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Turning the Page: Groups fight to protect the written word

Each year, an international group of organizations shines a light on the freedom to read. The Banned Books Week Coalition compiles a list of books most often under attack the year before.

The American Library Association tracks challenges and bans across the country. In 2021, the group recorded 729 book challenges targeting 1,597 titles. That’s more than double the books targeted in 2020.

While many books were targeted for LGBTQ+ content, the library association also noted that a record number of challenges were aimed at authors of color exploring history, racism or their own experiences in the United States. Neither reason for a ban can be tolerated.

Here’s what people across the nation have been saying and doing to support the books that others would ban. Do they give you any ideas?

What people are doing

In Nashville, Tennessee, the city’s public library system launched the Freedom to Read campaign, offering a limited-edition library card that says, “I Read Banned Books.”

This was after a Republican state senator suggested burning books that he and the state consider inappropriate for libraries.

In Virginia Beach, Virginia, six books that had been banned were returned to school bookshelves after numerous school division committees OK’d them.

Months after complaints about their content led six Virginia Beach school library books to be removed from circulation, school division committees reviewed them.

Each committee decided the books can provide students with different perspectives and life experiences and support instructional material taught across other class subjects, while noting some works could have a lasting impact on students.

Also in Virginia Beach, a judge dismissed an attempt to prevent bookstores, including Barnes & Noble, from selling two books to minors because of sexual content.

Republican politicians argued that the books, Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe and A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas, violated the state’s obscenity law and should not be sold to children 16 and under.

Judge Pamela S. Baskervill of the Virginia Beach Circuit Court ruled that the petitions had no facts to support a finding that the books are obscene. The judge also said the state’s obscenity law was unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment and due process.

The books included A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, Good Trouble by Christopher Noxon, Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin and Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe.

Soon after Orange County, Florida, schools tried to ban Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir, two parents formed the Florida Freedom to Read Project.

The group works with existing parent groups in Florida on a number of educational matters, including efforts to stop books from being banned.

Some bans have inspired legal action. In Mississippi, the ACLU sent a letter to Ridgeland Mayor Gene McGee, warning that his reported efforts to influence a book ban at the Ridgeland Public Library were unconstitutional.

The Ridgeland Board of Aldermen approved their budget for 2022, which included appropriations for the Ridgeland Public Library. But the public library didn’t get the city’s first quarterly payment. McGee later told the county library system’s executive director that he would not direct payment to be made until the library purges its collection of books with LGBTQ+ themes, stories and identities because the materials “went against his Christian beliefs.”

Margaret Atwood, whose dystopian feminist novel The Handmaid’s Tale is often banned, promoted the auction of a special unburnable edition of her book made of Cinefoil by unsuccessfully trying to incinerate a prototype with a flamethrower.

The feat brought in $130,000, with proceeds going to the nonprofit PEN America.

A Florida fundraiser that set out to buy books facing challenges across the nation — and spawned thousands in donations — has grown into a nonprofit organization.

Adam Tritt, a teacher at Bayside High School in Palm Bay, started a fundraiser in March to buy books challenged and distribute them to students.

The effort attracted plenty of online opposition — but support also.

The newly founded Foundation 451 still gets donations. The organization is named after Fahrenheit 451, a Ray Bradbury novel in which the main character’s job is burning books.

“We’re actually out there,” Tritt said. “We’re giving books away. We’re doing something, and we’re royally pissing people off.”

In New York, the Brooklyn Public Library is offering access to banned and challenged books for anyone in the U.S. ages 13 to 21. They can register for a library card and get access to hundreds of banned and challenged books in digital and audiobook formats.

The teen-led effort pushes back against attempts to remove reading materials from schools and libraries. By giving a library card to people regardless of location, the program hopes to reach marginalized teens who frequently find themselves targets of bigoted and racist attacks.

While Ella Scott and her classmates at Vandegrift High School in Austin, Texas, were attending school remotely, the Leander Independent School District’s Community Curriculum Advisory Committee began banning books, with an initial ban of 15 titles soon extending to more books.

When Ella, 16, returned to in-person learning and found the books were gone, she and her friend Alyssa Hoy, also 16, co-founded the Vandegrift Banned Book Club.

The group meets in the school library and chooses its readings from the district’s list of banned books. Books on the list include Kiss Number 8, In the Dream House, Out of Darkness, The Nowhere Girls, None of the Above and Ordinary Hazards.

Club members meet once a month to discuss the themes of that month’s selection and how it connects to students’ lives, why the book was banned and how the ban affects students. Members use their second monthly meeting to prepare a statement arguing for the book’s reinstatement.

Also in Austin, some school librarians are fighting back against book bans urged by parents and politicians. The books were called inappropriate or pornographic.

The librarians are resisting “a war on books.” They say the voices of librarians, students and writers are being ignored.

The group, the FReadom Fighters, deluged lawmakers with tweets and emails.

They are part of a greater movement of Texans resisting book censoring.

What people are saying

Civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, whose children’s book about integrating a New Orleans school has been targeted, told a U.S. House subcommittee investigating book bans, “Our babies – all of them – need to see themselves in our books, particularly in school. Representation doesn’t just matter; it’s vital, especially in the pages of the books that we teach from.”

Kwame Alexander, a best-selling author whose book The Undefeated has been banned in a number of states, says people need to “stop trying to handcuff history.”

“The beauty is, kids are still going to find their way to these books.”

LeVar Burton, former host of Reading Rainbow, had a message to students as book bans spread.

“Read the books they don’t want you to. That’s where the good stuff is.”

Daily Show host Trevor Noah said of the bans: “This isn’t about books. This is about keeping the culture war going for political benefits.”

Tiffany Jackson once told young readers her book Monday’s Not Coming was criticized for sexual content. She said she could tell by the expressions on their faces what they were thinking: “What book are they reading?”

Jackson didn’t understand, either. She had to reread it. Then she figured out what happened.

“I’m realizing it’s not about the book at all,” Jackson said. “It’s about the children the book is highlighting and the color of their skin.”

From wire reports

Picture at top: A small sampling of the hundreds of book titles banned or challenged across the U.S. (Credit: SPLC illustration)