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An Open Letter to Stephen King: Book Censorship News, January 27, 2023

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.

Dear Stephen King:

Last week, you had a tweet take off. I’ve seen it everywhere, including on several giant Facebook pages, Instagram pages, even on TikTok. The tweet, about book banning, is nice and sexy, attempting to break down the problem in under 280 characters. And you know, it was successful!

It got a lot of attention from your 7 million followers, as well as so many big names.

But, Stephen, this tweet, as thoughtful as I think you mean it to be, has done a lot of damage for the cause of anti-censorship in today’s world.

According to PEN’s last report, the numbers suggest that through June 2022, over 4 million students were impacted by book bans in their schools. We know now that, eight months later, this number is even higher. It might be as high as your follower count on Twitter. As of right now, there has been no count on how many individuals have been impacted by book bans at their local libraries or by legislature across the country that limits the kinds of books made available in any public library. Indeed, there are bills being proposed and passed which would criminalize librarians and educators who dare to have certain books on their shelves, whether they are in public or school libraries.

Do you know what that means? It means that kids cannot simply “haul [their] ass to the newest bookstore or library ASAP.” Especially because these right-wing bigots are also trying to stop the sale of many books in bookstores (remember last year, when they tried to do that in Virginia Beach with Gender Queer? That is not a lone incident).

I suspect if you paused for a second before hitting send, you’d also consider the financial privilege in suggesting kids simply go buy the book they want. How do you suppose they’ll get there? What if they do not have a bookstore anywhere near them? Remember, most kids don’t have credit cards, so they’re not hopping online to buy these books.

So now what? How do you suppose these kids haul their asses to the nearest public library or bookstore when their public library has been told what materials can be collected and they have no means to purchase a book? They just lose out, right?

Stephen, that…is the point of this. THAT is the point. You made the point for the folks doing these book bans while also feeding them the very line they use in their arguments against having these books in school libraries. You literally gave them back their talking point as to why they are banning books, doing irrevocable damage to the most marginalized for whom those of us doing this anti-censorship work have been fighting to protect. Do you recognize that you used your platform to do more harm than good? For what? To go viral and make it sound like an easy solution to the real problems being faced by people whose names you’ll never know?

Moreover, here’s another thing to realize: the kids know.

The kids know why these books are “dangerous.”

These books are about them: Black, Brown, Queer. They know they are seen as humans to be disappeared, and their books being pulled and made illegal is part of the process of eradicating them, as complex, multidimensional, beautiful people. They don’t need to “haul ass” to the bookstore or public library to know this. They’re listening to grown ups getting their 15 minutes of social media fame at school board meetings talking about how educators are “grooming” young people, “indoctrinating’ them with these “CRT” and “comprehensive sexuality education” books.

Kids are now not going to the library anymore. Libraries are no longer ordering books. This little statistic should send chills: for every school library with a book challenge, they were 55% less likely to order LGBTQ+ books the following year.

Stephen, you want to know what would have been a better use of your platform? That would actually help change the course of what we’ve been fighting now for 18 months (yes, did you know this all really started in mid-2021? Because WE do)? Telling your followers you were going to show up to the next school board meeting to talk about why queer books and books by and about people of color matter. Even if 1000 followers of your 7,000,000 took that to heart and went to their local school board meeting or sent their school boards a letter about why books matter, that would have done more actual good than suggesting kids solve the problem (hey, here’s a template!).

Telling them how to fight the battle, with tools and resources that so many of us with actual expertise in doing this — with knowledge of the current battlefield — have been tirelessly creating.

But instead, you chose to do more damage, offering nothing but a little quippy tweet that offers absolutely no tools, no insight, and no thought about why it is these kids (again, THE most marginalized ones, without time, money, or privileges afforded to folks like you who are straight, white, cis men) might not simply be able to “haul ass” to get those books and discover why baddies are banning them.

Those kids…they know.

Give them some damn credit.

You created a lot of hurt. I hope you spend some time considering how you can help the cause, rather than feed the rallying cries of the side trying to eradicate anyone without your level of privilege.

And, Stephen, if I may: this isn’t the first time you’ve shown your privilege with a tweet. It won’t be the last. But it is certainly worth pausing a moment to consider whether what you’re going to say would be of value and showcases that you’ve done some work on the topic OR whether it’s better not to share that thought and instead dig into and amplify the work of others who have.

I’m afraid you told millions of kids you’re not their “old buddy.” Certainly teachers and librarians who have a target on their backs aren’t happy with your comment, knowing that they’re putting their lives and livelihoods on the line every day (I mean, there are states where entire snitch lines are set up, but do go on about “hauling ass” to the library).

Do better.

Be better.

We need accomplices putting in the time, effort, sweat, and tears to dismantle this fascist agenda, not keyboard allies.

Book Censorship News: January 27, 2023

books removed from Madison County schools in Virginia