Students in Pennsylvania scored a victory last week in a battle to allow books about diversity and racism to be used in schools. The Central York School Board last fall “froze” teachers’ and students’ access to a picture book about Rosa Parks, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai’s autobiography and a long list of other resources a diversity committee had recommended.
After student protests that received national attention, the board “unfroze” the books. The dispute over which books kids should read is nothing new. Banning books became so common in the 1970s that the American Library Association launched “Banned Books Week” in 1982 and published a list of the Top 10 books to be challenged or banned in schools, libraries and bookstores across the country.
This year’s Banned Books Week, which was last week , has the traditional list. But it also has a new feature: an honorary chairman. Jason Reynolds is a fitting pick for the job. He is the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature through next year, and he has two books on this year’s list. Reynolds told KidsPost that he got involved in Banned Books Week because he wanted to highlight how limiting access to books puts limits on kids’ curiosity.
“The one thing (young people) hear every day is that there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” he said. “The reason we tell people this is we want them to engage … with their own curiosity.” Bans send the message that there are things kids shouldn’t ask about, he said. “It doesn’t mean that everything in these books has to be agreed upon, but your question deserves to live in the world.”
When asked what he’s heard about why his own books – “All American Boys” and “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You” – are No. 2 and No. 3 on the list, Reynolds said he has been told they make white children feel guilty. “I think it’s fascinating that so many of the people saying this don’t spend that much time around kids,” he said.
Reynolds said he didn’t hear talk of guilt as he traveled across the country to discuss “All American Boys” with students in sixth grade through college. The book, written with Brendan Kiely and published in 2015, is about a Black teen beaten by a police officer and a white classmate who witnesses the beating.
“We’re talking very diverse environments, or we’re in very, very white spaces. (Nearly 100%) of the time we lean into the conversation, and they lean back in,” he said of the students’ interest in discussing the book.
Eliminating access to books is adults saying students don’t have the maturity or the intelligence to have difficult conversations, he said. Students Reynolds has met don’t agree.
“There are so many kids who don’t understand what the big deal is, why (a ban is) actually a thing,” he said. “I’ve talked to white kids who say this is what my mother says, this is what my father says, and I disagree.”
But banning books is also a cover for parents’ own fears, Reynolds said. “Adults don’t want to have complicated conversations with their children,” he said.
Those conversations might be about the language used in books. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Harper Lee’s 1960 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a Black man falsely accused of attacking a white woman, has been banned or challenged frequently in part because it contains racial slurs.
Reynolds acknowledges people’s concerns with “Mockingbird,” but he doesn’t think it should be banned. “Every book belongs on the shelf. We get to make decisions on what we choose to highlight,” he said. “What we don’t get to do is say the book is unavailable.”
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