Book Bans: How People Make These Books Available


As school boards across the United States increasingly vote to remove books from library shelves and school curricula, community members are fighting back by amplifying awareness of those same books. These grassroots efforts range from free book readers to book clubs to lawsuits.

A month after the Wentzville School District in suburban St. Louis removed several books written by or about people of color or members of the LGBTQ community, two Wentzville students, represented by American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, sued.

Why we wrote this

Banning books can have unintended consequences. In the United States, one of the results has been a redoubled effort to ensure that these books – and the ideas they express – are freely available.

Tony Rothert, director of integrated advocacy at the ACLU of Missouri and attorney for the two students, says the lawsuit is the first of its kind to emerge from the recent wave of book challenges in the United States.

“We hope to have a change in the [Wentzville School District’s] policy as it further protects students’ First Amendment rights,” he says.

In the meantime, St. Louis bookstore EyeSeeMe is partnering with In Purpose Educational Services in a donor-funded campaign that will send a free banned book each month to those who request it, as long as the funding allows. The program has already received over $30,000 from people across the country.

Saint Louis

As daylight fades to dusk and a closed sign hangs outside EyeSeeMe, a St. Louis children’s bookstore, a peek through a side window reveals a banned books operation after hours. Strips of paper are strewn on the ground. Books pass from hand to hand as eight volunteers package 600 copies of Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ to ship to children and parents across the country.

The bookstore partners with In Purpose Educational Services on the Banned Books Program, a donor-funded campaign that will send a free banned book each month to those who request it, as funding permits. Launched just days after a suburban school district near St. Louis voted in January to remove copies of “The Bluest Eye” from its libraries, the program has already received more than $30,000 from people to across the country. But Missouri residents aren’t the only ones taking action.

As school boards across the United States increasingly vote to remove books from library shelves and school curricula, community members are fighting back by amplifying awareness of those same books. These grassroots efforts — from free book drives to book clubs to lawsuits — differ in their method but share a common mission of keeping the world of books open to exploration.

Why we wrote this

Banning books can have unintended consequences. In the United States, one of the results has been a redoubled effort to ensure that these books – and the ideas they express – are freely available.

“If the school does not want to do it [provide challenged books], always push them to do it, but don’t wait for them to do it,” says Jeffrey Blair, co-owner with his wife Pamela Blair of EyeSeeMe, the bookstore that provides banned books for free each month. “Let’s give ourselves the means.”

The Banned Books Program and similar initiatives across the country show “not only how important people think books are, but what people are willing to do…to enhance this book, to protect this book, to get more people to read this book,” says Kathy M. Newman, associate professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania.

A First Amendment Challenge

Written by Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison and published in 1970, “The Bluest Eye” tells the story of a young African-American girl growing up in Lorain, Ohio, who yearns for blue eyes. . It tackles a range of themes, including racism, beauty standards and the abusive family life of girls.

After a member of the Wentzville School District community challenged the book, objecting to it on the grounds that it included pedophilia, incest, and rape, the district school board voted Jan. 20 to withdraw the district library book. Less than a month later, two Wentzville students, represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, filed a lawsuit claiming that the district’s removal of eight books, including “The Bluest Eye,” from libraries schools violated their First Amendment rights.

Tara Adhikari/The Christian Science Monitor

EyeSeeMe volunteers in St. Louis add shipping labels to hundreds of copies of “The Bluest Eye” as part of the banned books program, Feb. 13, 2022.

Six of the other seven books named by the plaintiffs have themes related to race or LGBTQ identity and were written by authors of color or LGBTQ. Their titles are “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic”, by Alison Bechdel; “Not All Boys Are Blue” by George M. Johnson; “Heavy: An American Memoir,” by Kiese Laymon; Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison; “Gabi, a girl in pieces”, by Isabel Quintero; and “Modern Romance”, by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg. The seventh is “Invisible Girl” by Lisa Jewell, which explores a series of sexual assaults in a city and the disappearance of a teenage girl.

Wentzville School District communications manager Brynne Cramer confirmed via email that “The Bluest Eye,” “Gabi, A Girl in Pieces,” “Modern Romance,” and “Invisible Girl” have been returned to libraries across the city. district – the first two by school board votes in February and the other two because challenges were dropped. The other four books named in the lawsuit have been removed from library shelves while they are reviewed by a committee, Ms Cramer said. The Wentzville School District declined to comment further.

Tony Rothert, director of integrated advocacy at the ACLU of Missouri and attorney for the two Wentzville students, says the lawsuit is the first of its kind to emerge from the recent wave of book challenges in the United States.

Despite the district’s partial reversal, the trial is still ongoing.

“We hope to have a change in the [Wentzville School District’s] policy as it further protects students’ rights under the First Amendment, which places certain limits on how or why books can be challenged,” Rothert says.

TK, a relative of one of the plaintiffs who uses only initials in the lawsuit and interviews to protect the family’s anonymity, told the Monitor that books written by black, brown, or LGBTQ authors can do ensure that students with similar backgrounds feel included. And banning them has the opposite effect. “If we don’t allow children to hear people [through books] who may mirror or imitate some of the things that they’ve been through, so we’re also telling them that you need to keep quiet about the things that you’ve been through.

Meanwhile, the Forbidden Books Program works to ensure that students retain access to books that shed light on diverse experiences. The three books offered this month feature characters and/or authors of color.

“Literature should be a window and a mirror,” says Heather Fleming, founder and director of In Purpose Educational Services. “I’m sick of my experiences or my daughter’s experiences always being window experiences and not mirror experiences.”

“It seems like a lot of African-American books end up falling into that banning category,” adds Mr. Blair of bookstore EyeSeeMe. “So I think it’s important for us to be a part of that.”

Crossing state lines

Despite the growing wave of book bans currently sweeping the United States, subsequent challenges and removals are nothing new. “Most of us don’t realize how often books are challenged,” says Dr. Newman, who started teaching a course on banned books more than two decades ago.

English teacher Rich Clifton added copies of disputed books to the small free library that sits in the front yard of his home in Savannah, Georgia, in February 2022.

But in the current times, the book’s challenges are increasingly being brought to light through social media. Consequently, interest is spreading across the city and even state borders.

When Steve Ryan, an assistant professor of education at Temple University in Pennsylvania, learned that the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee had removed “Maus” from its eighth-grade curriculum, he wanted to do something about it. repel.

Professor Ryan has started a GoFundMe page to raise money for what he calls The Banned Wagon Project so he can gift every graduate he teaches a banned book of their choice from a list of commonly banned or disputed books. that it will compile.

He knows his actions won’t change politics in Tennessee, but “it’s something I can try to do…to try to affect my little corner of the world,” he said. “And if a person gets the inspiration from that, you know, either to stand up for people who are losing their voices, so to speak, or to take a stand against the excesses … then I call that a victory. Even if someone just carries that book around and remembers that words and ideas are important and they put that forward in everything they do. It’s a victory.

Front yard library

Around the same time, 700 miles away, at the Savannah Arts Academy in Georgia, English teacher Rich Clifton engaged his students in a mock debate about banned books. The next day, residents complained at the district school board meeting about 10 books in school libraries containing content they considered inappropriate. Although the district confirmed on March 14 that no official challenges to the books had followed, Mr Clifton, a teacher for 28 years, is not waiting to take action.

As a child, Mr. Clifton spent hours in the public library, perusing the shelves and opening the cover of any book that caught his eye. Now he is replacing all the books in the small free library he has built in his front yard with challenged books to ensure they are available. So far, former students, colleagues and friends have contributed $1,400 to help buy books for his library.

“It’s not so much [about] put the books in the hands of students or children or something like that,” he says.

“He makes sure people don’t take it away.”

Editor’s note: All teachers and professors quoted in this article emphasized to the Monitor that they were speaking in their personal capacity and not on behalf of their school district or university.


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