This article, written by Margo Fisher-Bellman, is from the August 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
In 2002, I was a second-year English teacher in a struggling northern Ohio town. Poverty was rampant, and investment in education was inconsistent. That year, 15 percent of my students were parents; of the 88 counties in Ohio, our county had the highest teen pregnancy rate. My job? To get seniors to read and write at a level that would boost job opportunities—and occasionally, college acceptance. That year, our English department adopted several titles, including Mark Mathabane’s apartheid memoir Kaffir Boy. As a Black South African, Mathabane’s memoir reflects the brutality of apartheid—and while my students’ lives differed, many were living the brutality of poverty. When I first read the book, I knew it would speak to them.
I discovered a parent was challenging the book when my principal called me to his office and berated me for teaching it. The parent referenced a specific page, which was open and tabbed on his desk. However, it was a board-approved text. I was not going rogue; I was doing my job. I was lucky to have the support of two department chairs. Conversely, I had a very conservative principal who was furious with me. As a 23-year-old woman in a small town where I had no ties, nothing felt safe. The same day, a Toledo reporter let me know this parent contacted her about the book. The reporter’s first question for the parent: “Have you read the entire book?” When the parent replied no, the reporter declined the story and promptly reached out. When the student arrived to class, I asked her privately if she would like an alternative title to read. She replied definitively: “I’m 19. My mom isn’t taking the book from me. She just wants other parents to be aware.” My jaw hit the floor. I emailed the mother to verify—and the student was correct. I was stunned.
I found Mathabane’s website and messaged him directly via his contact page. I assumed that missive would go unanswered, but writing it gave me the catharsis I needed. Surprisingly, Mathabane contacted me in less than 24 hours. He and his team continued to email me throughout the ordeal, providing much-needed support. As news of the challenge spread within the school, students devoured the book. Although I had to pause the unit, I was able to resume within the week; however, the book has not been taught within the district in 10 years or more, and I cannot fathom its adoption today.
As a teacher in 2002, I never envisioned our 2023 world. Then, I believed I was witnessing small-town life. Now, the state of book challenges in the U.S. is otherworldly. As a current high-school librarian, I frequently encounter stakeholders who ask how they can support our library. While my initial experience with challenges is more than 20 years old, it taught me lessons I still rely on today, which any book advocate can find helpful.
Book challenges frequently involve a factor that seems fictitious
Like my experience with the parent who had no intention of taking the book from her child, many reports of challenges seem like works of fiction—including the May 2023 Washington Post report that 11 people accounted for the majority of the nation’s book challenges in the 2021–2022 academic year. According to Hannah Natanson, the Post analyzed over 1,000 challenges and found that 43 percent of those challenges targeted books with LGBTQ characters, while 36 percent targeted books featuring characters of color. Furthermore, 60 percent came from repeat challengers who reported at least 10 books. Often, these challengers organize via conservative advocacy groups like Moms for Liberty. Natanson also revealed that some challenges were submitted under the same name by multiple individuals to maintain anonymity, as exemplified by Jennifer Pippin from central Florida, a founding member of Moms for Liberty. In 16 percent of the cases, challengers claimed the books were “illegal” due to obscenity laws and recent legislation, predominately originating in Texas and Florida. Yet, these issues are nationwide.
A central Ohio school librarian, who preferred to remain anonymous, also shared a tale of the vocal minority. In their rural district, the Sora ebook platform from OverDrive was banned without warning. A board member sent the district superintendent a link to an article from Blaze Media, a conservative company founded by Glenn Beck, that claimed a California school district banned Sora (and other digital reading sites) after finding “inappropriate” material. After a month of meetings, Sora was reinstated in the librarian’s district. Nonetheless, this disruption impacted the work of classes. To ensure a student could complete a project, one teacher even purchased a book for that student. While it may seem implausible that one biased article sent to an administrator can affect an entire school district’s progress, similar stories are unfolding across the country. However, it’s not just school libraries that face threats to digital reading.
A Book Riot article from July 2023 by Kelly Jensen highlights the impact of Mississippi Code 39-3-25. This law, effective July 1, 2023, restricts young readers’ access to digital books from public libraries. Noncompliant libraries could face fines of $500 minimum. Underage accounts were frozen as of July 1, but parents/guardians can provide in-person permission for their children. Jensen emphasizes, “This move by the state ensures that those with the least privileges—those in unstable homes, those without regular internet access, and those without active parents or guardians in their lives—have even fewer opportunities to utilize public goods and services.”
Mississippi is not the only state legislating libraries. In 2022, Missouri implemented similar measures through Senate Bill 775, making it a criminal offense to provide students with visually explicit depictions. Violators could face up to a year in jail or a fine of up to $2,000. Kate Grumke of St. Louis Public Radio reported that a Wentzville, Missouri, school librarian encountered police visits twice following parental complaints. Police in libraries seem Bradburyian, yet it is now the stuff of headlines.
Teachers and librarians need support
Throughout my 22-year education career, parents and community members have been invaluable advocates. We often hear stories about the rise of challenges, but what does that look like in local schools? While I initially taught in a rural school district, my current position is in an urban district, Cincinnati Public Schools. In 2016, CPS implemented an equity policy and an anti-racism policy followed in 2020. These policies safeguard students and employees and impede challenges to materials. While equity policies might seem more viable in urban environments, their significance cannot be underestimated in any district.
One northeastern Ohio school librarian, who wished to remain anonymous, reported that board policies from the 1990s aided in a recent challenge to a picture book, the first challenge in the district over the last decade. The policy required a citizen request form with rationale. The librarian then took pointers from a 2022 challenge in Hudson schools, another Ohio district, targeting three titles: form an evaluation committee, create a “book resume,” examine legal precedent, and keep committee minutes for public record. While these procedures allowed Hudson schools, which also had board policies in place, to retain two of the three challenged books, all committee members, which included staff and community members, supported retaining the book in this librarian’s district. Additionally, the librarian noted a significant increase in public records requests in recent years.
Advocating for policies regarding equity, anti-racism, and/or challenges to materials can greatly impact the work of local schools. Many districts have their board policies online in a searchable format. Familiarizing yourself with the policies of local districts allows you to advocate students’ right to read. School boards typically post their meeting schedules providing an opportunity to attend and connect with local teachers and school librarians. As an author and community member, your advocacy can have an incredible impact.
Use the internet to help
Although I could not utilize social media in 2002, I could directly link to an author for support. Leverage your social media to connect to local schools, teachers, and libraries. Follow hashtags like #censorship and #bookban, and, most importantly, follow the American Library Association. The ALA, through its Office of Intellectual Freedom, has been integral in the fight against censorship. As book banning has increased, their data mining and advocacy have been unprecedented. The ALA reports that 2022 had the highest number of challenges reported in the 20-year history of gathering data. The 1,269 challenges reported nearly doubled the 729 reported in 2021. The ALA further delineates those challenges by where they occur, by whom, and why. Donations to the ALA support their important work that librarians rely on daily. Additionally, the ALA also sponsors an annual Banned Books Week and provides materials libraries can use to promote the week. This year, Banned Books Week is the first full week of October. Use your social media to promote Banned Books Week and get your followers talking about how they, too, can support students’ rights to read.
- “Censorship by the Numbers,” American Library Association, April 20, 2023. http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/by-the-numbers. Accessed July 1, 2023.
- Grumke, Kate. “Police officer visited Missouri school library twice last year.” STLPR, 22 September 2022, https://news.stlpublicradio.org/education/2022-09-22/school-librarian-recalls-surreal-police-visits-over-books-months-before-new-missouri-law. Accessed 1 July 2023.
- Jensen, Kelly. “Hoopla, Overdrive/Libby Now Banned for Those Under 18 in Mississippi.” Book Riot, 7 July 2023, https://bookriot.com/hoopla-overdrive-libby-now-banned-for-those-under-18-in-mississippi/#:~:text=Despite%20the%20age%20of%20consent,without%20explicit%20parental%2Fguardian%20permission. Accessed 9 July 2023.
- Natanson, Hannah. “Book challenges are fueled by parents’ objections to LGBTQ themes.” The Washington Post, 23 May 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2023/05/23/lgbtq-book-ban-challengers/. Accessed 1 July 2023.
Margo Fisher-Bellman, MA, is entering her 23rd year in education. She spent 19 years as an English teacher and is starting her fourth year as a high-school librarian. She has also taught pre-service teachers at Wright State University and Mount St. Joseph. She currently works at Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio.