Four high-school-age activists, members of the National Coalition Against Censorship group Student Advocates for Speech, met three authors for a Zoom panel on November 30 about censorship and the freedom to read. The youth leaders discussed K-12 advocacy with Lesléa Newman, who recounted the headline-grabbing 1998-1999 furor in Wichita Falls, Tex., over her picture book Heather Has Two Mommies; Mike Curato, whose Lambda Literary Award-winning Flamer sparked controversy for its raw depiction of a 14-year-old reckoning with sexuality, racism, and religion at a scout camp; and with Ellen Hopkins, whose bestsellers including What About Will and Crank frankly address drug use and trauma.

Participants addressed the timely question “Are You Free to Read What You Want?,” and found that in 2022 America, the answer to that question depends on the speaker’s identity, geographical location, and community support. The four 15-year-old students—Owen Baxter and Sylvia Cates of Missouri, Da’Taeveyon Daniels of Texas, and Max Moore of New Jersey—each spoke about forming anti-censorship clubs at their schools and raising awareness among peers of politicized efforts to scrub ostensibly controversial information from libraries, classrooms, and bookstores.

Their conversation represented a partnership between the NCAC and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ charitable wing, the Impact and Legacy Fund. ILF managing director Lin Oliver introduced the event, reminding attendees that the young panelists volunteered to be the voices, and the faces, of this movement. “Bravo to our students, and to our authors, for having the courage to speak their truth, for having the courage to question standards and to appear on this program,” Oliver said.

NCAC executive director Chris Finan provided further context, highlighting NCAC’s Kids’ Right to Read Project and the SAS, which has so far engaged students in nine school districts to form clubs “where kids can learn about and advocate for their rights and for the rights of others, including the rights of people who they may not agree with.” Finan added that young people have been instrumental in political change, from the antiwar protests of 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker in 1969 to rallies for gun control by students in Parkland, Fla., to widespread stands against racial injustice. SAS leaders conduct grassroots campaigns; for example, SAS member Oliver Kreeger, 16, wrote an editorial on free speech for the Hudson Independent, a community newspaper.

Each of the student panelists summarized book challenges and activist efforts in their communities. Daniels explained how he and classmates created bulletin boards to support reading banned books and organized a “We Stand with the Women of Iran” action to inform peers about gender-based violence.

Moore said that four books about gender were challenged in his district “for supposedly having pornographic content. Students banded together to speak at board of education meetings and raise awareness, and when the books were voted on in January, every book was decided to be kept in a library,” he said. “It was shortly after this decision that I found out about SAS and applied,” having seen the effectiveness of student protest.

Cates and Baxter, who attend the same Kansas City high school, took action when a parent association targeted classroom materials about people of color and LGBTQ+ identities. Baxter, who identifies as “part of the queer community,” said he “felt personally affected by it,” so he and fellow students arranged a virtual seminar with All Boys Aren’t Blue author George M. Johnson and waged an anti-censorship fight. “We were able to get those books back on the shelf, which was super exciting,” Baxter said, but “the administration at my school is not the most friendly. We’ve faced a lot of backlash for critiquing them.”

“We got the books reinstated in our library, so that was really awesome,” Cates agreed. Yet, “a year later we are still fighting the same issue—but it’s not with the school board or the parent association, it’s with our state.” Baxter and Cates’s journalism teacher recommended they look into SAS, which keeps them in conversation with like-minded community members.

After the students’ introductions, the authors shared personal statements and responded to questions from the students and the assembly. Hopkins—who wrote Crank after her own daughter experienced meth addiction—spoke out against “a political drive to weaken public school education” and undermine the information children and teenagers need. “I keep going back to how really sophisticated young people are today, and I think that’s what frightens some adults,” she said. “Kids are smart, and it’s hugely important that we allow them to understand the answers to the questions they’re asking themselves. Books are the safest place that I can think of for them to explore those things.”

Newman expressed weariness but resolution in her long anti-censorship battle. “I have been talking about book banning for 33 years,” she said. “I’m a little tired, but it’s very important, and the fight goes on for freedom of speech.” When people ask how it feels to write a banned book, she said, “I like to point out I didn’t write a controversial book. I wrote a book that some people consider controversial. I didn’t write a banned book. I wrote a book that some people are trying to ban.”

Showing a slide of her LGBTQ+-affirming titles, including Sparkle Boy and Donovan’s Big Day, she lingered on October Mourning, her Stonewall Honor-winning book about the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. “I want to take a moment to let you know that tomorrow, December 1, is Matt’s birthday, and he would have been 46, which is very sobering,” she said. His story underscores the need to teach social justice.

Curato, whose black-spotted tan cap nodded to his picture book series starring Elliot the polka-dot elephant, reflected that the Elliot books “have all been celebrated for their themes of friendship and inclusivity,” while other books about kindness that he has illustrated—Trudy Ludwig’s The Power of One and J.J. Austrian’s Worm Loves Worm—“have been banned and challenged for their themes of inclusivity.” He acknowledged that “people are used to reading about my cute elephant and cupcakes,” yet act scandalized by his overtly inclusive material.

“I’m not trying to diminish the value of the other work I’ve done,” Curato said, but Flamer “came from a really personal place, and I wasn’t holding back.” He interspersed showing photos from his youth with spreads from his graphic novel, noting that he had much in common with his 14-year-old protagonist, who experiences body dysmorphia and suicidal ideation. “I wrote Flamer for me and for people like me,” he said. “I know now that I was not alone. I had real friends out there who were going through the same thing—we just hadn’t met yet.” He recommended the Trevor Project and GLSEN as resources for LGBTQ+ youth.

The panel concluded with a q&a among the students and authors. “What has inspired you to continue to write and publish after having your books banned?” Cates asked. Newman responded, “When books of mine have been banned, it just makes me mad, and when I get mad, I don’t shut up. I get louder.” By encouraging attendees to make their voices heard, she passed the torch to young people like Cates, whose own advice was, “Be who you want to be and who you are,” and Daniels, who said, “Spread the word!”

SCBWI will post a recording of this panel on their website on December 2.