. Implicit judgements and biases embedded in these frameworks can stifle change if left unattended. Thus, educational exposure is essential in developing sensitivity extending to our treatment of the world and others. 

Schemas are patterns of thinking and methods of mental categorization, but they are subject to immense change with culturally representative and integrative curricula. Our habits of mind, according to Maiese, guide what we deem significant and concerning, but the stories in books can help expand these capacities.

An additional risk of book banning is the sanitization of history. This contributes to historical debt and puts educational access and independent practical thinking at stake – and in the hands of the perpetrators. 

Overall, filtering literature only furthers immense partisanship and silences those already disproportionately underrepresented. Students cannot learn about other perspectives and experiences different from theirs when the curriculum is limited to what makes politicians comfortable. 

The Hypocrisy 

Keith Flaugh, one of the founders of a conservative educational group called Florida Citizens Alliance, argues, “This is not about banning books, it’s about protecting the innocence of our children.” Is it? 

It’s not about maintaining innocence, but ignorance. It’s about mind control. The same political leaders that are waging a war on books are the very ones who will fight tenaciously to defend the weapons killing our country’s children time and time again. Instead of working to protect children’s safety through tangible efforts against real threats, they expend immense energy trying to limit children’s spheres of knowledge. 

When we encounter stories about systematic ills plaguing our country, we become more resilient and more willing to advocate for our beliefs. Proponents of book banning want to suppress dissent and difference. 

“Maus and many other banned books that grapple with the history of oppression show readers how personal prejudice can become the law … adults are wielding their own prejudices as a weapon, and students will suffer for it,” Marilisa Jiménez García, Lehigh University associate professor warns. 

Stories do what statistics and numbers can’t. Books captivate humankind at its best and its worst; they are quintessential to societal progress and development. Humans are multifaceted beings, just like the characters in these books. We have to keep defending these characters who help us understand and see the world in a way that is not merely black and white. 

If we continue to allow policymakers to control our access to knowledge, we are in danger of living in a dystopian society — something like the one portrayed in Fahrenheit 451, a world without a single book. I suggest reading it before it becomes banned, too. 

As Ray Bradbury remarks in Fahrenheit 451, "Do you understand now why books are hated and feared? Because they reveal the pores on the face of life. The comfortable people want only the faces of the full moon, wax, faces without pores, hairless, expressionless."

This is a culture war, and we must engage in battle. Keep reading, keep learning, and, most importantly, keep storytelling. Students and society need you on their side of the story. 

RIANE LUMER is a College junior studying political science and journalistic writing from Huntingdon Valley, P.A. Her email address is