by Jae Moore
Fresh data on book bans is in as we head into Banned Books Week, an annual commemoration highlighting growing censorship efforts and ways that freedom-loving Americans can fight back. New reports from the American Library Association and PEN America reveal that, while some states are taking decisive action to end book bans, others are doubling down on their attempts to expand them.
On Monday, the governor signed SB 14 into law, reclassifying child sex trafficking into a serious felony that increases prison sentences. He also signed AB 1078 to penalize school boards that ban books and other education materials… https://t.co/F3lBlTsfUN
— CalMatters (@CalMatters) September 26, 2023
Reading the Rainbow: LeVar Burton Tapped for Banned Books Week
Beloved children’s series host and freedom to read advocate LeVar Burton has been selected as the first actor to serve as honorary chair for this year’s Banned Books Week.
— SchoolLibraryJournal (@sljournal) September 22, 2023
Taking place October 1-7, the theme this year is “Let Freedom Read,” which highlights “the urgent need to defend the right to read and to support the community of readers, library staff, educators, authors, publishers, and booksellers.” Among the scheduled activities are a Banned Books Reading Challenge hosted by People for the American Way’s Grandparents for Truth campaign, an (Un)Banned Book Festival that includes discussions with authors and the opportunity to snag a banned book for your collection, and the unveiling of a Little Free Library to share banned titles with community members.
🔥#BannedBooksWeek is ONE WEEK away! Expanding #bookaccess is at the heart of our mission, and the rise of book bans goes against our core values. Learn more about how to get involved in the fight against #bookbans and how to prepare for Banned Books Week: https://t.co/IijTwkGy5d pic.twitter.com/bql9ZSjaQu
— Little Free Library® (@LtlFreeLibrary) September 24, 2023
Thousands of books have been banned in U.S. schools – & it’s getting worse. Join @PENamerica @UABookBans & @writersguildinitiative on Oct. 7 for the Banned Books Week Day of Action and share your favorite banned book with the hashtags #LetFreedomRead & #BannedBooksWeek. pic.twitter.com/ykZB5SnifJ
— Mandy Patinkin (@PatinkinMandy) September 26, 2023
Bookending this year’s Banned Books Week events is Let Freedom Read Day on October 7. Banned Books Week asks that supporters all take at least one action to advocate not only for the right to read, but to show support to educators, librarians, authors, publishers, and bookstores that help ensure free access to affirmative materials. Suggested activities include checking out or purchasing a banned title, attending board and council meetings, and organizing to defeat book bans.
“Books bring us together. They teach us about the world and each other. The ability to read and access books is a fundamental right and a necessity for life-long success,” said Burton in a statement. “But books are under attack. They’re being removed from libraries and schools. Shelves have been emptied because of a small number of people and their misguided efforts toward censorship. Public advocacy campaigns like Banned Books Week are essential to helping people understand the scope of book censorship and what they can do to fight it. I’m honored to lead Banned Books Week 2023.”
Perhaps best known for instilling a love of reading in countless children through PBS’ Reading Rainbow, Burton now hosts a book-themed podcast, Levar Burton Reads, and uses his celebrity status to advocate for the right to read. Efforts have included executive producing (with several others) the aptly titled documentary The Right to Read and joining more than 175 performers and authors in signing MoveOn’s open letter, released last week, denouncing book bans.
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“LeVar Burton’s longstanding commitment to literacy and to elevating all readers make him a fantastic choice to lead Banned Books Week,” says GLAAD President and CEO, Sarah Kate Ellis. “As LGBTQ books and people come under unprecedented attack, who better than the host of the beloved Reading Rainbow to remind us how books strengthen us, connect us, and make the world a more expansive and beautiful place. We need every voice to speak up for all parents, youth and families and the fundamental freedom to read and belong.”
On October 4 at 8 pm ET, Burton will host a live discussion on Instagram about censorship and advocacy with Banned Books Week Youth Honorary Chair Da’Taeveyon Daniels. Currently a high school senior, Daniels is partnership director of SEAT (Students Engaged in Advancing Texas), a nonprofit composed of young individuals that advocates for students having a say in policies that affect them.
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Speaking with the School Library Journal, Daniels shared a love for books that began at age six. Books, he explained, are “a way to navigate the complexities of my identity in a world that often felt hostile to those who didn’t conform to the heteronormative, white-centric narrative.”
GLAAD is a proud member of the Banned Books Coalition.
Biden Administration Hires “Book Czar” to Safeguard the Right to Read
Speaking at a dedication ceremony for the new McCain National Library in Tempe, Arizona, President Joe Biden delivered a strong message against extremists targeting vulnerable Americans, books, and accurate history.
“Did you ever think we’d be having debates in the year — stage of your careers where banning books — banning books and burying history?” the President asked.
@msnbcPresident Biden spoke at the opening of a library dedicated to the late Senator John McCain in Tempe, Arizona. During his speech, he called out “MAGA extremists” who seek to “fundamentally alter the institutions of American democracy as we know it.”♬ original sound – MSNBC
Following up on a Pride Month promise, the Biden Administration appointed Matt Nosanchuk to fill a newly created “book czar” role. Previously serving under the Obama Administration, Nosanchuk worked to champion LGBTQ rights and, later, served as liaison to the Jewish community.
As activists and politicians use aggressive tactics to ban books and silence voices and identities, PEN America welcomed @usedgov's appointment of "book czar" Matt Nosanchuk. "Empowering the coordinator to address this ongoing movement is critical.” https://t.co/F3TtavHP5X (13/x)
— PEN America (@PENamerica) September 16, 2023
As Deputy Assistant Secretary in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), Nosanchuk will, The 74 reported, “oversee [the department’s] response to content challenges and take action” if censorship efforts infringe upon the civil rights of students. Nosanchuk’s first weeks will see him educating schools and public libraries on the OCR and their areas of enforcement, as well as exploring ways the department can help.
PEN America’s Nadine Farid Johnson expressed the importance of Nosanchuk’s role. “Book removals and restrictions continue apace across the country, as the tactics to silence certain voices and identities are sharpened,” said Johnson. “Empowering the coordinator to address this ongoing movement is critical.”
PEN America: School Book Ban Threats are Increasing, but so is the Resistance
A new report from PEN America explores the devastating effects book bans have on K-12 schools, and also highlights student efforts to fight back and protect their rights.
Released last week, Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor opens with a sobering number: 3,362. That’s how many recorded book bans took place in schools throughout the country during the 2022-23 school year, an increase of 33 percent from the year prior. These censorship attempts affected 1,557 titles and encompassed nearly 1,500 authors. In what should be no surprise by now, PEN America noted that the most frequently targeted authors are women, people of color, and LGBTQ people.
Despite the fact that the majority of Americans do not support book bans, they have been skyrocketing in the U.S., with a new report from PEN America recording a 33% year-over-year increase in book bans in American public school classrooms and libraries. https://t.co/uDQRKJ2ufP
— Them (@them) September 22, 2023
Florida leads the nation in book bans, with 1,406 cases reported in 33 school districts. As previously reported, 600+ of these challenges can be traced back to exactly two people. Texas follows Florida at 625 bans, then Missouri at 333 bans.
Among the key findings of the report, PEN America discovered that false rhetoric and disinformation have resulted in mass removals of books. Mirroring the authors affected, the most frequently targeted titles are about LGBTQ characters or topics and/or people of color.
Quoted in The Advocate, PEN America’s CEO Suzanne Nossel warned that book-banning efforts “are turning our schools into battlegrounds, compounding post-pandemic learning loss, driving teachers out of the classroom and denying the joy of reading to our kids.” There is, as the organization’s report noted, “a glimmer of hope.” Student-driven counter efforts are playing an increasingly important role in growing awareness about the dangers of censorship, providing a sense of community and belonging, and making their needs known (versus having politically or religiously motivated groups or individuals dictate what they feel is appropriate based on their personal beliefs).
One such effort, The Buffalo News reported, is taking place in Orchard Park, New York, a village of fewer than 5,000 residents. After students faced ridicule while speaking out against book bans and “in favor of democracy and inclusion” at a school board meeting, student activists Jillian Yarnes and Luke Lippitt founded Students Protecting Education, a nonprofit organization “empowering students to use their voices to advocate for positive change” both locally and around the country.
“We’re fighting for our voices to be heard. And we’re fighting for things that we think are important,” said Lippitt. “And if you’re trying to take things away that we value, we’re going to let you know how we feel about that. We’re going to fight for those things that we care about.”
@studentsproed In the first 6 months of Students Protecting Education, we have accomplished more than we could ever dream of. We have grown a huge following, and an extreme amount of support has been shown. We are making headlines and it just motivates us even more. Thank you all for your support so far! Thank you eero for the video!! #spe #studentsprotectingeducation #protecting #education #edutok #fyp #education #donate #today #2023 #studentled #organization #eriecounty #yearofthestudent #passionate #orchardpark #itswhatido #support #nonprofit #protecteducation ♬ original sound – Students Protecting Education
Meanwhile, Book Riot’s Kelly Jensen cast a spotlight not just on Students Protecting Education (whose efforts have now expanded to a chapter in Charleston, South Carolina), but several other organizations focused on protecting student rights and the freedom to read. In 2022, the Brooklyn Public Library introduced the International Freedom Teen Council (IFTC) as part of the public library system’s Books Unbanned initiative. Open to teens 13-19 nationwide and geared toward those “eager to get involved in anti-censorship work,” Jensen noted “the IFTC is the perfect opportunity to not only learn how to do so but also to network with other young people” engaged in similar efforts.”
Another student-driven organization, Students Engaged in Advancing Texas (SEAT), has been instrumental in fighting censorship efforts in the Lone Star State. Speaking with the Texas Observer, SEAT Executive Director and Co-Founder Cameron Samuels (who recently joined Illinois Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias in speaking out about censorship in front of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee) said that they were compelled to organize after their former school district blocked affirming websites like The Trevor Project because they featured “alternative lifestyles.”
“It shocked me that a district I had grown up in was not only characterizing my identity as a lifestyle, as a choice,” said Samuels, “but it was calling it alternative and inherently sexual.”
In an OutSmart Magazine spotlight, Samuels expressed the importance of allowing students to play a role in the decision-making process. “[When our] voices are not only heard as consultants, but are involved in the process, then policymakers can reflect our values more directly,” explained Samuels. “[But] when we’re left out, it only reinforces the status quo created by the traditionally adult-dominated field of politics.”
ALA: New Data Reveals Twenty Percent Increase in Targeted Titles
Recently released data from the American Library Association (ALA) shows that censorship efforts are, once again, on the rise. During the period from January 1 through August 31, 2023, the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) recorded 695 book ban attempts in public libraries, encompassing nearly 2,000 unique titles, a year-to-year increase of 20%. According to NPR, these numbers may not even tell the full story. The ALA gathers their data “through library professionals and news reports,” so cases that aren’t spotlighted may not be included.
Books have been challenged in libraries across the country at historic rates so far this year, with most of the challenged titles written by or about people of color or members of the LGBTQ community, according to the American Library Association. https://t.co/NctCdgQF4h
— NBC News (@NBCNews) September 21, 2023
In a press release, OIF Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone warned that “every person who values liberty and our constitutional rights” should find these trends alarming. “To allow a group of people or any individual, no matter how powerful or loud, to become the decision-maker about what books we can read or whether libraries exist, is to place all of our rights and liberties in jeopardy.”
Unique to the period covered in the new data, the AP noted that, while “school libraries have long been the predominant target,” book banning efforts are now evenly distributed between school and public libraries, something not lost on Caldwell-Stone. “The irony is,” she began, “that you had some censors who said that those who didn’t want books pulled from schools could just go to the public libraries.”
Do Your Part!
“The antidote to the contagion of censorship is public, vocal support for libraries,” said Drabinski. “Libraries continue to welcome every reader in their communities and provide something in the collection for everyone.”
Bookstores, libraries, and places of worship (among others) around the country are hosting activities and displays all week long, and there’s sure to be something that piques your interest. Know of an event that’s not listed? Encourage the organizers to add it to the Banned Books Week events calendar.
Finally, Let Freedom Read Day on October 7 will help you rethink what it means to get involved. No action is too big or small. Need some ideas? Want to show family and friends how they can protect the right to read? We’ve got you covered! Banned Books Week offers a tip sheet with actionable items to defeat book bans and support those affected, from simply checking out or purchasing a banned book and writing to elected officials to banding together in support of schools and libraries.
Every action matters. What will yours be?