As students, families, and school employees head back to school for the fall, they face an atmosphere of uncertainty and censorship. The past year has seen a disturbing uptick in attempts to ban books and inclusive lesson plans from schools, as extremist groups and politicians falsely frame accurate teachings about race and LGBTQ issues as “indoctrination” or even “grooming.” According to a report from PEN America, 1,145 titles were banned in 86 school districts across 26 states over only a nine-month period between July 2021 and March 2022, and the American Library Association counted 1,597 book challenges and removals in 2021. On top of bans, legislators proposed 93 anti-LGBTQ school policy bills aiming to restrict things like teaching materials or what teachers can discuss in classrooms. In a number of states, those laws passed and are now in effect—including Florida’s famed ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law and similar laws in Missouri, South Dakota, and Tennessee. Many of the laws target books specifically and have put librarians at the front lines of enforcement; for example in Florida some school librarians have put in overtime to pull books from shelves that may conflict with a new state law restricting materials that discuss LGBTQ issues, race, and gender, while at other libraries such books now feature “parental advisory” stickers. Often, extremist elected officials and anti-LGBTQ groups claim that concerns over reading and learning materials are coming from local parents, but research has shown that elected officials are applying political pressure and leading the charge to censor books. All kids deserve to see themselves reflected in the books they read and at school, and attempts to censor diverse materials amount to discrimination.
GLAAD has compiled tools for students, families, and school staff to fight censorship and ensure that all voices are heard in the school year ahead.
● Know your rights! All students have a right to an education free from discrimination. Check out the Safe Schools For All guide to student rights (there are sections for teachers and for families too) and GLSEN’s Back To School Guide for 2022 for resources to help both LGBTQ students and LGBTQ teachers.
● Report anti-LGBTQ discrimination at school. If you or someone you know is being denied access to school programs, activites, or inclusive learning materials based on your gender identity or sexual orientation, or you’re facing harassment and bullying that school staff refuses to address, you can file a complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Find the complaint form and other resources for LGBTQ students here.
● Want to read a book that’s been banned or censored at your school or library? The Brooklyn Library’s Books Unbanned program gives free eCards to youth ages 13-21 who live anywhere in the United States so they can access its digital library of frequently challenged books like Gender Queer and The 1619 Project. And Scribd features a curated collection of Books Being Banned Right Now that anyone can access for free, anytime—including many of the most-challenged LGBTQ titles like All Boys Aren’t Blue, Fun Home, This Book Is Gay, and more.
● Request targeted books. Most of the current efforts to censor books aren’t due to a state or even local law, but instead are the result of pressure from local extremists. By requesting books, you’re showing schools and libraries that there is a demand for the titles that could drown out the local extremist group complaining about them at your school board meetings.
● Email your school board. Student voices are often missing from the decision-making process when it comes to school policies, and unfortunately many school boards aren’t required to allow public comment. But you can always reach out to your local school board members and share your concerns. Enter your address on XQ’s school district map search, and it will pull up direct email links for your school board members, as well as meeting dates, elections, and other important information.
● Start or join a student chapter of the American Library Association. This one is for graduate students who are studying library sciences, information sciences, or education. If you’re already training to get into library work, an ALA student chapter is a great way to learn more about the policy and advocacy side of things.
FOR PARENTS AND GUARDIANS:
● Educate yourself on book challenges and censorship. Is your local school board, library, or government following recommended best practice guidelines from the American Library Association for the reconsideration of certain titles? Familiarize yourself with those best practices. Make sure you know who is trying to ban books and why, and demand that local leaders adhere to the ALA’s Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit for Public, School, & Academic Libraries and a formal, standardized process instead of challenging books just because one person (or one group) wants to.
● Start an association with other parents who oppose censorship, similar to Book Ban Busters, Virginia’s Loudon4All, or Texas’s Round Rock Black Parents Association. Or organize an effort to distribute books that have been challenged, like Kansas City parent Erin Samek did by fundraising to place banned books in Little Free Libraries.
● Run for your local school board. Many school boards have been targeted by extremist groups who run candidates in order to pass more stringent anti-LGBTQ policies, among other motivations. School boards should represent all parents and students in the community, including those who believe in accurate teaching about race and LGBTQ people. Not only can you find and contact your local school board members using XQ’s database, you can also use it to find dates of upcoming meetings and information about elections. Running for office for the first time can seem daunting, but luckily there are tons of organizations devoted to helping people get started. For women, there’s newer groups like She Should Run in addition to the famed Emily’s List (the latter is geared toward Democrats, but many candidacy groups are nonpartisan). There are groups like Run For Something that help people under 30 get started in politics. For Black candidates there’s the Collective PAC, for LGBTQ candidates the LGBTQ Victory Institute offers training and support, while for Latino candidates the Latino Victory Fund is the place to go.
● Launch a campaign in your community. The Unite Against Book Bans toolkit, created by the American Library Association, guides concerned citizens through talking points, grassroots organizing, social media tools, information on how to contact legislators, and more.
● Contact your elected officials. Search for your state and local representatives using the USA.gov database, and call or email them to express your concerns about censorship in schools and libraries. Another effective way to pressure elected officials is to create a petition; whether signatures are collected online or door-to-door, delivering the petition to the official’s office in person will have the most impact.
● Buy banned and challenged books. Check out PFLAG’s Read With Love book wishlists for titles that have been targeted, and buy them for your kids and/or inquire about donating them to your local school or library. You can also sponsor one of the book bundles that the Pride and Less Prejudice campaign sends to pre-K through third grade classrooms around the country.
● Request banned and challenged books at your local library. Many people feel inclined to donate banned or challenged books at a time like this, but not all libraries can take donations—especially if the donated books are already under review. But requesting the titles can have an impact, according to the children’s literature advocacy group We Need Diverse Books. In its guide to helping support targeted books, a WNDB librarian suggests the best method is: “Check them out. Read them. Recommend them to others. Request more. Repeat.”
FOR TEACHERS AND LIBRARIANS:
How to report book bans and challenges:
● The American Library Association’s book challenge reporting form.
● The National Council of Teachers of English Censorship Incident reporting form applies to a wide variety of censorship challenges, from books to school plays, student writing, syllabi and lesson plans, and more.
LGBTQ books and curriculum for the classroom or library:
● GLSEN’s Rainbow Library program sends LGBTQ text sets to K-12 schools across the country free of charge. Any full-time staffer at a district, magnet, charter, or independent school is eligible to request a book set. Rainbow Library also offers a guide to LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum for educators.
● The Pride and Less Prejudice campaign supplies free LGBTQ-inclusive books to classrooms from pre-K through third grade. Educators can request a book bundle here, and see the list of what’s included this year.
Resources for LGBTQ teachers and school staff being targeted:
● Job discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is sex discrimination, and it is illegal. To find out more, visit the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s resources on SOGI discrimination, including details on how to file an EEOC complaint against private employers, state/local employers, and federal government employers.
Resources for librarians being targeted:
● The ALA’s guidelines and talking points for informal complaints and expressions of concern at the library desk is a helpful tool for navigating difficult conversations about book content with patrons, administrators, staff, and volunteers.
● Grants are available for librarians facing job discrimination related to their identity or their support for intellectual freedom.
Teaching and talking to youth about book bans:
● The American Federation of Teachers has numerous lesson plans on its Share My Lesson site that help students learn about and understand the history of book censorship in the U.S., along with efforts to censor inclusive learning in schools. Check them out here.
● Create a Banned Books Week event or lesson at your school. This year’s Banned Books Week takes place September 18-24, and you can download promotional materials like posters, fliers, shelf talkers, and even trivia templates here. Consider having students read from the list of the top ten most-challenged books of 2021.
FURTHER READING AND RESOURCES:
GLAAD’s Media Guide: Reporting On Book Bannings and School Censorship is a comprehensive collection of guidelines, background, legislative alerts, and other tools that journalists can use to fairly and accurately cover censorship in schools, especially anti-LGBTQ book challenges. Read it here.
PEN America’s Banned In The USA report lays out the who’s, what’s, where’s, and when’s of the current wave of book censorship. It also provides helpful information about school board policies and the ways that book reconsideration processes are supposed to take place (as opposed to what’s currently happening). Read it here.
GLAAD is a national partner in the Unite Against Book Bans campaign, a non-partisan coalition to engage the public in the fight against censorship. Read more about it here.
GLAAD is a member of the Banned Books Week coalition, which sponsors an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 in response to a sudden surge in the number of challenges to books in schools, bookstores and libraries. Typically held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Find out more about this year’s Banned Books Week events (September 18-24) here.
The National Coalition Against Censorship’s Youth Censorship Database tracks K-12 student censorship incidents includes book challenges in schools and libraries, as well as censorship of student art, journalism, and other types of student expression in schools. The map can be filtered by year, location, and type of challenge among other search types. Access it here.