Banning Books Only Makes Students Want to Read Them More

Sep 18, 2023 8:30:00 AM

by Shawnta S. Barnes

I have identical twins who are in middle school. They love to eat candy. They seem to have self-control about candy when I have it in the house, except when I put limits on it. The moment I explain how eating too much candy will cause cavities, the more they try to find ways to sneak and eat it.

This is not unlike our current debate around banning books. Years ago, when I was a middle school English teacher, the district I worked for got author Jay Asher to come and speak to a crowd of students and teachers. He wrote the book “13 Reasons Why.” This book had been in our library for a while. I had even done a book talk about it. Kids didn’t seem that interested in it ... until Banned Book Week came around, and I talked about the book again. 

I shared that the book had been banned in some places because death by suicide and sexual violence were part of the story. After that, I had students who checked out copies, and I had students who obtained their own personal copies. They just had to know what grown-ups were trying to keep them from. They needed to prove they could withstand any difficulties presented in the plot.

The best part is what happened after students read the book — they wanted to talk about it.

Those students who had read the book would speak to me in the hall or come eat lunch with me to discuss the book. Overall, every student’s main takeaway was that our actions matter, and we never know how our actions and words impact others.

Additionally, some of my students who were self-proclaimed “haters of books” admitted they enjoyed it, and it was one of the few books they finished. As an English teacher, I wanted kids to read. I know that kids only get better at reading by taking the time to read.

Unfortunately, book bans have increased recently. A recent WordsRated report stated:

  • 1,269 separate official requests to ban books in the US were registered in 2022.

  • This was a 74.07% increase over 729 challenges initiated during 2021.

  • During 2020, “only” 156 book bans were initiated, the least since the record has been measured.

  • Over the last ten years, 4,448 official banning requests were submitted in the United States.

Asher’s book “13 Reasons Why” was on the 50 most banned books in America list in 2022.

The data, however, can’t help but prove my point. A recent EdWeek article stated:

Students became 33% more interested in reading the book if it was banned.

Students aren’t only becoming more interested; they are pushing back. At a school board meeting in Granbury, Texas, a high school student said during public comment,

I simply want to emphasize who it is that is upset about this book ban, and it's not just delinquents who want to read smut. It's honors students who want access to the full extent of their education … I'm simply going to say that no government—and public school is an extension of government—has ever banned books and banned information from its public and been remembered in history as the good guys.”

Younger students are standing up as well. A middle school student in Pennsylvania started a banned book club, and a seven-year-old student in Missouri asked her mom to help her write a letter to the school board to explain why the board shouldn’t ban books. 

I get angry when people want to ban books because they are fearful. Their actions have far-reaching impacts.

Unfortunately, Indiana, where I live, was in the news again. In a now-deleted social media post, best-selling author John Green said, “You won’t catch me alive or dead in Fishers, Indiana, until these ridiculous policies are revoked. Which I guess means no Top Golf or IKEA for a while.” This was in response to Green’s book “The Fault in Our Stars” being banned from the library's teen section and moved into the adult section.

The media attention resulted in Green’s book being returned to the teen section, but the other removed books weren’t returned. The books were moved due to an updated shelving policy that called for books with repeated usage of profanity and certain sexual content to be transferred to the adult section, even if the book was made explicitly for a youth audience.

All the attention has done this: simply provide a list of books students will want to read. 

At the end of the day, students and authors should not have to fight book bans alone. If you're ready to join the fight, ASCD has provided a framework people can follow to resist book bans in their communities. 

As a former English teacher, I want to find ways to motivate students to read in the classroom or their homes instead of students reading because a book is banned.

Shawnta S. Barnes

Shawnta (Shawn-tay) S. Barnes, also known as Educator Barnes, is a married mother of identical twin boys. She navigates education from not only the educator’s perspective but also the parent’s perspective. She has been an educator for nearly two decades. Shawnta works with K-12 schools, universities, & education adjacent organizations through her education consulting business Blazing Brilliance. She is an adjunct college professor, supervises student teachers, Indy Kids Winning Editor-in-Chief, Brave Brothers Books Co-founder, & CEO, and Brazen Education Podcast host. She holds five education licenses: English/language arts 5-12, English to speakers of other languages P-12, library/media P-12, reading P-12, and school administration P-12, and she has held a job in every licensed area. Previously, she has served as a school administrator, English teacher, English learners teacher, literacy coach, and librarian. She won the 2019 Indiana Black Expo Excellence in Education Journalism Award. In 2023, she completed her doctorate in Literacy, Culture, and Language Education with a minor in Learning Sciences. She is an urban gardener in her spare time and writes about her harvest-to-table journey at gardenershicole.com. To learn more about Shawnta, visit educatorbarnes.com.

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