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The problematic surge of book bannings across the U.S.

Rudolfo Anaya
Susan Montoya Bryan/AP
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AP
An image of author Rudolfo Anaya is displayed at a library named in his honor in Albuquerque, N.M., on Thursday, Dec. 23, 2021. Known as the father of Chicano literature, Anaya left behind a children's tale about Christmas in the American Southwest when he died in 2020 of natural causes. The bilingual tale is being published posthumously, extending a cycle of illustrated children's books with a playful cast of youthful animal characters.

The number of banned books in classrooms across the country is skyrocketing to new highs.

That’s the finding of a new report released this week from PEN America––a nonprofit focused on freedom of expression.

So, in the midst of banned books week, KUNM spoke with Source New Mexico Editor In-Chief Marisa Demarco to talk about the implications of censorship and the impact it has on the underrepresented.

MARISA DEMARCO: Yeah, so we have reporting this week about some research by PEN America, which is a freedom of speech organization that pointed out that there were 1600 book titles, so 1600 different books that had been banned from public schools during the 2021 and 2022 school year. And that is just a really high number. We've seen the numbers increase in the last couple of years. But this is really quite a lot of books to be banned across 32 states in a short period of time. It's also important to note that, in addition to what's being banned in public schools, some people are also calling for books to be banned from public libraries as well. So, it's not just school children who are impacted by this.

KUNM: This report didn't point to New Mexico as one of those states that is actively banning books in the education system. What does this reporting say about democracy and freedom in our school systems? And now you're saying libraries?

DEMARCO: Yeah, it is not in New Mexico in this time period that we're talking about. There haven't been books banned that were included in this report here in the state. But historically, absolutely has happened here. There are some pretty startling examples of that.

But this censorship is very much targeting LGBTQ folks, folks who aren't white, both as authors or as characters or subjects of the novel. One example that got brought up is a Pennsylvania school district banned a biography of former President Barack Obama and another book about Ruby Bridges, who's a civil rights activist. So those are I mean, we're talking 1600 books here, that can span fiction and nonfiction, but those were two pretty stark examples. I will say that there was outcry in Pennsylvania, especially around the Barack Obama biography and it was returned to the shelves. But I think that just highlights what exactly it is that we're talking about here.

KUNM: I can’t help but to think and speculate how these choices affect kids of color, personally. Do you have any thoughts about that? 

Ten years ago, I spoke with Rudolfo Anaya. He passed in 2020. He met me at the door with a box full of article clippings from all the times his book had been banned over the years. And here in New Mexico, when the legislature was debating banning books and public schools, one of the representatives mentioned that the Bloomfield school board in New Mexico ordered Rudolfo Anaya's books to be burned. And this was in 1981.

But he pointed out that when we're pulling these books from school shelves, you're really telling young people who aren't white or who are LGBTQ, that they aren't worthy of study or consideration. That they're not worthy. That really, I thought was powerful from that conversation. I think it really speaks to educational access and how people feel in the world and in their classrooms. Right?

You know, this is banned book week. That's why we were talking about this. That's why this PEN America report came out. The theme this year is: censorship divides us, books unite us. So, I think that some of the thinking here is about books create understanding, they create empathy, and compassion for people who have experiences that we don't have personally.

KUNM: All right. Well, Marisa Demarco from Source New Mexico. Thank you so much for chatting about this with us.

DEMARCO: Thank you Bryce.

Bryce Dix is our new local host for NPR's Morning Edition.
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