English class explores the books they don’t want you to read in human rights class

The American Library Association documented 4,240 unique book titles targeted for censorship in 2023. When Enlish Professor MaryLynn Saul sees this list of novels, memoirs, fiction and nonfiction, she can’t help but wonder: What’s in this book that people don’t want others to know?

That’s one of the questions Saul is asking the students in her Literature and Human Rights course. This spring semester, the course is covering eight books that have been challenged, restricted, and in some cases banned.

Saul has taught the Literature and Human Rights course for a number of years. The idea to focus the course specifically on challenged books came to her last year. “I had been reading in the news for months about the sharp increase in book banning in the last couple of years,” she says. “And a lot of the books that have been targeted have to do with human rights issues, so it seemed like a natural fit to put them together.”

The American Library Association data shows a steep rise in the number of titles targeted over the last three years. In 2022, 2,571 individual book titles were targeted—a 38 percent increase from 2021—and 2023 saw a 65 percent increase. Of the 4,240 unique book titles targeted last year, 47 percent dealt with issues regarding race and LGBTQ+ identity.

Saul sees potential far-reaching consequences to the removal of such books from libraries and schools. “If there’s a student there in the class that has an LGBTQ identity and those books are removed, it’s just like saying that it’s a shameful thing and we can’t talk about it,” she says. “And it reinforces that shame not just for LGBT people but for other people as well.”

“It seems like we’re going backward on LGBTQ rights,” she says. And that regression is happening with racial issues, as well, and is going to get worse if books dealing with those issues are removed from curricula. One of the books the course covers, Beloved by Toni Morrison, deals with the legacy of slavery. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988 and is among the most challenged books according to the American Library Association. Saul is concerned about such books not being studied in schools. “If we don’t know what our past is,” she says, “we can’t properly move forward into the future and try to improve society.”

Over the 16 weeks of the course, students are reading and discussing eight books: Boy Erased by Garrard Conly; Born a Crime by Trevor Noah; Maus by Art Spiegelman; Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi;  Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi; Beloved by Toni Morrison; The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood; and Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, which had the dubious distinction of being the most challenged book in 2022.

The results of a challenge can vary greatly. Some schools reject the challenge and maintain unrestricted access to the book. Other times schools take measures to restrict access by, for instance, moving a book from the young adult to adult section of the library or requiring parental permission to check it out. And, schools sometimes remove the book from the curriculum and even the library itself.

The increase in challenges has resulted in an increase in restrictions. “Part of the situation politically is that, laws like ‘Don’t Say Gay’ in Florida that are supposed to protect young children, have made teachers so worried that they have removed things from their classrooms because they’re afraid of being challenged or arrested for having something in their classroom that is against the law,” Saul says. “But the law is so vague. They’re not sure what would violate the law or not.”

“We’re just going to walk around being completely ignorant if we don’t weigh other people’s opinions.”

Junior Cameron Baron was aware of several instances of book banning in recent years, but she didn’t realize the extent of the issue until starting the course. “It’s surprising to me that there are so many small things that people want to ban books about,” she says. “If there’s something that bothers me, I still wouldn’t take it away from someone else.”

One aspect of the course has surprised her the most. “I think about younger students being more inclusive and being more open,” she says. “But there have even been some other students in my class that go out of their way to be on the side of banning some of the books. In my head, I’m like, ‘No, we’re against that,’ but I guess there are other students that don’t see it the same way.”

Open discussion is an important element of the course. Professor Saul presents different opinions on the matter and asks students to consider the implications of all of them.

Baron appreciates this. “We’re just going to walk around being completely ignorant if we don’t weigh other people’s opinions,” she says.

One of the books the class is looking at is Trevor Noah’s 2019 New York Times best selling memoir Born a Crime, a portrayal of his experience growing up in South Africa during apartheid. The memoir has been challenged in multiple school districts for vulgar language and references to pornography, as well as the fact that the book’s publisher recommended it for 11th and 12th graders, not 9th graders. The book’s supporters have argued mature themes need to be considered in their context and have noted that the vulgar language comprised only a small percentage of the text and was nothing worse than what students hear in the hallways at school.

In Saul’s class, students are learning that the reasons books get challenged can be complex. Sometimes, parents challenge a book, not to get it banned but to make sure it is assigned only to upperclassmen, as was the case at Osseo Senior High in Osseo, M.N., where several parents challenged the book Born a Crime by Trevor Noah in 2021.

Sometimes books are removed from a curriculum, not because of the content of the book but because of the views of the author, as was the case when Born a Crime was removed from St. Louis University High School’s summer reading curriculum after the school board discovered Noah’s pro-choice views, which conflict with the Catholic high school’s.

Another book the course looks at is Guantánamo Diary by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a Mauritanian engineer imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay without charge from 2002 to 2016. The book was written and published during Slahi’s detainment. The CIA allowed the book’s publication, but redacted the text. Later, when Slahi was released, the book was republished without the redactions.

“It brings up the issue of government censorship and what we’re allowed to see and what we’re not allowed to see,” Saul says. “As you read it, you wonder—okay, this is a prisoner in Guantánamo Bay who’s been accused of terrorism, so obviously, security is an issue, but some of the things they redacted, you have to wonder why. The word ‘tears’ was redacted at one point.”

Massachusetts is known for being one of the most liberal states in the US, but even here, there have been challenges to books. According to a report by The Boston Globe, almost 70 books have been challenged in Massachusetts over the past five years. Challenges have come from both ends of the political spectrum. Many of the books challenged, including Kobabe’s Gender Queer, dealt with LGBTQ+ issues. Other books were challenged because of racist content; these included several Dr. Seuss books and The Adventures of Tintin, by Hergé.

“I didn’t realize how many challenges there were… It’s really astonishing.”

Even though Alia Haytham is a first-year student and the class is an upper-division course, her advisor gave her permission to take the class. “I liked the idea of looking at different issues that society has had, and still has, reflected in literature,” she said. “I think books are really special in a way that you’re having a story being told and you’re connecting with those characters, and that makes it more meaningful to you. You’re more able to—you’re more willing to—empathize and understand where these issues are stemming from. So, I think literature is really powerful in a sense of bringing people together.”

“I come from a family where we have a strong activist and human rights driven ideology,” Haytham says. Her parents emigrated from Egypt before she was born. They didn’t feel like they could speak out against government injustice when they lived in Egypt, she says, so now that they live in a country where they can, they do, and they have taught their children to do the same.

One of the concepts Haytham is grappling with is how much control parents should have over what their children read. She thinks that parents should have some say, but at the same time, she recognizes issues that could arise. “Say you wanted to find out some more about LGBTQ topics,” she says, “but your own family doesn’t allow those. So then who do you go to for that?”

This idea, she says, “caught me by surprise” because her family hasn’t restricted her reading like that. “The fact that people don’t have access to that is kind of jarring to me.”

Before starting the course, Haytham says, “I didn’t realize how many challenges there were. And the fact that they’re also coming from such a small amount of people, and they’re getting so many books challenged now. It’s really astonishing.”

What is that “small amount of people”? The Washington Post reported that 60 percent of the total complaints in 2022 were filed by just 11 people. And, although the number of unique titles challenged more than doubled from 2022 to 2023, the number of challenges went down, from 1,269 to 1,247.

Prior to 2020, most challenges came from individual parents who wanted to restrict their own child’s access to a book. In 2022, 90 percent of the challenges sought to remove or restrict multiple titles, and 40 percent of those challenges targeted more than 100 titles at a time. Such challenges are largely the result of targeted campaigns led by conservative groups such as Moms for Liberty. These well-organized groups share lists of books on social media platforms or request their followers to research potentially problematic books.

Saul says she can understand when an individual has read a book and found something objectionable about it. “What concerns me,” she says, “is if they’re not reading the books.”

That seems to be happening more and more as organizations like Moms for Liberty mobilize parents via social media. The problem with this, Saul explains, is that people are just looking for “objectionable” content, and they’re not considering why that content might be there. Is, for instance, a sexual episode included in a book to explore an important theme such as the subjugation of women or merely to be prurient?

A computer science major, Baron says, “the Internet plays a really interesting part in banned books because it does kind of open a little bit of a backdoor into a way to access the information or at least find information about what we’re missing out on.”

She also feels that challenges to books might make people more interested in them and might inspire people who wouldn’t otherwise have read them to read them. “If there’s something that someone is going so far out of their way to not want to speak about,” she says, “I’m like, that’s probably important information.”

Given the ease with which anyone can find content online, Haytham finds parents’ hurry to remove books from schools a little counter-intuitive. “For me, I find more comfort knowing that a book is being read in a school environment or even a public library where you have resources available to you and someone could help explain it to you better rather than going online and looking at it yourself,” she says.

“I am excited to keep not only reading books that have to do with human rights,but to be able to see things from a different perspective…”

Saul has a long history of involvement with human rights activism. She was active in the Columbus, Ohio, chapter of Amnesty International in the early ’90s and has been the faculty advisor for the Amnesty International student club at Worcester State for several years.

Saul is a big believer in the power of the written word to create change. The students in the Amnesty International student club participate in Write for Rights every year. The letter-writing campaign organized by Amnesty International regularly has participants from more than 200 countries around the world. The letters provide comfort and encouragement to political prisoners and place pressure on officials to drop charges, release prisoners of conscience, and provide more humane treatment.

“Sometimes when you go to a protest,” she says, “you feel like, ‘Well, I’m out here and being active,’ but you don’t know if you’re actually changing anything. The letters don’t seem like a showy way of doing something, but it actually can have an effect.”

Saul encourages people to stay informed about book challenges happening in their community by attending town hall and school board meetings and speaking with local librarians. Books are being challenged in both school and public libraries. In fact, 2023 saw a 92 percent spike in the numbers of challenges to public libraries. If people are troubled by censorship trends, they can speak up, sign petitions or write letters in protest of bans and laws that lead to bans. The American Library Association offers resources for individuals who want to get involved.

“In a lot of cases, it just took one complaint to remove a book,” Saul said. “And a lot of times, these places don’t hear from people who liked the book or didn’t want it removed. Sometimes places don’t know that there are a lot of people who disagreed with that decision, and that’s always something to remember.”

For Baron and Haytham, both, the course has made them more aware of human rights issues and more inspired to get involved. Baron has long had an interest in human rights, but she calls this course her “first stepping stone” to activism. “Honestly, I feel like it’s almost like a necessity now that I’ve been made aware of it more,” she says. “I feel like to ignore it would just be ignorant, for lack of a better word.”

For the course, Baron is doing a presentation on how climate change is affecting human rights, such as access to food and clean water, in Africa’s Central Sahel region. She says she had not considered the link between climate change and human rights before.

“I am excited to keep not only reading books that have to do with human rights,” she says, “but to be able to see things from a different perspective and see how things directly affect people’s human rights that I might not have thought of before.”

Artwork by Complex Stories