This essay won the $500 second prize in the 2023 Connecticut Foundation for Open Government’s Forrest Palmer High School Essay Contest. Students were asked to write essays addressing one of three timely First Amendment issues: book bans in schools, hate speech on campuses, and misinformation on social media.
As a teenager, I worry about a lot of things. I worry about my grades. I worry about my relationships with friends. I worry about the Yankees’ chances of making the playoffs. But I’ve never been worried about a book being banned from my local library. Now I am.
I’m scared that students are being denied access to books like “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Beloved” because they’re deemed “inappropriate” for reasons that don’t hold up under scrutiny.
Book bannings are familiar tools that politicians use to scare voters. By highlighting certain passages out of context, politicians frighten parents into believing those books are “corrupting” their kids. From efforts to censor Darwin’s writings in the early part of the 20th century to current Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin’s attempt to ban Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” politicians attack books to advance their agendas.
Youngkin’s advertisement featured a mother objecting to “Beloved’s” presence in her son’s English class because of its depictions of slavery. The woman’s son found it “disgusting” and “hard for him to handle.” The student is right. Slavery is hard to handle and that’s the point Morrison is making. She’s not here to make us comfortable.
While many banned books address discrimination against Black Americans, this censorship also has a chilling effect on works about other minorities. As an Asian, I’ve encountered a few books that depict the hardships that we face while living in the United States. While works such as “All American Boys” prompt discussions about Anti-Black racism, Asian communities rarely see their experience reflected in literature. Book banning will only further stifle such conversations. This erasure of historical issues does not make us think about the problems in society—it just makes us ignore them.
This sort of censorship harms not just racial minorities, but all adolescents. Take the conversation surrounding “The Catcher in the Rye,” which is often banned because of its explicit language. While “offensive,” those words also demonstrate the qualities of a character. Experienced teachers know this. They contextualize Holden Caulfield’s swearing by pointing out that it reflects the troubled thoughts of a teenager. When adolescents are denied access to books like this, they’ve been prevented from understanding that their feelings are normal.
Despite the harms of book banning, there are some negative impacts of reading books that contain racial slurs or mature actions for those who are too young to understand the context in which those actions occurred. Instead of completely censoring those books, a different approach is to categorize books in a system similar to the rating system of movies in which some books can only be read by high school students while others books can be read even at the middle school level. This categorization should be decided by a committee that is made up of people of different races, genders, and sexualities to make sure that different voices are appreciated when the committee decides on the ratings given to books. Not only so, but the committee can also invite students to rate books to give them a better perspective on how students view the books.
Ultimately, no state or school district should have the power to ban books, as it limits the kinds of truths adolescents can hear. When teenagers only read “clean” white stories, they are denied a sense of the world’s vastness, and their place within it is erased. I understand this all too well. At my school, I rarely see others who look like me. In books, however, I can see not only reflections of my own teenage experience but universal truths we all should wrestle with.
Yue Huang is a sophomore at Kingswood Oxford school in West Hartford.