As Banned Books Week Approaches, the Fight Against Censorship Intensifies

Books are being challenged across the country; districts in Pennsylvania and Texas dominate the news with their decisions to remove materials. 

Illustration of some banned book covers behind chain link fencing

This story has been updated.

After weeks of student protest and national media attention, the Central York (PA) School District board of education voted to rescind the removal of an extensive list of materials by creators of color.

When the ban went into effect in August, students didn't stand idly by. They protested the loss of a list that went far beyond children’s and YA titles to include documentaries, websites, and books educators might read; including How to be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond. The Central York students held a protest and created a petition to overturn the decision. A Twitter account, @CYBannedBooks, was established to keep up with the situation, as well as posting reviews of some of the books that have been removed. 

Banned Books Week begins on Sunday. This year, spotlighting the fight against censorship may be more important than ever. While there are always individual book challenges at schools and public libraries, right now there is a coordinated effort of vocal opposition to a wide range of materials, pushing challenges and book removals at schools across the country. While books with LGBTQ characters or sex are still targets, this newest wave of opposition is going to school board meetings with a much wider net, intent on preventing children of all ages from reading books about race and social justice issues, and, in some cases, those that simply have BIPOC characters or stories involving any cultures that are not white or Eurocentric.

In Central York, there is a model of success for those fighting challenges and bans. Students rallied against the action, authors on the list spoke out as well.

“Standing in all kinds of solidarity with the students of York, Pennsylvania,” wrote Jacqueline Woodson, whose The Day You Begin is on the list.

Grace Lin’s A Big Mooncake for Little Star is one of the many titles on the list. Lin took to Twitter to rally support for the students.

“So this York Book Ban is bewildering as well as heartbreaking...here are some ways we can help fight the ban,” Lin wrote before listing actions people can take to help the protesting students, including donating the banned books for York Little Free Libraries, signing the petition to overturn the ban, and helping to elect those running for the school board who would overturn the ban. She finished her Twitter thread with this: “If you have any other suggestions, feel free to add. I hope we can end this ridiculous ban and discourage similar ones from happening elsewhere.”

[READ: George Tops Most Challenged List for Third Year in a Row: Stamped Takes No. 2 Spot]

Bernice King, daughter of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, tweeted about the situation. "Dangerous," she wrote. "People who truly want a healthy country and democracy don’t ban the truth, no matter how painful it is or how it calls for repentance and accountability. You can’t dismiss my historical and current pain, then accuse me of not wanting unity."

Technically, the materials were “frozen” and awaiting review by a newly formed curriculum committee and an incoming superintendent to offer input, according to a statement from the board president of the district of more than 5,700 students, where two-thirds of students are white.

"The Board embraces diversity in its many forms, including diversity of thought,” Jane Johnson, the board president, said in the statement. “We have always welcomed myriad quality diversity materials embracing differences and fostering equality, tolerance, inclusiveness, communication and kindness. However, many District parents have expressed concern that certain resources on this particular list foster the opposite by promoting unequal treatment of individuals on immutable characteristics. They believe that rather than uniting on diversity, certain resources polarize and divide on diversity and are based on disputed theories and facts. The Board believes that the fundamental purpose of school is that of core academics, objective education without indoctrination from any political or social agenda, and we look forward to the forthcoming review of the List and bringing balance to our classrooms."

Of course, the Central York students may have won, but many more districts are embroiled in similar battles. In recent years, the Leander (TX) Independent School District has built a reputation as a place where parents regularly demand books be removed, and the fight there continues. Recently a parent called the police instead of filing a complaint or asking for a review of Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, a title that is in the library but not part of any mandated curriculum or reading list. According to a local news report, the police said they were contacted about the book's content and are investigating. 

It was yet another escalation in an ongoing situation. In August, the list of books no longer permitted in Leander ISD classrooms or on book club lists was extended to include None of the Above by I.W. Gregorio; Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez; Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson; Brave Face: A Memoir by Shaun David Hutchinson; In the Dream House: A Memoir by Carmen Maria Machado; Ordinary Hazards: A Memoir by Nikki Grimes; and Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson.

Six titles are currently “paused” and under review: Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson; The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed; My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf; Dear Evan Hansen: The Novel by Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul; American Street by Ibi Zoboi; and The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez.

These districts are just two prominent examples; individual titles are consistently being challenged at schools and public libraries elsewhere. While last year the number of reported challenges dropped due to the impact of the pandemic (156 challenges to 273 books) there were 377 reported challenges to 566 books in 2019. There isn't always a social media campaign and national television network attention connected to these clashes over materials, but every day, a librarian or educator faces a new effort to remove a book from their shelves. To report a challenge or for resources to help fight a challenge, contact the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom at ala.org/oif.

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

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