The censorship of books in the US has reached crisis level.
More than 2,500 different book bans were enacted in schools across 32 US states during the 2021-2022 school year, according to a new report by Pen America. And attempts to ban books from libraries are on track to exceed 2021’s already record-setting figures, the American Library Association said on Friday.
But still, there is cause for hope.
Across the country, parents, students, teachers, librarians and community groups have successfully fought back against attempted bans, defeating well-funded, rightwing attempts to remove books that address issues of race, sexuality, and gender.
Their experiences provide a model for others who may want to stand up and defend free speech, racial equity, and the rights of gay and trans youth.
Martha Hickson: ‘Let readers be leaders’
Martha Hickson, a librarian at North Hunterdon high school in Annandale, New Jersey, was watching her district’s school board meeting from home in September 2021 when she found herself dragged into the center of a battle over book banning.
A small but vocal group of parents had attended the meeting to demand the board remove several books that address LGBTQ+ experiences, including Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, from school libraries. Then one particularly emotional speaker called Hickson out by name.
“She described me as a pedophile, a pornographer, and a groomer of children,” Hickson said.
“I was absolutely stunned. My heart was beating out of my chest, I was queasy, I didn’t know what to do. I was just beside myself.”
But once Hickson “regained her composure”, she realized she did know what to do. In 2019, she had been part of an effort to restore the book Fun Home, a memoir by Alison Bechdel that addresses, among other things, sexual orientation, to schools in her district. “We’d been laying low since then, because things were fine. But I still had all that contact information. So I reactivated that network,” she said.
While the board meeting was still taking place, Hickson got out her phone and got to work. She contacted people who had taken on the Fun Home ban, as well as organizations including the American Library Association, the National Coalition against Censorship, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. She also reached out to the Genders & Sexualities Alliances at both high schools in her district. These student-led groups provide a safe space for students to build communities and speak out against injustice.
At the next school board meeting, in October, about 400 people, all opposed to the bans, turned up.
“The most compelling speakers were the kids,” Hickson said. “My motto right now is ‘let readers be leaders’, because these kids did an amazing job of standing there, withstanding the taunts and jeers of the people on the other side.
“They were models for public discourse. They were just excellent.”
As the fight dragged on, Hickson faced a torrent of hate mail, precipitating what she described as a “breakdown”. Opponents of the book bans came out in force again at the November school board meeting, and by the new year a school board advisory committee announced its decision: four of the targeted books would be allowed to remain in libraries, but one – This Book is Gay, by Juno Dawson – was to be removed.
A nonfiction book tackling issues of sexuality and gender for a young adult audience, This Book is Gay was one of the 10 most frequently challenged titles in the US in 2021.
“I just have so much admiration for the kids who pick that book off the shelf, walk through a library full of other teenagers, and come up to the circulation desk, to me, this 62-year-old woman, who they probably don’t know very well, some might not know me at all,” Hickson said, noting that the book’s cover illustration is a pride flag.
“Every time a kid hands you a book that they’ve chosen to read, they’re handing you a little insight into themselves. I admire the backbone that it takes for a 14, 15, 16-year-old to hand you This Book is Gay.”
Hickson and the anti-censorship groups weren’t about to settle, and they demanded that the book be reinstated.
At the January school board meeting, opponents of the book ban again flocked in. One student read out a letter from David Levithan, a New Jersey-born author whose young adult novels include Two Boys Kissing and Boy Meets Boy. Levithan argued that This Book is Gay should be reinstated, and 55 others put in requests to speak.
The board listened, and the book was retained.
“I fell apart crying,” Hickson said. “I was so relieved and so happy and so grateful for all the support from the community. I’m so, so proud of my students, both current and past.”
It reinforced Hickson’s belief in the importance of books in helping children understand themselves and their place in the world.
“For somebody to come and try to snag [This Book is Gay] or any of the other four books on LGBTQ topics, I think is a tremendous insult to those kids, to their relationship with the library, and to their relationship with the community. All of our kids deserve to see themselves represented in the library books.”
Keiawnna Potts and Natosha Daniels: ‘You’re going to need to band together’
At the Round Rock school district, near Austin, Texas, it was a teacher who initially sounded the alarm.
A small group of people had complained to the school board about the presence of Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You – a history of racism in the US by the Black authors Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi – on the school curriculum, and there was a risk it could be removed.
The teacher had started a petition to keep Stamped, and Keiawnna Pitts, Natosha Daniels, and the other parents of Round Rock Black Parents Association quickly got involved. For them, the removal of a book that tells of the Black experience in the US fit into a wider pattern of discrimination in the district – one which they had battled before.
Round Rock has a diverse population, with white students making up just over a third of the student body, alongside Latino, Asian American and African American students. But Black students were more likely to be disciplined, including suspended, than white students, according to data released by the school district in 2019. Black students made up 25% of those who received in-school suspensions, despite comprising only 8% of the student population.
Pitts and others had previously organized and campaigned on that issue, so when the attempts to ban Stamped began, an existing coalition was called into action.
“We immediately were able to activate our network and say: ‘Hey y’all, this is what’s happening,’” Pitts said. “And because of putting in groundwork, of building relationships in our community – and because other people know that this is not right, this is not something that should be happening in 2022 – everyone rallied together.”
The parents who were lobbying loudly for Stamped to be removed were white, according to Pitts, who saw in the attempted ban an attempt to strip Black children of the chance to see themselves reflected in their studies.
“I felt as if they were trying to ban the existence of Black children and Black people. Because my kids seek out these books where they can see themselves in the material they were reading,” Pitts said.
One of Pitts’ children, with a friend, started their own book club, Pitts said, “because they wanted to read books about characters who look like them.
“So for me it was a direct blow to my existence and my children’s existence,” she said. “That was when I realized I had everything in my power to support the work this teacher had started.”
Members of Round Rock Black Parents Association showed up at board meetings, along with students and other community members, Potts said. They forced the issue to the school board, which ultimately voted against removing Stamped.
“I was so proud of our youth,” Pitts said. “Because that took a lot of courage, to get up and say: ‘This is not okay.’”
Daniels was proud too, but she found it difficult to celebrate.
“I don’t think I felt relief, because I was just waiting for what’s next,” Daniels said. “White families do not comprise the majority of this district, yet their interests are always held at the center. So yes, when that book ban was struck down, I felt like this was a victory we can celebrate for now but they’re still over here planning for more.”
The saga, along with the treatment of Black students, so disheartened Daniels that she and her husband began looking at other places to live, researching potential moves to Costa Rica, Mexico or Canada. That changed, Daniels said, after a conversation she had with her daughter’s grandmother.
“I was telling her what I was thinking, and how it’s just so stressful living here, and she said: ‘You know, my grandmother picked cotton on this land.’ She said: ‘I’m not going anywhere, I deserve to be here, and they owe me. They owe me more than what they’re giving me.’ And it kind of reframed the fight.”
At least when the next challenge comes, the Round Rock Black Parents Association will be ready. The organization is becoming increasingly influential and has partnered with other non-profits and groups in the area to advocate for increased equity.
“Now is the time to start building those communities and building those networks, because this is not isolated, it is happening across the United States,” she said.
“You’re going to need to band together to fight what is coming down.”
Christine Kron: ‘Find students and teachers who can help’
In Milford, Ohio, it was In the Time of Butterflies that caught the attention of would-be book banners. The critically acclaimed novel, by Julia Alvarez, tells the story of four sisters in the Dominican Republic and their opposition to the country’s dictatorship.
“Our 10th graders are being forced to read this pornography in school,” one wrote on Facebook, in a post which had cherry-picked certain sentences from In the Time of Butterflies.
“I am disgusted beyond words,” the parent continued. “There are more perverts out there than we would even imagine. And they are with our kids every day. Beware!!”
The book had been part of the curriculum since 2014, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported, and the school district already allowed parents to opt their children out of reading certain books, yet this group wanted In the Time of Butterflies removed from the entire curriculum.
Christine Kron, who has children in the second and fifth grades in the Milford Exempted Village school district, was among those who took notice.
“There’s a small group of us who have similar values, wants and needs for our kids and our community and our school district, and we kind of keep an eye on the neighborhood social media,” Kron said.
“As soon as we saw a few parents – literally two to three parents – complain about this 10th-grade book in the curriculum, our ears kind of perked up. We said: ‘This is probably going to become a thing, so let’s get ready to defend this.’”
Kron and others decided to take action. When the school board posted its agenda for that month, they assembled a group of parents and students and headed down to speak.
“Students have been reading this book for years,” Kron said. “So the students even said: ‘This book really affected me in a positive way, I don’t find it offensive.’ It was really great to hear student voices speak up.”
The board listened, and in May decided that the book would remain on the curriculum. It was a big win for the parents, but like others, Kron fears what might come up in the future.
“I think the book bans are done. I do not think it will come up again to that level in our district,” she said. “But you know, the battles are not over.”
Kron anticipates a fight over the rights of trans students, after certain parents began complaining that some teachers in Milford asked students for their preferred pronouns. “That’s our next battle: to make sure all the kids feel supported and welcomed and it’s an inclusive environment,” Kron said.
Kron said the most important thing parents facing book bans should know was not to try and tackle this alone.
“You have to find a little bit of a group, a community, that’s definitely key,” she said. “You can shoot ideas around, plan, organize. Find current students or even teachers who can help out.”
Parents in this situation should also learn about the processes and protocols of their school board meetings, she said, so they can confidently address their concerns to the board.
Beyond that, Kron said: “The key point is to get involved. Even if it’s just an email, if it’s baby steps. Use your voice, whether it’s an email or in person. Just get involved.”