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Posted on Apr 7, 2024 in Blog, Writing

Authors Speak Out Against Book Bans

Authors Speak Out Against Book Bans

Last year’s PEN World Voices Festival featured a panel of authors who had personally experienced book bans, and they offered advice for readers pushing back against the wave of right-wing censorship across the country. A few months later, I wrote a series of blog posts on the role of book bans in reducing sales of children’s books overall, not just books by targeted BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) and LGBTQ+ authors.

Among those fighting back are the authors themselves. Through the efforts of Samira Ahmed, Andrea Davis Pinkney, Gayle Forman, Alan Gratz, Joanna Ho, David Levithan, Sarah MacLean, Ellen Oh, Christina Soontornvat, and Magie Tokuda-Hall, the organization Authors Against Book Bans was formed, with chapters covering all 50 states. The authors in each state chapter live in those states and have been attending school board meetings, speaking to local media, writing letters, and submitting Freedom of Information requests to challenge censorship and hold censors accountable. Given that a majority of residents, even in Republican-dominated states like Tennessee, oppose the removal of books from schools and libraries, book banners have thrived under a cloak of secrecy, intimidating officials and submitting hundreds of identical challenges generated from a central source. The group behind most of these challenges, Moms for Liberty, has been designated an extremist group by the civil rights watchdog Southern Poverty Law Center, which writes:

Moms for Liberty and its nationwide chapters combat what they consider the “woke indoctrination” of children by advocating for book bans in school libraries and endorsing candidates for public office that align with the group’s views. They also use their multiple social media platforms to target teachers and school officials, advocate for the abolition of the Department of Education, advance a conspiracy propaganda, and spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ community.

Along with more than a thousand other authors, I joined Authors Against Book Bans and am now part of the New York chapter. There are a lot of us authors in New York, and it would seem that the need for an anti-censorship organization isn’t as great as it is in Florida, Texas, Missouri, Utah, and Pennsylvania, the top five states for book banning. But as the AABB site points out, book banning isn’t only a red state (or in the case of Pennsylvania, a swing state) problem. Recently, a group of Southern California authors, including the oft-banned Elana K. Arnold, spoke at a meeting in Huntington Beach, where the local government was seeking to remove a variety of children’s books and hand library management over to a private corporation. Among the books they’re seeking to ban is the popular picture book Everyone Poops by Taro Gomi — a staple of my own grandchildren’s potty training process.

An exhibit of banned books at Union Square, part of the 2023 PEN World Voices Festival, highlighted picture books by Zetta Elliott and Kyle Lukoff.

And New York City is not immune. Last month, unnamed staffers at a Staten Island elementary school threw out hundreds of books featuring BIPOC characters and immigration topics. Local AABB members are now filing FOIL (the NYC equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act) requests to hold the school district accountable. Another possible area of concern in the city is the presence of Moms for Liberty-affiliated members of Community Education Councils in several of the city’s 32 community school districts — not just in conservative Staten Island but also in District 2 Manhattan, known as one of the most liberal parts of the city. Two council members from District 2 spoke at a Moms for Liberty event on the Upper East Side, which generated additional controversy because the venue, the Bohemian National Hall, had not been informed that the renters of their space were conducting a political event. Although the organization, which promotes Czech and Slovak culture in the U.S., was unable to cancel the event, the director of the Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association, Joseph Balaz, issued a statement, from which I quote this especially resonant paragraph:

We are a completely apolitical organization concentrating on cultural performances, and – this particular group clearly does not fit our strong non-political stance. Be aware that BBLA is neither organizing, hosting, nor supporting this specific rental event. Furthermore, as a first-generation immigrant who years ago escaped a dictatorship and absolute censorship, I am personally very sensitive to concepts like book banning, thought, and expression controls, and so on, which this highly politically charged turmoil around this event brings out.

A map of states with school book bans, part of the 2023 PEN World Voices Festival.

Many years ago, I ran for school board in my local community at the time. I did not win. However, I realized that in these low-turnout elections with little press coverage, it’s easy for extremists to slip into office. Once there, they move swiftly to terrorize teaching and library professionals as well as students who don’t fit their mold of “real Americans.” I joined Authors Against Book Bans to push back against these stealth candidates, their censorship plans, and their threats to BIPOC, LGBTQ+, disabled, and religious minority students and families. We are the majority. It’s time to stand up and not remain bystanders.

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