The Books Briefing: The Fight Over What Kids Can Read

Bans and attempted bans of critical race theory and the 1619 Project in classrooms are part of a familiar pattern: Your weekly guide to the best in books

teacher in a classroom
Sam Hodgson / The New York Times ​/ Redux
Editor’s note: This week’s newsletter is a rerun.

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After the Capitol riot, Matt Hawn, a teacher from Tennessee, brought an Atlantic essay to class for his students to analyze: “The First White President,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Earlier the class had discussed a police shooting in Kenosha, Wisconsin; later in the year, they watched a performance of Kyla Jenée Lacey’s poem “White Privilege.” Hawn told my colleague Emma Green that he didn’t have an ideological bent in choosing these works; he merely wanted students to evaluate their claims. “For a lot of my students, this is the first time they’re getting the opportunity to even assess something like that,” he said. Before the end of the school year, Hawn was fired. (He’s since appealed his termination; representatives from his school district declined Green’s request for comment on the incident but emphasized in his hearing that they don’t condone racism.)

Hawn’s firing comes at a time when many legislatures—Tennessee’s included—are moving to ban critical race theory in schools. These debates rely on what the Atlantic contributing writer Ibram X. Kendi (whose book Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You has also been censored) argues is an imagined conservative idea of the concept that ignores how those who developed it actually define it. States such as Texas have taken specific aim at Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, a searing New York Times report arguing that slavery is central to our country’s founding. As my colleague Adam Harris writes, these bans and proposed bans “would effectively prevent public schools and universities from holding discussions about racism.”

This moment may be particularly dangerous for students’ intellectual freedom, but restricting what kids read is nothing new. Take Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, which has been targeted for its depiction of child abuse. Keeping that work out of children’s hands also keeps readers from what Morrison herself calls a depiction of one of “those most vulnerable, most undescribed, not taken seriously little Black girls.” Another book, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, was banned for its use of racial slurs and a “white savior” protagonist. Adults may be right to question its portrayal of race, but when the book is taught well, young people can join in reevaluating the legacy of the novel’s much adored, though deeply flawed protagonist—work that Lee herself did in the sequel, Go Set a Watchman. More recently, censorship of Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give has shut kids out of discussions about the deeply personal hurt of police brutality.

It’s no accident that these works consider issues such as race, gender, and disability; a whopping 52 percent of banned or challenged books from 2006 to 2016 included “diverse content.” Rather than protecting children, this practice harms those who are already marginalized by spreading a message that their lives are dangerous and inappropriate, the professor Paul Ringel argued in The Atlantic. Only by encouraging students to discuss difference can we empower them to find self-understanding and acceptance.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

image of Matt Hawn with red stripes behind him and a red stripe covering his mouth

Matt Hawn; The Atlantic

He taught a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay. Then he was fired.

“I believe my kids can handle this difficult subject material. It does them a great service academically.”

the opening lines of the 1619 Project overlaid on the body of a red elephant

Raquel Zaldivar / Chicago Tribune / Getty / The Atlantic

Why conservatives want to cancel the 1619 Project

“The work of [Nikole] Hannah-Jones and others suggests ... that present-day inequalities have been shaped by deliberate political and policy choices. What appears to be an argument about reexamining history is also an argument about ideology—a defense of the legitimacy of the existing social order against an account of its historical origins that suggests different policy choices could produce a more equitable society.”

Toni Morrison

Deborah Feingold / Corbis / Getty

Remembering the peerless Toni Morrison

“Since the publication of her debut novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970, Morrison has been established as one of the most powerful and distinct voices in literature, a lyrical chronicler and witness to the African American experience.”

A reader holding "Go Set a Watchman"

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Go set a legacy: the fate of Harper Lee

“Will [Lee] be remembered for Jurist Atticus, or Racist Atticus? Will she be remembered as the author of a book so beloved, and so revered, and so culturally dilute, that it seems wrong to call it simply a ‘book’? Or as the author of the work that complicates Mockingbird’s tidy vision of right and wrong?”

book cover for "The Hate U Give"

Balzer + Bray / HarperCollins

The Hate U Give enters the ranks of great YA novels

“[Angie] Thomas’s debut novel offers an incisive and engrossing perspective of the life of a Black teenage girl as [the protagonist] Starr’s two worlds converge over questions of police brutality, justice, and activism.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Kate Cray. The book she’s reading next is Intimacies, by Katie Kitamura.

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