With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

I Helped Thousands of Teens Affected by Book Bans—Listen to Them

Over the last eight months, 6,000 teens from all 50 states took a bold step to defend our civil rights: they applied for a library card.

In April 2022, for National Library Week, my colleagues at Brooklyn Public Library and I launched Books Unbanned. Responding to a dramatic increase in book challenges and bans in school and public libraries, almost half of which were targeting young adult titles, we offered a free national teen eCard, giving access to our collection of half a million eBooks and eAudiobooks to anyone ages 13 to 21. We asked teens to email us about their experience with censorship. The results were both sobering and hopeful. I know because I read nearly every one.

An overwhelming number of the teens who wrote to us are the real-life counterparts to the characters depicted in challenged and banned books. “I am queer,” they wrote. “I am black.” “I live in a rural state.” “I am gay and live in Mississippi.”

According to PEN America’s September 2022 report Banned in the USA, the two categories of books targeted most frequently bans in schools were those with LGBTQ themes, protagonists, or prominent secondary characters, and those with protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color. Of all banned books, 40 percent were intended for a young adult audience.

These aren’t just your garden variety “think of the children” responses to books. The challenges come from well-organized conservative groups attempting to erase entire communities. Banning books is just one tool in their arsenal.

According to the PEN America report, an estimated 40 percent of bans are tied to proposed or passed legislation—like the Parental Rights in Education bill, better known as “Don’t Say Gay,” and the Stop the Wrongs to Our Parents and Employees (Stop WOKE) Act in Florida. The sharp spike in book bans corresponds with an alarming uptick in anti-trans legislation, with 155 bills being proposed across 23 states in 2022 alone. These include proposals that seek to ban trans youth and young adults from using the correct bathrooms, playing in school sports, and accessing gender-affirming healthcare.

When a Black student can’t read about their own history or the social movements currently in progress, or when a trans student can’t experience the affirmation brought on by seeing themself authentically, or even joyfully, portrayed in a book, it is a fracture that has a long-term impact on their well-being and their understanding of the world around them.

“Books on topics such as race and sexuality are quickly disappearing from our shelves, often to an extreme degree,” wrote one teen. “Earlier in this school year, a book about Rosa Parks was temporarily banned in my county and the government is at war against educating students about critical race theory.” 

Read entire article at Vice