My parents let me read whatever I wanted. This included weird and scary comic books, which in the 1950s were seen as subversive and disgusting and ruinous to children. In 1954, when I was reading Tales From the Crypt, Senator Estes Kefauver convened a special committee to investigate their dangers. Star witness Dr. Fredric Wertheim, a prominent psychiatrist, held comic books responsible for juvenile delinquency, a huge concern at the time. He declared that in comparison, when it came to brainwashing children, “Hitler was a beginner.” (Wertheim was a political progressive, by the way, as was Kefauver.)
Later, though, when I graduated to grown-up books, there was one author my father banned: Guy de Maupassant. I don’t know whether he was my dad’s idea of a too-sexy writer—French, you know—but of course it made me race to de Maupassant’s short stories, which are clever, worldly, and, yes, a bit sexy for an American teenager in those days. It was Eve and the forbidden fruit all over again. This was around the time when our beloved French teacher, Mme. Champrigand, took us to see Sundays and Cybèle, a movie in which a shy young loner befriends a little girl abandoned in an orphanage by her father and is killed by police officers who think he is a child molester. It was a wonderful film. I really should watch it again.
I remember my parents when I think about the banning of books in schools today. I was so lucky to grow up in a house full of books, in an era before the distractions and negativity of social media, with parents who themselves read and trusted me to read books and magazines of my own choosing. Moms and dads should be kissing the feet of school librarians, those underpaid and overworked experts who knock themselves out trying to interest their kids in reading. Instead, a highly organized critical mass of parents has devoted itself to removing from school libraries books that in their view promote sex, especially of the LGBTQ variety, and “critical race theory” (i.e., books by people of color, like Nobel Prize–winning author Toni Morrison and best-selling YA novelist Angie Thomas), to say nothing of classics like The Handmaid’s Tale, Bridge to Terabithia, and Maus.
What is wrong with these parents? Imagine worrying about books—paper books!—in today’s crowded world of TikTok crap, online pornography, and 24/7 Kardashian gossip. I’ll bet most of these parents haven’t read a book since they were frog-marched through The Great Gatsby in high school English. (Incidentally, Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel was banned as “controversial” and too “sexual” by an Alaska school board in 2020.)
Banned Books Week took place in September, so naturally liberals, progressives, writers, and free speech supporters—PEN America, the ACLU, the American Library Association, and other organizations—were busy protesting this craziness, and rightly so. Milton wrote, “A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit”—as Cromwell’s censor, he gave himself some wiggle room with the qualifier “good”—but even a not-so-good book has its purpose. Any book can spark the imagination, increase knowledge of a different corner of life, or just give pleasure while increasing reading fluency, like those comic books I read as a child. I’m not thrilled when teachers request manga for their classroom libraries, but at least the kids are reading. At least they are feeling what it’s like to get lost in a story.
Now that the defenders of free speech and literature have had their annual say, can we talk about the actual condition of school libraries? In too many districts, it is abysmal. For example, as of 2021, only 8 percent of Michigan public schools had a full-time librarian. Nationally, the situation is only a bit better. According to the American Library Association, 9 percent of public and private schools for grades K-12 in the United States have no library at all. Only 61 percent have a full-time librarian, which means many are closed much of the time, and a part-time librarian often isn’t around enough to get to know the students.
Sheila May-Stein is the librarian at Perry High School in Pittsburgh, the only high school in a neighborhood with a large Black and low-income population. “One of the problems is that when kids get to high school, they don’t like to read,” she told me on the phone. “That’s because they haven’t had functioning libraries at their previous schools. And that’s because they cut librarians. When you have a well-trained librarian with a well-stocked library, he or she can make a difference with children and reading.” Until this year, May-Stein’s budget for new books was zero. This year, she got a big fat $499.
A fully staffed and well-funded library should be a school’s beating heart—a dedicated, quiet, safe space, open for children to learn and explore and de-stress, presided over by a trained and knowledgeable librarian who knows them and, unlike their teachers, doesn’t have to test and grade them. For many kids, there is no substitute. They can’t get to the public library, their families can’t afford to buy books, and, perhaps surprisingly given the widespread assumption that paper books are for old fogies, they don’t like to read online even if they have the requisite devices. Many studies have shown that students with access to a school library with a librarian do better academically, and the gains are greatest for at-risk, low-income, and Black students. So why are school libraries so neglected? It’s partly due to the defunding of all public goods, but it’s also due to priorities. “If you were to go to any decently funded school in southwest Pennsylvania,” May-Stein told me, “you will find they have full-on football arenas and no libraries.”
Free speech advocates are right to fight for librarians’ ability to do their jobs, which is to stock the shelves with books chosen according to professional standards, even if parents aren’t always happy with the results. But what about students’ ability to take out any books at all? Maybe we need a Disappearing Libraries Week to focus our minds on that.