The Ukiah Daily Journal

A terrifying trend


Hena Khan was raised in the Washington suburbs, the daughter of immigrants from Pakistan, and she describes the experience this way: “When I was growing up, it was really more about feeling invisible and not thinking my culture mattered. Nobody at school knew anything about being a Muslim, being a Pakistani American. My teachers often couldn't identify Pakistan on a map.”

An avid reader, she'd trek weekly to the local library, but could never find books with characters who looked — or believed — like her. So, after becoming the mother of two sons, she started writing them herself: a variety of picture books and young adult novels spotlighti­ng Muslims and mosques, hijabs and holidays.

“I want to write stories where my kids and others like them could finally see themselves,” she tells me.

Today, a nationwide movement is gathering steam to ban books like hers, which feature characters who don't conform to a conservati­ve, Christian, straight, white view of America. PEN America, a 100-yearold organizati­on devoted to free expression, has documented “2,532 instances of individual books being banned” during the school year that ended last June. More than 1,600 titles were censored, written by 1,261 authors.

Hena Khan was one of them. She calls this a “terrifying trend” and explains: “Banning certain books and suppressin­g different viewpoints, background­s and ways of life feels like a gigantic step backward in the progress we have been making toward diversifyi­ng children's books and including voices that have long been left out of collection­s.”

“It frightens me,” she adds, “that books like mine and others that celebrate people, traditions and cultures outside of the mainstream are seen as a threat by a very vocal and powerful minority leading the charge to ban books, often through misinforma­tion and fearmonger­ing.”

Parents have a right to say they don't want their own children reading certain books that violate their religious or cultural beliefs. But here's the problem: That “powerful minority” of well-organized vigilantes are imposing their views on everyone else. They are depriving other families of precisely the rights they claim for themselves — deciding what their children read and learn.

“I think a parent can say, `Well, I don't want my child to read this.' I can respect that,” notes Varian Johnson, a Black author of young adult novels. “But what gives you the right to bar all children from reading it? To bar all children from seeing a life that imitates theirs? It bars them from seeing someone who looks like them exist on the page and triumph over something.

“I don't know if folks really realize what they're doing when they're doing book bans, and the effect that it has,” adds Johnson. “Any time a book that features someone who looks like you is banned, it says that you're not worthy. You don't deserve to exist. You're not as important as other things. Your life is not important. That's wrong, and it's dangerous.”

Dangerous and undemocrat­ic. A recent CBS poll reports that more than 8 of 10 Americans “don't think books should be banned from schools for discussing race and criticizin­g U.S. history.” However, intensity matters in politics, and the vigilantes are winning.

As PEN America reports: “The large majority of book bans underway today are not spontaneou­s, organic expression­s of citizen concern. Rather, they reflect the work of a growing number of advocacy organizati­ons that have made demanding censorship of certain books and ideas in schools part of their mission.”

Some of these groups started by protesting COVID-19-ERA restrictio­ns that mandated masks and closed down schools. Others reacted against new approaches to teaching about race that focused on Black oppression and white privilege. Ambitious and demagogic politician­s like Gov. Ron Desantis of Florida — one of the most active book-banning states — seized the rallying cry of “wokeness” to galvanize like-minded culture warriors. State legislator­s are now passing bills that would reinforce the legality of book banning and even impose criminal penalties on violators.

“Anecdotes gathered from nearly two dozen states suggest an atmosphere of creeping fear in which librarians are secondgues­sing themselves, removing anything likely to elicit disapprova­l or controvers­y from their book lists,” writes The Washington Post. Adds Kirsten Slungaard Mumma, who studies the issue at Boston University, “This is strong evidence of a chilling effect.”

The purpose of education is to open minds, not close them; to broaden horizons, not narrow them. Every time a book is banned, every time a voice like Hena Khan's is silenced, a light flickers out and a cloud of ignorance descends.

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