The seventh time I learned that my novel Nineteen Minutes was being banned in a school district, I was watching a book burning.
I was in the U.K., in rehearsals for a musical I’d co-written based on Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief, which is set in Nazi Germany. The director was determined to physically set a prop book on fire each night because of how shocking and powerful it was to watch. We were testing it out for the first time when the notification popped on my computer screen: about yet another parent complaining that my novel was inappropriate for high school students.
In the past six months, my books have been banned dozens of times in dozens of school districts. As sad as it seems, I was getting used to the emails from PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman telling me that yet again, my novel was under attack. But this week, something truly egregious happened. In Martin Country School District, 92 books were pulled from the school library shelves. Twenty of them were mine.
The 92 books fell into three categories: those with mature content, those written by BIPOC authors, and those written by LGBTQ authors. My books were removed because they were, according to the sole parent who made the challenge, “adult romance that should not be on school shelves.” It is worth noting I do not write adult romance. The majority of the books that were targeted do not even have a kiss in them. What they do have, however, are issues like racism, abortion rights, gun control, gay rights, and other topics that encourage kids to think for themselves.
When I read through the list of the 20 novels of mine that were pulled from the Martin County School District bookshelves, one surprised me the most. The Storyteller is a novel about the Holocaust. It chronicles the growth of anti-Semitism and fascism in Nazi Germany. There was a strange irony that a parent wanted this particular book removed, because it felt a bit like history repeating itself.
Naturally, not all books are right for all age groups, and no one wants porn on a school bookshelf. In the past, teachers and librarians used their professional training to determine what was age-appropriate for certain groups, and listened to input from parents and students. Now, Florida has passed very broadly worded laws that limit what books can and cannot be in schools. Teachers who do not obey face penalties. Every book in a school must be reviewed by a media specialist and schools are told to “err on the side of caution.”
Some activists and parents have taken these laws as free reign to remove whatever books they personally do not deem acceptable. Some districts take the books off shelves “pending review”— but months and years go by without a review, and the books remain locked away. The outcome has been empty shelves in Florida classrooms and school libraries, where teachers and media specialists don’t only ban books that have been challenged but, in fear of future retribution, also remove other books that might result in punitive measures. The result? Students don’t have access to certain titles.
More recently, these removals are happening without the review process that allows books to be vetted for age appropriateness. The 92 books that were pulled from Martin County School District shelves were based on the complaint of a single parent. IIn Martin County, a parent can challenge a book without having to identify the alleged inappropriate material — or without having even read the book. After doing so, the principal has 15 days to review the book and speak to the challenger, and then the Director of Curriculum and Instruction has 15 days for review, and finally after 45 days the school board makes a decision on the book. However, submitting 92 books at once ensures chaos, as principals do not have the time to do their job and read all that challenged material—which is exactly the point. The challengers know that they are putting the district into a situation where there is an impossibility of meeting the standards of the law regarding response time.
Media specialists and teachers who do not remove a book that is considered inappropriate can be faced with a third-degree felony, loss of teaching license, and a $5,000 fine. Some media specialists, afraid of non-compliance, consult with other districts to see what books have been pulled. Others simply remove every book on the parent’s list. The books in Martin County were removed in a matter of weeks—far too quickly for all 92 to be read and assessed.
In most school districts where a novel of mine has been challenged—including Martin County—the impetus has come from Moms For Liberty, a nationwide group that has a binder full of objectionable titles they find “concerning,” which are passed to local chapters, who in turn provide the titles to their local school boards or principals. Those doing the challenging often have not read the books themselves. In the few cases where a group of parents was convened to read the books removed from shelves, several books were deemed appropriate and returned. The rest remain off shelves in school and classroom libraries, because of a single parent or small group of parents who object to their children being exposed to whatever is within the pages.
Look, I’m a mom. I used to read books before my kids did, to make sure I felt they were emotionally ready for the content. If it was a hard topic, we used the book as a springboard for discussion. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a parent deciding a certain book is not right for her child. There is a colossal problem with a parent deciding that, therefore, no child should be allowed to read that book.
The banned books on these lists are not salacious or revolutionary. What children are actually being exposed to are lives different from their own, and mindsets different from their own—which creates compassion and empathy. In other cases, children are being exposed to ideas and mindsets exactly like their own, which provides representation and validity and a sense of belonging. We know categorically that kids who feel marginalized and who read books with characters like themselves wind up feeling less marginalized. Kids who have never encountered someone different from them get to do so in the safe space of a book, and it leads to understanding. Books help people find common ground; book bans spotlight the differences between us.
The book of mine that has been banned most frequently in the past six months—Nineteen Minutes—is about a school shooting and the effects of bullying. However, the reason cited for its inappropriateness for kids is not the mention of violence, but rather a single page that depicts a date rape using anatomically correct words for the human body. It is not a gratuitous scene and it is not sensationalistic. What does it say about our world when “keeping children safe” means a book about school shootings is banned because it has a word for genitalia in it… but we don’t regulate the guns that cause those real-life shootings?
In the years since Nineteen Minutes has been published, I’ve received thousands of emails from bullied kids—some who said the book was the reason they decided not to bring a gun to school; some who said the book was the reason they didn’t attempt suicide. Reading my novel didn’t irrevocably harm them. In fact, it made them realize they were not alone in their thoughts and feelings. The most common sentence in letters I receive from readers is: “I never really thought about this issue before.” That is what books do. They introduce kids to worlds and situations outside of their own. They help kids see themselves in a different way; they help kids see the world in a different way.
“We’ve seen, historically, what the next chapter looks like when we don’t speak out against book challenges.”
Last fall, when I sat in a theater every night and watched a prop book burn, I was reminded that now is not the first time we have seen bans and challenges to literature. Because of that, we can say with historical accuracy that we know what happens next. If you want to control the thoughts of a nation you start by controlling what they read. Removing books from a library or labeling them as problematic is the first step on a very slippery slope. We’ve already seen school districts next starting to cancel school drama productions they deem problematic. We’ve had challenges to curriculum by people who do not have degrees in education.
Many of my writer friends whose books have been challenged hear the same refrain: “Kids can just get those books somewhere else!” Unfortunately, not every kid has access to a public library or transportation to get there; for many, a school or classroom library is their only resource. We also hear: “Oh, that’s just gonna drive up sales!” Trust me, none of us want that. What we want is for kids to be able to read what they want to read, instead of being told what they should read. We want the great majority of folks in communities who support the freedom to read to be just as loud as those select few who are making so much noise against it.
In the brilliant words of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, books create windows through which kids can escape and mirrors in which they can find themselves. We want you to stand in solidarity with us, the writers who create these books. Because we’ve seen, historically, what the next chapter looks like when we don’t speak out against book challenges… and that story does not end well.
Jodi Picoult is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of 28 novels
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