view | Children know that books about abuse are not pornography. So should “moms”.

Last year, at a Virginia School Board meeting, a parent climbed to the microphone and read an excerpt from my book, Sold. The scene I chose to read, drawn in part from my own experience with sexual assault, describes the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl by an older man. There is no graphic or obscene language in the clip; The story is told from a child’s point of view—in a child’s words—and conveys her confusion, fear, and physical pain.

This parent claimed the clip was “pornography.”

Pornography, according to Cornell University Law School, is defined as “material that depicts nudity or sexual acts for the purpose of sexual stimulation,” or in several other accepted definitions, “intended to arousal.” And many people have struggled to define pornography—most famously Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said, “I know it when I see it.”

PEN America reported last month that “Sold” was one of the most banned books in the United States at the start of the 2022-23 school year. It made the list thanks, in part, to Moms for Liberty, a right-wing organization that created a playbook that has been used across the country—by people who aren’t parents in some cases—to lobby for the books to be removed from libraries and classrooms.

These challenges are not popular responses to the books that come home in students’ backpacks; They are campaigns organized by a national clearinghouse with opaque funding and clear links to groups such as the Heritage Foundation. “Moms” in Texas, Florida, Idaho, Pennsylvania and elsewhere read the same passage and used similar language to challenge the book.

While the Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Island Trees School District v. Pico strengthened the limitations on a state’s power to remove books from school libraries “just because they don’t like the ideas in those books,” it still leaves plenty of room for groups like Moms to Freedom to maneuver based on “inappropriate” or obscene content.

Banning this book, which is based on interviews I conducted with girls in India and Nepal who were sold into slavery, is an insult to their real-life experiences and the courage it took to share their stories. A young woman spoke to me in a flat, robotic tone and stared into space, as if seeing her experiences played out on a movie screen. Another spoke through the haze of addiction that began when she was drugged at age 15 and sold by her boyfriend.

Nearby, in the shelter where they live, an 11-year-old girl has been curled up in a cot for weeks, unable to speak at all. These girls did not share their experiences with rape to “excite” or “motivate” anyone, they did so to highlight the child trafficking that took their lives.

Banning this book is also disrespectful to teens who want, and in some cases need, to read it. I’ve visited classrooms and juvenile detention centers across the country since the book came out in 2006. On nearly every visit, a student has come forward to say they’ve been or have been sexually assaulted—and seeing their experience presented in a book finally encourages them to say so. Some hang around after book signings and whisper to me privately; I encourage them to tell a trusted adult. A girl and I headed to the guidance counselor’s office together.

But a surprising number of readers — boys and girls — are opening up in class. I am always prepared for a nervous or inappropriate reaction from the other kids in the class. I’m waiting for someone to laugh, sneer, or gasp. They never did. They tirelessly treat such painful discoveries with respect and compassion. Meanwhile, their teachers step in to offer help with a problem they may not have been aware of.

This is what is constantly missing in the national conversation about book bans: the voices of those children and teens who see their experiences in print and finally realize they are not alone. And those who, fortunately, do not suffer such trauma, but now have a window into the lives of their peers who suffer from it. We talk to them. And we talk about it. We try to control what they can read, think and do. What we don’t do is listen to them.

There is, no doubt, a place for deep debate about the appropriateness of books like mine. In response to parental concerns, many school boards are adopting protocols, based on suggestions from the PEN or by the American Library Association, about how parents, librarians, and in some cases, students can work together to determine, for example, whether access to a book should be age restricted. (The discussion the school board had in Carroll, Indiana, for example, was deep and thorough; they decided not to ban the book.)

Sadly, this was not the case in the Virginia school district where “Sold” was challenged. School board members and their supporters called the superintendent a “porn peddler”. In March, a supervisor in another Virginia school district ordered 14 books, including mine, to be removed from high school libraries.

Meanwhile, children and teens are facing a mental health crisis. Depression and suicide rates are alarmingly high. Resources to help them are frustratingly limited. It would be great if the time and effort that goes into organizing and arguing for book bans at school board meetings across the country can be directed at providing these students with the help they need and deserve. Perhaps this is more than we could hope for. Instead, I’ll draw on the innate wisdom of the young men I interviewed, who should be given credit for knowing what many adults don’t: Books aren’t the problem. They are part of the solution.

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