At a hearing held Thursday morning by the U.S. House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, chair Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) introduced into record a letter drafted by two-time Newbery Honor-winning author Christina Soontornvat, along with fellow authors Phil Bildner, Alex London, and Ellen Oh. The letter, which urged congressional protection against book bans, was signed by more than 1,300 children’s authors, including Judy Blume, Jason Reynolds, Rick Riordan, and Jacqueline Woodson. The hearing was the second on the topic of “political attacks on free speech and classroom censorship.” The subcommittee has jurisdiction over issues related to civil rights, civil liberties and the equal protection of laws, including freedom of religion, speech, press, and assembly.
In his opening statement, Raskin said that books such as Raina Telgemeier’s Drama were targeted for censorship because they “address the historical and psychological reality of race, gender, sexual orientation, or power in ways that are deemed politically incorrect.” Raskin continued, stating, “Book censorship wrecks a healthy environment for free inquiry and learning” and that he was heartened by determination to fight for “the freedom to think, to read, to debate, to discuss, and to explore,” which he had observed from students, parents, teacher, and authors.
In the letter, the children’s literature signees condemned “efforts by organized groups to purge books from our nation’s schools,” stating that their concerns were not centered on the books but “the children, families, and communities who are caught in the crosshairs of these campaigns.” In their call to action, the signees wrote, “We call upon Congress, statehouses, and school boards to reject the political manipulation of our schools, to uphold the values of freedom and equality promised in the Constitution, and to protect the rights of all young people to access the books they need and deserve.” Full text of the letter can be found here.
The response from children’s authors comes amid a dramatic rise in book banning across the U.S., which the letter links to backlash against the progress made toward diversifying children’s literature in the past 10 years. PEN America research conducted from July 2021 to March 2022 indicates that 41% of books banned in the U.S. during that period featured protagonists of color, 31% included LGBTQ+ topics or LGBTQ+ characters, and 7% of that content featured trans characters and topics.
According to a PEN statement issued earlier this year, book bans have occurred in 86 school districts in 26 states, representing 2,899 schools with a combined enrollment of more than two million students. Of the 1,586 bans listed indexed by the research, PEN found that 98% depart from best practice guidelines outlined by the National Coalition Against Censorship and the American Library Association for reviewing library holdings. The guidelines were developed to avoid ad hoc removal of books from schools and libraries.
Soontornvat told PW that as book bans have increased recently, she shared in the alarm expressed broadly in children’s author, educator, and librarian communities. She was motivated to act when administrators at a district in her home state of Texas told her they were afraid to invite her to speak because she is from Austin, which is perceived as a liberal city. “The administration said they loved my work and my books,” she said. “But they feared the backlash from these vocal parent groups” who are creating “an atmosphere of fear.” Soontornvat continued, saying that this kind of response is not isolated. “This is the strategy of the book-banners. They are trying to overwhelm educators who are already exhausted from dealing with the pandemic in order to push their own political agendas and personal beliefs. And it’s the kids who will suffer for it.”
Book bans are just one part of a broader strategy, she said. “They’re not just attacking books. They are leveling these horrendous charges against authors, teachers, and librarians—calling people ‘radicals’ or ‘groomers’ or ‘pedophiles’ simply because we believe all kids have a right to be represented in books.”
The response to her call for author support for the letter was overwhelming. “I hoped to get them a letter with 250 author signatures attached,” Soontornvat said. “Thanks to groups like We Need Diverse Books and others sharing in their networks, in just 48 hours, we had over 1,300 signatures—including some of the biggest names in kids’ publishing today.”
Supporting the letter was just the latest in We Need Diverse Books’s efforts to organize against censorship. Through its program WNDB in the Classroom, the organization has donated more than 75,000 diverse titles to schools and libraries. It also offers the Educators Making a Difference Grant, providing financial support to teachers and librarians who recognize the importance of diverse books. “WNDB stands with the letter organizers and we call upon Congress to take action against the book bans and challenges occurring nationwide,” said Caroline Richmond, WNDB executive director. “We also commit to donating more diverse titles to schools and libraries because we believe that books can teach empathy and compassion, which is needed now more than ever as hate crimes and intolerance are on the rise.”
At Thursday morning’s hearing, committee members heard from speakers including Krisha Ramini, a junior at Novi High School in Novi, Mich. She spoke about her experiences as a student who felt like an outsider growing up,” Ramini said. “So many students in this country are not afforded the luxury of living in a community with diverse perspectives. So many students in this country still feel different. That’s where the power of literature comes in. Books help us connect with people who may be going through the same difficult experiences.” In addition to students, the committee members heard testimony from teachers and administrators with on-the-ground experiences associated with escalating conflicts over curriculum and library books.
“Authors and illustrators are so united on this,” Soontornvat said. “We hope that our leaders will hear us on this issue. And we hope that everyone in every community will be able to use this letter to advocate for the freedom to read in their schools and push back against the language of intolerance and division.”