My Uber Driver, the Book Banner

There’s no arguing with those who would meddle with school libraries

A driver adjusting her rear view mirror

I was telling a reporter about book bans as I got into the Uber. “PEN America has reported exactly 3,362 book bans in public schools during the 2022–23 school year,” I said. “There were over a thousand in Florida alone. This is a crisis; we have to sound the alarm!”

As I hung up, my Uber driver looked at me in the mirror. “Sounds like you know about books and schools,” she said. “Maybe you can give me some advice.”

“My 7th-grade daughter brought home this book called Gender Queer from her monthly visit to the school library. She wanted to read it to me at bedtime. Well, I’m no prude, but my little girl—who still likes Disney movies—was suddenly reading to me about this kid’s ‘standard method of masturbation’ and imaginary blow jobs. She’s twelve! I’ve set her iPad to block adult content. So why is her school librarian allowing her to check out this stuff?!”

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“Well,” I said, “it’s good to keep perspective. There’s kissing in Harry Potter and Snow White. You’re not troubled by that, are you?”

She looked at me like I was nuts. “You don’t think there’s a difference between a kiss and this stuff?” she asked. “I reached out to a parents’ group about this book. They said that it wasn’t just me, that they’ve heard from other parents about kids getting library books where preteens are doing stuff you’d expect from a porno. They tried to bring it up to the school board, but they weren’t allowed—the board said it was too explicit for their meeting!”

“Well, I can’t help but wonder if you’d have the same reaction if the book wasn’t about a queer kid,” I said.

“You kidding me?” she asked. “You think I’d be okay with my 7th grader reading about sex toys if the kids were straight? Why would you think that?”

Some issues are so tough to explain to amateurs.

“Look,” I said, “schools are trying to be inclusive and ensure there’s LGBTQ+ representation in libraries and reading lists . . .”

“That’s fine,” she said. “But I’m guessing there are books about gay kids that are more like Harry Potter or Snow White and less like some adult website. Why don’t they put those books in my daughter’s middle school?”

She wasn’t getting it. “In our schools,” I explained, “we don’t believe librarians should censor what students read.”

“But school libraries don’t stock Penthouse or Playboy,” she said. “There are millions and millions of books, and I’ve heard that something like 99.99 percent of them aren’t in school libraries. I also heard that the author of that Gender Queer book even said it wasn’t written for kids. So why is the school so focused on having that book instead of something that was intended for kids?”

I shook my head. “The American Library Association put it powerfully: ‘When we ban books, we’re closing off readers to people, places, and perspectives. But when we stand up for stories, we unleash the power that lies inside every book.’” I sat back. I figured that must clear things up.

“Maybe I’m not smart enough to get that,” she said, “but that just sounds like a word salad.”

I sat there reflecting on just how frustrating it can be to try and enlighten the unenlightened.

She continued. “I heard on the radio that, during the pandemic, President Biden’s people told Amazon it should stop selling books that said the vaccines were bad. Where were your librarians then? That sounds like the kind of censorship they should be yelling about.”

“Well, I’m sure they’ve been very busy,” I said.

“And didn’t some Dr. Seuss books stop getting sold because people claimed the pictures were insensitive? Again, where were these librarians?” she said. “I’m no expert, but that sounds like real censorship. I mean, I’m not even saying someone can’t sell books about preteens getting it on with sex toys; I just don’t want those books in my twelve-year-old’s school library.”

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“That’s a red herring,” I said. “If we allow parents to start dictating what gets read, some will oppose important high school books like Beloved, Huckleberry Finn, or The Bluest Eye for addressing issues like racism and sexual assault.”

“That’s just dumb,” she said. “If you can’t tell the difference between sexually explicit material in a kids’ library and a complicated book for 17-year-olds, something’s wrong. If we were talking about those high school books, you’d be making sense. But we’re not.”

“It’s important to draw bright lines,” I said. “That’s why PEN America explains that ‘if a book that was previously available to all now requires parental permission, or is restricted to a higher grade level than educators initially determined, that is a ban.’”

“Wait a minute!” she said. “Now I’m just confused. I mean, the school district has sent home notes saying that they’ve taken the advice of the School Library Journal and removed a bunch of books from our K–12 summer reading lists, including To Kill a Mockingbird, 1984, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Lord of Flies, and a bunch of Shakespeare. Isn’t 1984 partly about book banning? And they’re banning it! That’s nuts.”

“No, no, no,” I replied, rubbing my temples. “They’re not banning books—they’re ‘refreshing the canon.’ The School Library Journal doesn’t want those books banned. Students can still check them out, buy them, or read them. They just don’t think these books should be officially encouraged by the school. They want schools to offer alternatives.”

“Umm, do you even hear yourself?” she asked. “How is that any different from what I’m talking about? Why is it ‘refreshing the canon’ when you all tell schools to remove famous books from reading lists but ‘book banning’ when I don’t want pornography in my daughter’s middle school library?”

I gave up. There’s just no arguing with book banners.

Frederick Hess is an executive editor of Education Next and the author of the blog “Old School with Rick Hess.”

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