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How To Create A Good Banned Books Display: Book Censorship News, September 2, 2022

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

Banned Books Week is coming, which means that waves of displays in libraries, classrooms, and bookstores are also incoming. We’re already seeing many, and while they are useful for highlighting the reality of censorship across America to those who are not as tapped into the news about it, too many banned books week displays are outdated and do not accurately reflect the reality of censorship right now. Banned Books Week displays continue to rely on older classics that have been historically challenged or removed. But to make a true impact — and to be accurate and effective in messaging — it’s time to rethink the Banned Books Week displays and make them more up-to-date and include a call to action.

What Makes a Good Banned Books Week Display?

The five ideas below are easy to implement no matter what kind of space you’re working with in your organization. These would work on a traditional display, on an end cap, or even on a wall or the side of a book stack.

1. Have accurate and current banned books on display

This means your selection of books will mirror the books you have up in February for Black History Month and the books displayed in June for Pride month. The current wave of book bans is targeting books by and about LGBTQ+ and BIPOC individuals. Include as many banned and challenged comics as possible, too. While it’s true Charlotte’s Web has been banned before, it is not being banned now. Choose instead to put Flamer or Gender Queer or This Book is Anti-Racist on display instead.

2. Get creative in highlighting popular books

One of the challenges right now in libraries especially is that it can be hard to put challenged and banned books on display because they’re circulating. That is a great problem to have and one that isn’t hard to solve. Make copies of book covers or print them out, put them in an acrylic frame, then include a QR code and/or instructions for how people can put a holds request in for the book. The display itself can be just this and include information about why the books are not currently on shelves and note that, despite the bump in popularity many receive in the midst of censorship waves, these books do not suddenly become best sellers or remain as in-demand when bans cool down.

Another option, and one that would make a huge impact, is to have a display that is empty. Put out the book holders and purposefully leave them empty on your Banned Books display. Maybe you have fliers or handouts on it, or maybe you leave it without anything, sending the message that that is what the reality is when books are removed. It’d certainly be accurate and catch people’s attention.

If you’re in a state with new book ban laws that limit what you can do or so, the empty display idea could be especially powerful.

3. Include action and advocacy materials

Let patrons and visitors know there are incredible resources out there talking about First Amendment rights and intellectual freedom. Include a handout and/or link on your website/social media to sources such as: Get Ready Stay Ready, PEN America’s report on the state of book bans in America (and additional resources on free expression), EveryLibrary, to Penguin Random House’s Book Ban Resource Hub, and to our own Literary Activism newsletter.

If you have a local group doing anti-censorship work, highlight them. If you don’t, share resources on how to begin an anti-censorship group.

Include information about local elections and why they matter (and if you’re in a school or library, you can tie that neatly into how your institution is taxpayer funded and taxpayers have the right to elect individuals who work on behalf of a whole community, not just those with close ties to them). You can also include information about local school boards and why they’re vital, as well as information about how people can get involved in their library board.

4. Focus on celebrating intellectual freedom and the First Amendment, not banned books

It may seem like a nit picky thing, but no one is celebrating banned books except those banning books. Instead, make sure the language around your banned books display and information is celebrating the right to read or intellectual freedom. Celebrate First Amendment rights, not banned books.

Highlight and note that the books are banned or being banned. But celebrate the right to read. The language and angle we use matters.

5. Create a call to action

There are many ways to create a call to action with your display, so know that what might work best for your community could differ from these ideas. But some suggestions include using a QR code to check one’s voter registration and/or linking to information about the upcoming election; including information about how to request a book for the library (in a recent event I did for teens as part of Brooklyn Public Library’s Intellectual Teen Freedom Council, they were surprised to learn they could request a library purchase a book and that that makes a big difference); linking to upcoming school and library board meeting dates and topics and how to show up and speak or write to those boards; including sticky notes and writing instruments and asking people to write a short review of any banned books they’ve read and loved OR writing a short note on why having access to books matters; having information about local, state, and federal legislators and how to write to them/their offices about First Amendment rights and the freedom to read; and/or having some kind of material that people can take with them that includes steps for advocating for intellectual freedom and First Amendment rights, be it a flier or bookmark.

Your call to action could also be as simple as clarifying that books on the display are for use and that users are encouraged to check them out, read them, and return them. This part of the display is about getting users to do something, and borrowing is itself a powerful and vital act.

Graphic with the 5 key steps to making a good banned books display from the text above it. The graphic is in shades of pink, purple, and cream.

Additional notes:

  • Be prepared to potentially have a book challenged. In the current book banning climate, it’s possible your display — like the Pride displays earlier this year — will become a target to the small number of censors who think they speak on behalf of an entire community.
  • Include information about how people can challenge a book in your library, if applicable. Remember to have your book challenge policies updated and ready to go. The more accessible the information, the more transparent you are, and the more censors cannot argue that you hinder their rights to demand books not be accessible to an entire community.
  • If there is currently a book ban happening locally, highlight that. Whether it is your institution or not, giving these displays a local angle is extremely important. Believing this is a red state or blue state thing is dangerous and disingenuous; people deserve to know that it is happening in their backyard because it IS happening in their backyard.
  • Dealing with a challenge or attempted book ban? Put that out there and include updates on the process. Example: if All Boys Aren’t Blue is being challenged in your local school district, look through the school board agendas to note where in the process it is.
  • Many displays enjoy including the reasons why a book is banned. This might be tricky today, in part because the reasons are “parental rights.” But maybe that in and of itself is good enough to put as a reason, as it begins a conversation about what that even means and why it is some parents believe they have the right to speak on behalf of an entire community. Not to mention, why aren’t student rights considered?

The more transparent you are and the more focus you put on the current, accurate realities of book bans right now, the more you’re helping put truth out there for those who may not be aware of what’s going on and/or who may be persuaded by groups that have pretty signage, t-shirts, and messages about their joyful war (and to be clear, they’re not ignorant for this — the reason such groups are so successful is they’re able to be persuasive!).

Banned Books Week should be an opportunity toward crushing censorship as it is right now.

Book Challenge News: September 2, 2022

  • Absolutely essential reading: how a Christian cell phone company took over four Texas school boards (you’ll see these school boards showing up in this roundup, previous roundups, and certainly, roundups to come).
  • The Oklahoma Secretary of Public Education is trying to get the teaching license revoked from the educator who provided her students the QR code to Brooklyn Public Library’s free banned books. This is the current state of America.
  • A New Hampshire State Senator wants to ban four books, including Gender Queer. [This may be paywalled]
  • In Polk County, Florida, one of the parents who is behind book banning is now trying to get the police involved because he can’t get his way (the district has an opt-out policy for a dozen+ titles).
  • Two of 40 books that were challenged in Victoria Public Library (TX) are going to remain on shelves, while the others are still under review. “Compromise” made here? A library card for kids with restricted access.
  • The Bible and the graphic novel edition of Diary of Anne Frank will be back on shelves in Keller, Texas. Don’t expect any of the other books pulled a couple of weeks ago to return though.
  • Volusia County is trying to figure out how to comply with new laws about book access but the bit that is troubling is that in a recent case where there was a complaint, media specialists decided the book hadn’t circulated enough to warrant a fight so they just removed it. For LGBTQ+ books especially, it’s likely kids who need those books read them without ever checking them out. Especially in a state like Florida where “parents rights” means student privacy invasion.
  • “Board member Brandi Rutz commented that she doesn’t believe in banning books, but that they should be open for review for the school libraries. In an example, Rutz read a short excerpt from a book titled “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Mass, that contained sexual and explicit content. The book is currently in the libraries of Mountain View and Central high schools. “We have stuff like this, that has a brief overview and seems pretty harmless, and we’re leaving it,” Rutz said. “Is that the best choice for kids?” — it’s weird how they always say they don’t believe in banning books but then want to ban books. This is Shenandoah School District in Virginia.
  • Frisco Independent School District (TX) is reviewing the 1 million+ titles in the schools to determine which to pull. They’re using the nebulous Texas penal code to determine obscenity and have already removed several titles for failing to meet these standards. (HOW?)
  • Moms For Liberty doing their joyful warrioring and demanding 14 books be removed from Kettle Run High School (VA).
  • This is a great story — in so much as it is also infuriating this is how things are — about the teens in D99, Downers Grove, Illinois, who fought to keep Gender Queer in the district (and won).
  • Speaking of Downers Grove, Illinois’s answer to Moms For Liberty, Awake IL, is targeting the public library’s Drag Queen Bingo for teens. A donor is now paying for it so they can shut their mouths about “taxpayer money.” The library’s letter about the program is an incredible must-read.
  • The trial in Llano County, Texas, over books pulled from the public library shelves is set for the end of October.
  • Book donations don’t solve the problem but groups working together like this one in Johnston, Iowa, to get kids access to LGBTQ+ material is a good step toward overturning the bigger problem.
  • The committees for book review in Abilene Public Library (TX) are set.
  • 17 books are being challenged in Corpus Christi, Texas, school district. [This may be paywalled.]
  • “We’re calling attention to it with this event like come see the Banned Books Week and that’s really sad if that’s what it takes to get kids engaged with literature,” parent Hillary Hickland told 6 News earlier this week. “I think we can go about it in a better way than trying to celebrate controversy. I’m not a book burner, but we’re not talking about public libraries. We’re talking about our school libraries, and we’re talking about children who are really impressionable and really vulnerable.” — talk about absolutely missing the point, Hillary. This is in Belton Independent School District (TX).
  • Eight books will remain in St. Johns County Schools (FL) but some will come with restrictions.
  • A great overview of the book banning happening across the state of California.
  • And a similarly solid overview of book censorship happening in the Des Moines (IA) metro area.
  • NPR covers the on-going saga of censorship, leadership challenges, and disciplinary tactics being used in Lafayette Parish Library (LA) and other Louisiana libraries right now.
  • LGBTQ+ books challenged in Sanibel Public Library (FL) will remain on shelves.
  • Spartanburg Public Libraries (SC) are working through the challenges of queer books brought forth in a publicity stunt by state Senator Josh Kimbrell. [This may be paywalled.]
  • Here are the books being put under restricted access for students in Madison County Schools (Mississippi). Weird what they have in common…
  • Elko School District (Nevada) just updated their collection and materials policies and if your school and library hasn’t done something similar — for similar reasons — it’s time. The district has not had any complaints but are being proactive and thoughtful to ensure students have access to LGBTQ+ and BIPOC-focused material.
  • “I’m just tired,” she said. “I really don’t feel like dealing with the pushback after two years of fighting for what I know is right but not necessarily being trusted.” She said she “doesn’t want to give any additional fuel to the people that are already upset at the school.” — this is the chilling effect of legislation meant to curtail education. The teachers don’t have the capacity to deal with the fallout for teaching truth because their jobs are on the line and they don’t have pockets lined with republican money. This is in Michigan, but it reflects many other states’ realities.

Book Censorship News at Book Riot This Week