Students counter censorship attempts with banned book clubs


As adults try to pull books from school library shelves across the country, students are responding with book clubs centered around the contested titles.

James Nave (right, in white sweatshirt) started the forbidden book club at Islands High School in Savannah, Georgia.
Photo courtesy of Kim Simshauser

James Nave, 18, has been an avid reader since he was a child, borrowing books from his older sister and saving many to start his own collection. Growing up, he was passionate about science fiction and fantasy. By the time he was in high school, he was making friends through a common interest in reading.

“Growing up, reading was the biggest part of my life,” said Nave, a senior at Islands High School in Savannah, GA.

When Nave learned that books were being challenged in school libraries across the country — a move that ultimately affected his own district — he got angry and started talking to his friends. Nave is part of a growing trend of teens responding to book challenges by forming forbidden book clubs.

They read books that have been historically banned, as well as those that are currently being challenged, and talk about how social context influences censorship. Clubs have become a means for students to make their voices heard in a debate usually dominated by adults. They are run in schools, bookstores, and teen centers across the country, including Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

For Nave, the creation of the club opened his eyes to the importance of representation in school libraries.

He had read two books that were frequently challenged – Not All Boys Are Blue by George M. Johnson and Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender – and thought both were “incredible” books that needed to be on the shelves, in particularly at his school, which has a large LGBTQ community and black student population.

“Looking at the various disputed books, I thought, ‘Man, this shouldn’t happen,'” Nave said. “A lot of them have African American lead characters, LGBTQ lead characters, or a combination of both. It just seemed like it was seriously targeting those communities.

There were no official book contests at Islands High School, or at any other individual school in the district. But nine parents and community members expressed concern about books containing “pornography” and “polluted ideas” at a district-wide school board meeting in early January. Books mentioned included Callender’s Felix forever, Beyond the magenta by Susan Kuklin, Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie.

Hearing of these complaints, Nave and a few classmates went to Islands High School librarian Kim Simshauser and asked her if she had the books in the collection. Nave then proposed to create a book club for students to read these titles. Simshauser loved the idea, and after gaining approval from his principal and district administrators to host him on campus, the book club was born.

The Forbidden Book Club in Kutztown, Pennsylvania discussed contemporary novels and challenged “classics” such as farm animal.
Photo credit: Lisa Diffenbaugh

So far, more than 20 students have joined the club, and their first book will be Maus by Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel that chronicles the author’s father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor. The book was banned earlier this year from the eighth grade curriculum in McMinn County, TN, sparking a debate across the country. The local school board deemed the book inappropriate because it contained swearing and a drawing of a naked figure. Although the book went unchallenged in the Savannah-Chatham school district, the news struck a chord with students.

Despite some opposition from parents, Simshauser said they have so far received no feedback about the book club. It pays tribute to the students and their inclusive approach, as well as to their maturity.

“All parties are welcome as long as the discussion is civil,” says Simshauser. “I want to know, especially from students, if they really have problems (with any of these books). That’s also my constituent population. I need to know from them. I think people don’t give the students a lot of credit.These kids are super smart and they know how to censor themselves.

Nearly 750 miles north of the small town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, another banned book club is gearing up to read Maus. Joslyn Diffenbaugh, an eighth-grader at Kutztown Area Middle School, first came up with the idea of ​​starting a banned book club last November when she heard about reading challenges in Texas. She and her mother, Lisa, reviewed lists of contested books in the state, including the 850 titles that Texas State Rep. Matt Krause has proposed banning. Joslyn had read a lot of them and she was surprised that people wanted to ban them. During a meeting in early February, the club mentioned one of them, The hate you giveby Angie Thomas.

In his own school district, some parents raised concerns at board meetings last year about Gender Queer, Not all boys are blueand I Am Jazz by Jazz Jennings. After reviewing the books, however, the district decided to keep them on the shelves. By reading these books now, Joslyn feels empowered to respond to the criticisms she has heard.

“With The hate you give, I know one of the reasons they wanted to ban it is because they said it would make you feel bad for being white if you read it,” Joslyn said. “But yet, in the book club, we read the book and we don’t feel bad about the color of our skin.” With I Am Jazzshe added: “They said it would make you transgender, and I read it and I’m not transgender.

“They tell us how to feel,” Joslyn said, “but we have totally different opinions about how these books are portrayed.”

After a local newspaper wrote about the club, which meets every two weeks at a local independent bookstore, the story exploded on social media and inspired other book clubs across the country.

Kutztown’s Firefly Bookstore, which hosts the book club, said the community has been very supportive of the teens. Fifteen people are part of the club, and donations have poured in to buy them books to read. In addition to The hate you givethey also read farm animal by George Orwell and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, with Maus next on the agenda. Jordan Busits, who works at Firefly and helps facilitate discussions about the books, said the teens gave her hope for the future as she watched them connect the sociopolitical themes of the books to current events. Not allowing young people like Joslyn to have these conversations would be a huge disservice, she says.

Members of the banned Common Ground Teen Center book club.
Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Podgurski

“To censor a book is to censor the story that led to its publication,” says Busits. “At best it’s a misguided way to prepare teenagers for the real world and at worst, as recent bans on the novels of Art Spiegelman and Toni Morrison have shown in some school districts across our country, it doesn’t. serves only to limit the exposure of marginalized authors to these young people. »

Statewide in Western Pennsylvania, Mary Jo Podgurski, who runs the Common Ground Teen Center, oversees a banned book club at the center. Podgurski has worked with teenagers for decades, and she finds it laughable that parents want to ban books because she knows what they have access to on their phones is often so much worse. When it comes to parents who worry about swearing in Maus, a teenager actually said to him, “If those words were so offensive, what do you think we see on our phones?” Her book club approach is to use these books to guide topic-heavy discussions with teens in a safe space that allows them to ask questions and talk freely around peers and trusted adults.

“Young people know what’s going on,” says Podgurski. “It’s just that we don’t always say it because we think they can’t handle it, but for me the worst thing we can do is not say it. Young people need adults , they need to be guided.

The teen center serves students from districts in Washington County, Pennsylvania. So far, there have been no book challenges at these schools, but Podgurski says students are reading what’s happening at other schools with book challenges and bans. Although the teen center already has a book club, they have created a new one focused specifically on banned books, including Maus, Fahrenheit 451and Orwell 1984. One of the guiding questions for every discussion is: why do you think this book has already been banned? “They tell me – and I agree – it has to do with fear,” Podgurski says.

At Islands High School, news from the book club informed many students about challenges in their district that they had previously been unaware of. Nave has already spoken to school officials and parents about the importance of keeping books on the shelves, and now other students want to speak at the next school board meeting, Simshauser says. Although she oversees the club, she says it was created by and for the students and she learns as much as they do from reading the books.

“I’m a 57-year-old suburban white lady, but I feel like a better ally, a better friend to my students, a better advisor, because I’ve read these things and learned these things,” says Simshauser. “Part of the problem when we have these book challenges [is] they take these excerpts out of the books and you don’t see the big picture. Some of these books are just moving. They are hopeful.


Colleen Connolly is a Minneapolis-based freelance journalist who writes about children and education, among other topics.


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