The Brooklyn Public Library hosted a virtual panel on Wednesday evening, September 21, in honor of Banned Books Week, called “Open Eyes: Banned Books, Kids, and the War on Reading.” The panel was moderated by Washington Post journalist Hannah Natanson, who covers K-12 education news, including the education culture wars beat, and featured Jeffrey Blair, owner of EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore in University City, Mo.; Josh Block, staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union who specializes in LGBTQ issues; Melissa Jacobs, director of the New York City Department of Education/School Library System; and Linda Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library.

Introducing the panel, Marcia Ely, Brooklyn Public Library director of programs, noted that this past spring, the library, which is the fifth largest public library system in the U.S. extended an offer to teens living anywhere in the country that they could obtain a library card at the BPL and thus receive access to digital editions of books that might be challenged or banned in their communities. “This has opened up floodgates,” Ely said. “We’ve received more than 5,000 applications for cards from every single state and the District of Columbia.”

The panelists began their lively hour-long conversation by explaining the current situation concerning banned books. “It’s bigger than any recorded effort in the last 20-some years, which is when book challenges became something that we were counting,” Johnson stated. “In parts of the country there’s legislation that is actually banning material from being used in classrooms and public libraries. It’s becoming a formal way to circumvent First Amendment rights.” Referencing BPL’s efforts to provide library cards for teens who do not live in Brooklyn, she said that besides wanting to put books into the hands of teenagers, the goal of the initiative is to “get everybody involved and fight this assault on the First Amendment.”

Jacobs emphasized that school librarians—who are educators as well as librarians—are “thoughtful and have policies and procedures for selection and curation” of their collections. All librarians, she said, want young readers “to see themselves in books” as well as to emphasize with others and to better understand the world around them. It is “really challenging and frightening and frustrating,” she added, that so many excellent books are being challenged and banned after “so much thought and selection has gone into these titles.”

“It’s not just a bunch of books on a shelf,” she noted, while describing what goes into selecting and curating library collections, and that there is always an emphasis on providing books written from different points of view. “A school library, a public library, they’re living, breathing entities,” she insisted. “There are programs and there are professionals who are driving those programs, selecting and curating those materials. It’s not just someone looking at a catalog and circling a picture.”

Book banners often “judge a book by its cover,” she added. They frequently take controversial passages or images of books out of context when presenting challenges and demanding their removal. “Those books have to be read as a whole,” she insisted. “You can’t just take a snippet and say it’s inappropriate.”

Books Open Hearts and Minds

Blair noted that controversial books that contain difficult themes, like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, can be essential reading. “Young people today are exposed to a lot of things outside of books,” he pointed out, including violence in their daily lives and/or in the world around them. “Complex and difficult things—that is the whole point of education—we want to prepare our children to encounter a difficult world,” he said.

Johnson pointed out that teens, especially those who are exploring their identity or confronting difficulties in their lives, often feel isolated in their communities. “I know this because the emails we are getting from the students requesting the library cards,” she explained, “speak specifically to this point. These books help them form their opinions and get over these feelings that they are experiencing in their communities. And they’re doing it through literature. That’s exactly the point of a great book: to open your eyes to other points of view, and to know yourself better and to know those people not like you better. Empathy.”

The escalation in books being challenged or banned, Block noted, “is part of a political and ideological movement right now. These are not random examples of parents looking in their students’ backpacks and seeing a book with a dirty word in it. This is part of a society-wide backlash to #MeToo, Black Lives Matter, to the increased visibility and acceptance of LGBTQ people. The same social movements that are pushing for ‘Don’t Say Gay Bills’ and ‘anti-CRT laws’ in schools are also pushing for the censorship of books.”

Jacobs noted also that there is a nationwide shortage of school librarians, which is having a huge impact concerning the defense of books that are challenged. “You don’t have librarians there to defend their collections,” she said. “And you don’t have librarians tending to the curation of these materials and who are able to speak to how and why these materials are selected for schools.”

She added that weeding collections of controversial books will have an impact that extends far beyond schools and into the future, warning, “The smaller we make our collections, the less our kids are going to learn about the world, and how to interact with it and how to be a part of it, and how to develop their abilities and skills and be part of a democratic society. To me, that’s really frightening.”

Blair explained that a lot of book challenges and bans have to do with racism and homophobia. “Individuals want to prescribe a particular narrative about America: about how America is formed, about who is an American. To me, it’s offensive: we’re trying to train the next generation to be critical thinkers and not individuals who are going to continually consume what they already know, what they already think. The whole point of education is to help our children be able to live in a world that is quite diverse, that has people they don’t agree with, but they still have to live and work with.”

The smaller we make our collections, the less our kids are going to learn about the world, and how to interact with it and how to be a part of it. To me, that's really frightening. —Melissa Jacobs

He added that parents may have the right to determine what their child reads or does not read, but they do not have any right to determine what other people’s children may or may not read. Those who would deny other people’s children access to books, he declared, “[are] trying to narrow the perspective of what America is all about, and we cannot let that happen.”

Freedom Is the Right to Read

Referencing the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, and the fact that lower courts in some regions have conservative judges sympathetic to book bans, Block noted that the courts as they stand now do not always protect individual rights. “We need a culture of people working together to protect their rights and the rights of others,” he said, expressing his admiration for a group of teenagers in Texas who recently formed a banned books club to read and discuss books that had been taken off library shelves in their community.

While some government officials’ receptiveness to banning controversial books is “pandering,” to their more extremist constituents, Block noted, “a lot of it is about shaping people’s reality. There’s a reason why the 1619 Project is being banned and then replaced with nonsense, made-up history.”

Jacobs urged parents to read the same books as their children and discuss the contents with them. “You can disagree with what is happening in a book and feel uncomfortable with something. But conversations are so important.”

“Nothing like telling a teenager they can’t read something, right?” Johnson interjected. “Any enterprising teenager is going to find that material, whether it’s taken out of the classroom or the school library.”

“Parents don’t own their children, especially when you’re talking about children in their teens,” Block pointed out. “Children have their own Constitutional rights, independent of what their parents might want. Teenagers have their First Amendment rights to speak, their First Amendment rights to read. They may well want to read things their parents disagree with or don’t want them to read. They are their own people. It’s not all about the parents and the parents’ rights.”

Blair recalled how in St. Louis, Mo., a group of students sued their school district for removing The Bluest Eye from library shelves, forcing the school district to reverse its decision the very next day. Blair said that this case provides an excellent example for students on the importance of civic engagement: “Freedom is not free: you have to fight for it, and to guard it. If it’s important to you, you can’t stay on the sidelines. You literally can have your rights taken from you if you’re not diligent.”