A Conversation with Cameron Samuels, Inaugural Banned Books Week Youth Honorary Chair

Samuels, the former Katy (TX) ISD student who led the student protests against censorship, talks about the fight for intellectual freedom and what Banned Books Week means to them.

As a high school senior in Katy (TX) Independent School District during the 2021-22 school year, Cameron Samuels led a student movement against district censorship of books and resources. Less than a year after attending their first school board meeting to protest decisions limiting access to books, Samuels has been named the first-ever youth honorary chair of Banned Books Week (Sept. 18-24).

"I think that it's very important," they said of adding a youth honorary chair this year. "These decisions of censorship are directly affecting young people. They're directly affecting students. When these policies harm us as students, it's so important that we are at the table to share our voice, our opinions. We aren't just invisible, political pawns, where policymakers can make decisions that directly impact us in negative ways. We should be decision makers."

SLJ spoke with Samuels, who is now in their first year at Brandeis, about the position, Banned Books Week, and the fight going forward.

What does Banned Books Week mean to you? How do you think the week can be used to be most helpful at this time?

CS: This year, Banned Books Week is all about how censorship divides us; but books unite us. That message, that motto, is really going to bring people together through books. We're going to have a united front of librarians, educators, teachers, and students to stand up against this large-scale attack on our queer identities, our BIPOC identities. It's going to be a week-long effort to show that we are here, and this is what we believe—books unite us.

Do you remember when you first learned about book banning attempts or Banned Books Week?
I think the first time I heard about Banned Books Week was when I was in middle school. That was the first time I really saw that there was censorship in the world, and books were being banned because [they contained] something that certain people disagreed with. That was really shocking to me. It piqued my interest, because I had always been a bookworm when I was younger, and I've grown up in the most diverse county [in the state]. [Niche ranks Fort Bend, TX, as the third most diverse county in the United States. It is the most diverse county in Texas.]

I've always seen differing perspectives and have valued learning more. I seek to learn more, not close off the perspectives that I disagree with. And that's exactly what's happening with book banning. 

Given the vitriol, it's scary right now. So what would you tell kids about why it's important to stand up, or what they could do, even if they're not someone who could stand up at a board meeting and speak out?
It is really scary to see that our identity could be erased from a page or from a library. But, if you are able to access banned books and read them and learn why they should be valued and treasured, you are going to learn so much, widening your perspective on yourself [and] on the world. They're going to be a resource to support and affirm your identity. While we are seeing a huge wave of censorship, stand above that flood line of censorship, work as best as you can to maintain access to these stories and perspectives. And, if you can, advocate. It doesn't require speaking at a school board meeting. If you're a student, you can simply email a school board member. You can find a trusted teacher, especially a librarian, who you can connect with, and maybe they have some resources for you. Or maybe you're able to work with them to advocate. You're never alone. There's never a time when you [are] alone with your identity. There's always someone or several people out there, who you may know already, who can support your identity, and set you up for success and empower you to be yourself. It just takes seeking that out—make that connection, build that bridge, rather than letting those in power isolate you and erase your identity.

How do you plan to continue your efforts now that you're going to college? Do you feel pressure or an obligation to keep doing it?
When I first started advocating, it was in November [2021]. I was the first student—I was the only student—at a school board meeting. I was alone not just as a student, the only person in the room that aligned with my beliefs.  I was speaking against my school district banning New Kid by Jerry Craft, against banning LGBTQ websites like the Trevor Project. When I went back to my seat, no one clapped; everyone stared at me. It felt overwhelming to see others in the room just kept going up and calling for LGBTQ and BIPOC books to be banned. But I held on, and I started working with school officials and with my peers. Within a couple of months, we filled an entire room full of students. It was empowering to see. We changed that narrative. We built that movement.

And now that I'm going off to college, I'm not going to be able to be present at each of these board meetings and continue efforts on campus, like how we distributed more than 700 books. But I am still gonna stay connected with the students who have taken up this leadership now. They are pushing hard against my district's efforts to change the book review policy to make it easier to ban books and to eliminate the requirements to have varying perspectives. So I hope to work with these students in Katy ISD, but then also work with students across the nation to empower them to advocate and stand up for themselves. I want to be able to see students be equipped with the resources they need, and the motivation and the inspiration that will allow them to fight back against censorship.

How can librarians help?
Librarians can be a symbol for students that there is good in the world. I don't think I've ever met a librarian that hasn't been kind to me, that hasn't been an inspiration of hope. I feel like that might be the norm for a librarian. I hope that students can recognize that and trust their librarians to not only curate a selection of books that are perfect for their school, but also be someone who they can trust to help them navigate their queer identities, navigate growing up in a world that can often be harsh. I hope librarians can support these vulnerable students, and I know that they're already doing that. And I hope that students at the same time can support librarians at a time when they aren't being trusted by the greater community and those in power.

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