How to Talk About Book Bans With Friends, Library Patrons, and More: Book Censorship News, February 17, 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.

Something that needs to be understood about the reality of book bans right now is this: teaching other people about what is truly going on — beyond the singular headlines — is crucial, and it’s going to mean you need to get uncomfortable. Whether you’re a book lover or parent who is sharing stories or work in libraries or schools where your patrons and parents may not understand the scope of censorship right now, doing the work means getting uncomfortable. It means “getting political.” It means not taking neutrality as a stance. It means really learning how to talk about book bans.

So how do you do it? Let’s break this down into two different, though related, avenues. The first is educating friends or family, the people in your life for whom you don’t work on their behalf. The second is patrons or customers, the people in your life who you might serve in your role as a librarian or educator. These ideas are meant to be jumping off points. Tailor and adapt as appropriate.

The safety of and love for kids is more important than your comfort as an adult.

How to Talk About Book Bans with Friends

  • Share the news you see, and provide needed context. If you share that a local school has had books pulled from shelves, share the news story and identify who is behind the movement. Name the names.
  • Create a call to action. Tell your friends you’re going to the next school or library board meeting to talk about why it is important there are LGBTQ+ books on shelves. You could also put together an anti-censorship group of like-minded individuals who put these meetings on your calendars and make it a social event you all attend together. Set up a time and date for you and your friends to grab coffee locally and spend an hour contacting all of your legislators about book bans. This is not hard, but you have to care enough to get uncomfortable and explain the reason for these actions to your friends instead of letting them slide by.
  • Push back with questions. If a friend says it’s easy to get the kids books at the bookstore or public library, for example, ask them how. Ask them to tell you how a kid without a digital reading device should get the book on Kindle.
  • Repeat the above when a friend shares a meme or quote about book bans suggesting that there are other means for kids to get books. It is important to get people to think about the words they share and why a nice platitude or idea (such as “let’s raise money and buy copies of the book for those kids!”) is not solving the root problem right now.
  • Share data, statistics, and research as much as you do the terrible and/or click-y stories about the absurdity of certain challenges. It IS ridiculous that books about sports heroes were banned in a Florida school district. But what is also absurd and far more actionable is noting that book bans are extremely unpopular with the public (research) and that when given the choice to opt their kids out of school library materials, it is the smallest minority of parents who do (research).
  • Curate a resource of anti-censorship news sources and share it regularly. Post on social media a list of accounts or newsletters you follow and encourage others to do the same. This is low-hanging fruit, and yet, giving people the resources to tap in is extremely effective.

How to Talk About Book Bans with Library Patrons

A couple of notes before the bullet points: you’re going to need to give up neutrality. Neutrality is inappropriate in the library or in any space. If your goal is to save your institutions, to protect your patrons, and to be the place for accurate information, your job is to make that available. You cannot support the First Amendment rights of all without “getting political.” Book banners do not give a single damn about “getting political” — it’s what they hope defenders will keep not bothering to do.

The second thing of note is that successfully educating patrons will require identifying your power users and tapping into them. These will be your regulars, your Friends group members, donors, and those you know who care deeply about their local library. If you don’t know who your power users are, then your work is in identifying them.

Recall that “parents rights” goes two ways: parents have to parent their young people, too. This means relocating materials or removing it all together suggests they have not and are not doing their job but are instead expecting the organization to do so.

  • Make your book challenge/materials reconsideration policies easily available and accessible…as soon as you’ve ensured it is as up-to-date as possible. Keeping this form and information accessible tells patrons their rights, as much as it makes clear you have nothing to hide.
  • Create a resource on your website to talk about book bans. This can be a barebones page that talks about the legislation protecting the right to read for all, and if you’re in a community struggling with book bans, then keep it updated with news about local attempts. You can define local as more regional, too. Offering a “what’s happening in Illinois” page can give links to stories of book bans and censorship wins across the state. It can and should also include information on the groups behind these bans — they don’t make themselves hidden and neither should you. There are enough folks sharing resources across the internet that pulling this page together and keeping it updated will require minimal work. Wondering what to name the page? Something as straightforward as “Worried About Censorship?” would do.
  • If your library is dealing with a book challenge, make sure your power users know that they need to attend the board meeting and/or submit a letter in support of the book. As noted in the previous section, use the data, research, and statistics to back up the need for the library to include materials for all.
  • Create visuals. One of the most powerful ways to articular book bans is through easy graphical representation. Something like this is easy to do and gets the point across very clearly. Post these on your website and social media, as well as right at the reference desks.
  • Keep making displays. In the fall, I wrote about how to make good banned books displays. Keep making them, and keep making displays that integrate queer books and books by and about people of color. Continue to include information patrons can use to educate themselves on those books and the right-wing panic around them.
  • Develop some bookmarks about censorship that can be left at the checkout desk. Put them inside the books hitting censor radars.
  • Tap your power users and encourage them to write to your local papers and local government about how the needs of the community are being well met by the library. Encourage these same power users — as well as new individuals you meet during your programs or events — to write a letter to the library/school board that says they loved the event/program/books available in the library. They don’t need to say more than that. Feel free to encourage them to name specific programs or book titles (e.g. “it was so great to see the library’s LGBTQ+ display for Pride Month”), but they don’t need to do anything lengthy or involved to get those messages on the public record.
  • Better yet, create an easy-to-fill form on your website that sends those emails directly to your board and encourage patrons to fill them out. You can periodically include the direct link on fliers or other materials patrons receive from you, such as your newsletter or even due date reminders (if your system allows you to customize this, take advantage of it!).
  • Host candidate forums. The public library should be a place where all candidates within a field are given the opportunity to talk with the public. Imagine if your patrons knew they could come ask potential library board members about their goals and vision for the library…right at the library. How does this help stop book bans, you wonder? It’s an opportunity to ask those very questions of candidates.
  • If you run a banned books club — or any book club, if you’re able — regularly include discussions of contemporary realities of book bans. Reading the banned books is good but that does not create action. Make your banned book clubs centers of action and movement, not just consumption.
  • Remember your power users make great board representation. When there are openings, encourage your power users to run. Certainly, encourage them to vote, too, if they cannot run themselves.

Finally, data for everyone to have in their back pocket when talking about book bans is this: numbers showing how book bans are actively driving young people away from libraries and reading.

Book Censorship News: February 17, 2023

  • A whole school district is not buying any new books and is planning on reviewing current books in middle and high school libraries, thanks to “Conservative Activists” crying grooming, explicit, and pornography. We know the boards are packed with these folks but come on. Why is this even being allowed to get to this point? (Brandywine, Michigan).
  • “House Republicans are designing their special government oversight public hearings on school book banning so that they only get input from parents who agree with them.” You don’t say, Iowa.
  • Washington Township High School in Gloucester County, New Jersey, will no longer teach Toni Morrison’s classic The Bluest Eye after complaints. The board yanked it before students currently reading it could even finish after…a single complaint.
  • Kutztown School District (Pennsylvania) was supposed to host a One Book, One School program in its middle school with Two Degrees by Alan Gratz. It won’t be happening now, thanks to people complaining about the book’s theme of climate change.
  • Marathon County (Wisconsin) discovers that removing books and threatening to withhold funding from the library if they do not do so is a First Amendment violation. MORE. OF. THIS.
  • In Norwin School District (Pennsylvania), the optional text for 5th grade reading, Al Capone Does My Shirts, will be pulled from that list and replaced with something else. One mom thinks all 200 copies of the book should be banned, so there’s that.
  • “Metroflex Gym owner Louis Uridel, who made headlines after being arrested for keeping his gym open at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, called the board “groomers” for endorsing LGBTQ inclusivity.” Those who hated mandates during (an ongoing) public health crisis are the first to call groomer. (Oceanside, California).
  • So a citizen of a community without kids in the school district managed to get a book yanked from the school library in Portage, Michigan? Sure does seem like the policy needs an overhaul.
  • “In some regard, that makes sense. But someone feeling ‘uncomfortable’ about something is a low bar. What happens the first time a football player is ‘uncomfortable’ reading about soccer? Or when a biology student doesn’t want to learn about photosynthesis because it makes them ‘uncomfortable’? It sounds ridiculous, but people have been screaming about ridiculous stuff for a while now. It feels like more often than not anymore, it’s just easier to find workarounds or punt than stand up and have the difficult conversation about difficult topics. The sooner we can all become comfortable being uncomfortable, the better off the world will be.” A great editorial about how being “uncomfortable” is no reason for a book to be banned.
  • The grandmother in Fremont, Nebraska, who tried to get Sex is a Funny Word banned (unsuccessfully) is now targeting This Book Is Gay. Nice hobby, grandma.
  • Over a million books are subject to review in Duval County schools (Florida) thanks to new laws in the state.
  • Parents in Rapid River, Michigan, are objecting to the use of American Gods in a senior English class.
  • Belton Independent School District (Texas) banned All Boys Aren’t Blue and Kiss Number 8 from school libraries.
  • “Councilmember Chad Tressler, who was among those accused of grooming children by community members at the past meeting, said his position has remained the same since the Dec. 6 meeting where the matter was initially introduced. The city already has a library board that can handle complaints, he said, and if proponents really want to address issues, they could have worked things out with the existing board.” Cool that those who hurl insults that they do not understand will be able to be on book review committees in the League City, Texas, public library.
  • In Pittsford, New York, a parent decided to read lurid passages out loud at the school board meeting to demand book removal — no title named — conveniently leaving out that they could opt their kids out of reading said books.
  • The Oklahoma State Superintendent is going to “crack down” on naughty books in schools and public libraries.
  • “As of Feb. 10, the main list contained around 500 titles, and includes ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and graphic novel adaptations of Anne Frank’s diary and ‘Brave New World.’ The list specifies if the books are present in BCSC libraries, and, if so, which ones. There’s also additional options marked ‘catalogued with no copies avail’ or ‘not catalogued.’ The spreadsheet also includes a list of an additional 400 books that may be problematic but have not yet been fully tagged and a list of almost 300 links to various articles and websites on the subjects such as specific books, conflicts involving library materials, curriculum, ‘grooming’ young readers and LGBT content. The list details books present in school libraries that ‘may be problematic,’ Grow wrote. However, he added some of the books on the list might be appropriate and others may ‘contain controversial topics that are not suitable for the age group they are available to.’ He also wrote that some books have not been fully reviewed yet and that the list could contain errors. He cited the ‘Mary in the Library – Michigan’ Facebook group, booklooks.org and ratedbooks.org as sources he used to create his list.” This is Bartholomew School District in Indiana, where the man using such reputable sources to complain about books is someone who lost a school board election.