“We wanted to bring together some voices that are facing some silencing,” declared founder and executive director John Chrastka of the EveryLibrary Institute before introducing the panelists on an April 6 virtual session sponsored by the organization’s political action committee, “Censored Authors Speak: a roundtable discussion of book banning in America.” He added, “I didn’t want to meet these good people tonight—for the first time in some cases—in this kind of circumstance, and yet, it’s important for us to celebrate the stories they are trying to tell, and to tell some truths about what’s going on in this country right now.”

The hour-long virtual event—testimony and strategy session as much as celebration—was moderated by independent researcher Dr. Tasslyn Magnusson, an expert on the issue who maintains in partnership with EveryLibrary, a database on books that have been challenged or banned in 2021–2022. The panel featured a diverse group of authors whose books have come under attack in recent years: Alex Gino, I.W. Gregorio, Mark Oshiro, Ashley Hope Pérez, and Robin Stevenson. Andrew Karre, an editor of YA fiction at Dutton, who has encountered challenges to books that he has shepherded through the publication process, also participated in the discussion.

The conversation kicked off with the authors relating their experiences of their own work or books by others being challenged or removed from library shelves. “The last year has been a really devastating one for teachers, librarians, students, and their allies,” Pérez said. “I’ve been in this unpleasant conversation since February of 2021,” when her local school board in Ohio “caved to a group of right-wing, radicalized parents” demanding that educators reverse their efforts to diversify recommendations provided to student book clubs. “That really set the template for what we have seen in the year since,” she noted, pointing out that “bulk book bans, where many books are targeted all at once” often replicate the lists of books that librarians create in an effort to diversify their collections, with the book banners conflating sexual content of any kind in these books with pornography. “It’s also obvious in the books that get targeted,” she added, “that the choice of books has nothing to do with sexual content. Because if you stacked up books with sexual content in any high school library, the tallest stack by far would be books that feature white middle-class characters, straight characters.” Pérez also pointed out that organizations wanting to ban books often recruit parents “to be the face of not only their efforts to restrict kids’ access to books, but to signal their disapproval of certain identities.”

It’s About More Than Books

Citing his 20 years as an editor, Karre compared past book banning efforts to the weather. “Every once in a while something would come in, and much like weather, it would pass. What’s happening now is climate change.” He also noted that it is ironic that diverse books are being challenged at an unprecedented rate just as the industry is “having a real, sincere reckoning with internalized racism, homophobia, all the prejudices that are structural in publishing. All the work we’re doing on one end—to see it literally countered and undone—it’s surreal.” Karre expressed sympathy for those authors who are “forced to become advocates and do political work rather than make art.”

While Gino noted that they rarely are invited to visit schools, Oshiro said that he has been disinvited several times from such appearances. He’d already have signed a contract and been paid for the visit, he related, but would receive an email from an administrator, or a teacher, or librarian stating, ‘We can’t let this happen,’ as it violated school policies or else that a school administrator or educator would be fired as a result of the visit. “I’m not naïve, I know what it is,” Oshiro added. “I’m an openly queer person. My identity is immediately sexualized.”

Oshiro disclosed that he was once escorted out of the building in the middle of a school visit after the teacher warned him “multiple times” to “keep it PG,” when students wanted to discuss the romance between two queer characters in one of his books.

Reporting that his second book, Each of Us a Desert (Tor Teen, 2020), was removed from a high school library because critics claimed that it “talks about racism,” Oshiro admitted that it was “frustrating and demoralizing,” but that “it is certainly not changing how I am writing books. I am going to write the art that I want to see put out in the world.”

Gino agreed with Oshiro’s defiant stance, noting, “They’re searching for [objectionable] things. If I try to get rid of things, they’ll just search for other things, and the search just gets sillier. They’re going to try to hold me back—why would I do the same?”

What is being banned is always part of what people are afraid of in this country and what people are afraid of changing.
—Alex Gino

Arguing that they consider the spike in attacks on books to be pushback against the election of a Black president in 2008 and the legalization of gay marriage in 2015, Gino pointed out that their middle grade novel, George (Scholastic, 2015) which was reissued in May with the title Melissa, about a trans teen, “would never have been banned 15 years ago, because it wouldn’t have existed.” Gino added that the fact that such books are being “fought over” in the public sphere demonstrates that some people fear the changes being made in the publishing industry and the attention to diversity in schools. “What is being banned is always part of what people are afraid of in this country and what people are afraid of changing in this country,” Gino said. “That’s absolutely what’s going on here.”

Gino asserted that the goal of book bannings is to “keep information about the world from young people,” so that “we end up with young people who either don’t see themselves—and therefore the road from that is hard and long, and they don’t come back unscarred—or you don’t see others, so as an adult you aren’t prepared to respond and react when you meet people [who differ from you]; and that puts those marginalized people further at risk.”

Pérez suggested that parents, most of whom “want their childrento succeed,” must know that if they want this to happen, their children must be prepared, while in school, “for living and loving the people they’re actually going to encounter in the life ahead of them.” Parents, she said, must realize that if they want their children to succeed in the 21st century, “they need access to all kinds of stories.”

What Can We Do?

Pérez suggested mobilizing parents by asking them, “What do you want for your child’s education? What do you want their librarians to be doing? Helping them to find resources that they need for their research paper? Connecting them with the book that’s going to ignite a love of reading for them? Or spending hours combing through databases to flag the books that some politicians say they have to flag?”

Karre advocated against defending individual books, because he described that as a “fool’s errand, because they’re just lying about the books; in defending the book you are almost obligated to repeat the lie.” He described the book banners as using books to “activate a larger movement; you don’t have to be an astute political observer to see that.”

“It is not something that is out of nowhere,” Gino added. “And it is something that we need to counter, because, right now, it is a tidal wave and if you don’t respond to a tidal wave, then you’re underwater.”

After Stevenson noted that libraries have differing processes for removing books from shelves, with some libraries making it an easier process than others for critics to file complaints, Gino remarked, “It should be as hard to get a book out of a library as it was to get it into the library in the first place.”

Gregorio described book bannings as a “false flag—that parents are doing this to protect children,” noting, “Not a single child has ever been harmed by any of these books that have been banned. The only thing that has been harmed is perhaps parental sensibility. On the flip side, so many lives have been saved by books. It’s just such an absurd notion that they’re trying to protect kids; we need to really blast from all corners the hypocrisy that this represents.”

“We need to stop the bullshit,” Pérez said, “when those attacking diverse narratives talk about children. Many of these times these individuals are distorting the presence of books in high schools and presenting them as materials made available to kindergartners and first graders. There’s a reason this is happening, and that reason is not a concern about kids.”

“Children are being used as decoys for these political conversations,” Gino added, “which kind of sucks. But there’s this notion that parents think that they somehow own their children. And they don’t. They’re caring for new beings in the world who own themselves, who are themselves.”

Stevenson noted that if an educator feels unsafe trying to do their jobs while dealing with such attacks on their professional integrity, it is inevitable that the fear would extend to students. “Do we know what kinds of things keep kids safe?,” she asked. “It’s not keeping information from them, it’s not making them feel invisible, it’s not having them grow up in schools, like we did, [without] having LGBTQ people talked about or even acknowledged.” Stevenson added that she wants parents who support their children reading books that are being challenged to speak up in support of the teachers and librarians who make these books accessible. She also expressed her hope that authors of books that are not under attack will stand in solidarity with their professional colleagues.

Oshiro suggested that those who support freedom of expression might challenge beloved classics with ridiculous reasons, just to stir the pot and make the point that offense could be found in any written work. Using Romeo & Juliet as an example, Oshiro said that people could complain that it promotes suicide and demand that it be banned.

Karre added that people should appeal to publishers when books are challenged or banned because publishers consider the bottom line and don’t want their books removed from classrooms and libraries as it affects net revenues. “If you have connections to any publishing houses, let them know. If you don’t have any connections, find one,” he said. “What Mark said is true: we have the larger numbers; there are way more of us. And our historical disinclination to take this seriously, and our focus on other issues is being used against us—as soon as this stops, they’re going to hit a wall.”