Khaled Hosseini, one of the world’s top authors, has slammed book bans in Florida and elsewhere in the US as a betrayal of students and their right to a good education.
According to a PEN America report released late last year, US public schools had about 5,894 book bans from July 2021 to June 2023, with more than 40% in Florida. Often, the authors whose books are targeted are “frequently female, people of color, and/or LGBTQ+ individuals”, PEN said.
“Banning books doesn’t protect students, I think it betrays them,” Hosseini told the Guardian in an interview.
Hosseini compared the trend in the US on banning books – driven largely by social conservatives and Republicans – to the rise of authoritarian regimes in Europe in the 1930s. “This is the 21st century; I thought this happened in Europe in the 1930s,” Hosseini said, referencing the steady increase in literary censorship.
He added: “It’s vital living in a democracy that students are exposed to ideas, are allowed to think critically and can hear voices that aren’t their own. They should learn they will share the world with people who don’t look like them and sound like them. Books are a wonderful conduit for that.”
A school board in Brevard county, Florida, recently voted to keep Hosseini’s The Kite Runner novel on its shelves after he wrote the committee a heartfelt letter asking them not to ban his work.
Hosseini’s novel, which tells the story of a young boy growing up in 1970s Kabul, spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list before selling over 8m copies worldwide. Set against the backdrop of war-torn Afghanistan, it delves into complex themes like friendship, betrayal and familial tension.
In the school year 2021-2022, it was one of the most banned books in the US.
For the last few months, The Kite Runner has joined a growing list of titles “under review” or challenged by school boards nationwide.
About 40 books still await formal consideration in the Brevard county district. Their future as part of the school curriculum, or even their accessibility to students who desire to pick up a copy, hinges on the outcome of the district’s selection committee.
Hosseini was warned in January that his book was being contested by a school board committee in Florida and was advised it could be powerful to write to them directly.
The news was no surprise; the Brevard chapter of Moms for Liberty, the rightwing parents’ rights group, submitted an objection to The Kite Runner in 2022. They said the book, along with other bestselling titles like Slaughterhouse-Five, contained sexual content, “racially divisive” rhetoric and criticisms of Christianity, which made it inappropriate for students.
Hosseini decided a letter was the best way to convince the school board to re-evaluate their decision and advocate for his book’s continued inclusion.
“In a drawer in my office desk sits a stash of manilla envelopes,” he began.
“Inside each are some of the writings I have collected over a span of nearly 20 years – and that I continue to. They have come to me from high school students from all across the US. In these writings, the students share with me often quite poignantly what impact reading The Kite Runner has had on their lives.”
Hosseini continues to describe his novel’s impression on young readers since its publication in 2003. From offering them their first glimpse into Afghan culture to helping them navigate complex situations at school and home, it’s clear his writing has had a durable and palpable impact.
“The Kite Runner has spoken to these students; it’s connected with them in a real way,” he told the Guardian. “It’s an enormous privilege to know that the words I put on paper can have a positive impact.”
Hosseini was thrilled to be notified that his book would be returned to shelves in Brevard county due to his letter but was then quickly notified of another ban in a different district.
Like many other authors – George M Johnson, Maia Kobabe, Ellen Hopkins – book bans continually threaten and challenge the work of writers across the US.
Johnson, writer of the 2020 memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue, similarly won a school board appeal when their mother read a powerful statement on their behalf at a meeting in New Jersey.
“Our books are not introducing teens to hard topics. They are simply the resource needed so they can understand the hard topics they are living out day to day,” Johnson’s mother said.
The ban was overturned and the book stayed in the library, but not all authors who directly appeal to school boards are met with the same reception.
As a father himself, Hosseini acknowledged the parental impulse to safeguard children. But, he firmly believes the vast majority of high school students are far more sophisticated than these parents spearheading the bans are giving them credit for.
Banned books like The Kite Runner, he maintains, can appropriately and constructively challenge students in the US and beyond.
“Books open the world for us; they are an incalculable, immeasurable gift,” he added.
“Read things you agree with and things you don’t – it’s my hope that this unpleasant patch we’re going through is a reflection of a political moment and it will pass.”