School libraries have been under attack recently. This fight isn’t anything new. The first banned book in North America dates back to 1637 with the Puritans (not surprising anyone). When it comes to banning books in schools though, the Supreme Court set the standard with a ruling in 1982 in Island Trees School District v. Pico. It remains highly politicized today. In Virginia’s 2021 gubernatorial election, Glenn Youngkin wanted to ban Nobel-Prize winner Toni Morrison’s Beloved after a mother claimed it gave her child nightmares.
Librarians all over the United States have been fighting back. They are working to change laws and starting online movements to get representatives’ attention. Students are curious about why these books are being banned, so in response are starting their own banned book clubs. If you’re interested in starting an anti-censorship book club in your community, here are some tips for how to start a banned book club.
I’ve written before about how to start a teen book club, and many of the strategies are the same. A crucial difference is that banned book clubs that meet in schools need to be completely student led and facilitated. In today’s political climate, many educational professionals are afraid of being prosecuted or losing their jobs if they deviate from the state mandated curriculum. As just one example, the aforementioned Governor Youngkin set up a tip line for people in Virginia to report educators who were teaching critical race theory.
Also, it needs to be student led because they are the people who are being censored. Starting a banned book club is an opportunity for teens to discuss and think critically about why particular books are being targeted and banned.
Step 1: Decide Which Books To Read
Okay, let’s say you have your students and student leaders ready to read some banned books. Now what? The next step for how to start a banned book club is for the students to make a list of banned books they want to read. If you live in a district where a list of books have been banned, the selection process is easier. Students will choose from that list and vote (this is easiest through a Google Form) on which book they want to start with first. The students banned book club at Vandegrift High School in Texas can be an example here.
If, on the other hand, your particular district is fortunate enough to have all the books the librarians ordered on the shelves, this can be done several ways. You could use the American Library Association’s 10 most challenged books of all time list. There’s also the most challenged YA titles, and the ALA also provides lists of the most challenged books by decade: 1990–1999, 2000–2009, 2010–2019. Or, if your club wants to read in solidarity for clubs in districts with banned books, they could choose a place and read books from their banned list. Here is a list of 50 books some Texas parents want banned from school libraries.
Step 2: Get the Books
You have some interested teens, and they have chosen a book to read. The next issue is to find a way to get the books into the students’ hands. Some books are banned from classroom use as an instructional text, but not banned from the school library. In this case, students can borrow the book from their library or other school libraries in their district through inter library loans. Other times, the book can’t be found on any shelves in that school district. Students can then head to their local public libraries and bookstores.
They can also go online and petition for books. Many people are looking for ways to help these book clubs and are willing to buy books on their behalf. VHS Banned Book Club has a linktree on their Instagram page with information about what they have already read and what titles they are looking for next. Students could put something personal on their own social media or start a book club specific account. Some authors are being generous and providing book clubs with copies of their books that have been challenged or banned. Ashley Hope Perez did this with her book Out of Darkness.
Step 3: Discuss the Books
Now it’s time for the discussions. Breaking up discussions into bimonthly meetings makes it manageable for students to read the book over a month. It also allows more discussion time with multiple meetings. Again, defer to your students here, as they will know what works best for them.
Next, be sure to include in the discussion time to talk about why this book was banned. This is especially important during the first reading, so students can keep these reasons in mind as they finish the book over the following two weeks. In the final meeting about the book, students should discuss their general thoughts on the book, and also whether or not they think the book should be banned. If they decide this book shouldn’t be banned, they can take action if they want by writing to representatives, school board members, or curriculum specialists.
Alternative Steps for Adults
If you are not a student and are interested in starting a banned book club in your community, step one is different. Pick a leader, then follow steps two and three. A book club made up of adults and teens that does not meet during school hours is much less complicated than the completely student run book club. It also might be easier for these members to buy the book of the month, and instead of asking online for books, this club could go online and find other book clubs to donate to.
Teen readers need to see themselves in the books they read. Representation matters. Books are a safe place for teens to explore controversial topics. They are a place to read about how to deal with abuse, mental illness, racism, homophobia, sexual assault, and more in hypothetical situations — a thought experiment that might save a student’s life if it comes to their hands at the right time. So if you’ve been playing around with the idea of starting a banned book club, take this as your sign to get started. Books save lives. Let’s get as many into the hands of teens as we can.