On the closing day of the American Booksellers Association Winter Institute 2023, a keynote and idea exchange tackled book banning and other threats to the freedom to read. Stories of outrage were easy to come by: booksellers report going uninvited to book fairs, moving children’s books off tables occupied by general “adult” titles, or second-guessing whether to host Drag Queen Story Time. But solutions were in shorter supply. Booksellers are frustrated with schools’ and libraries’ capitulations to uninformed book challenges, despite understanding the fears of harassment and violence driving those chilling decisions.

ABA chief communications officer Ray Daniels moderated a panel that included Gender Queer author Maia Kobabe, Rediscovered Books co-owner Laura DeLaney, Green Feather Book Company proprietor Heather Hall, and Kendrick Washington, director of policy at the ACLU of Washington. “I have had a wild ride over the past couple of years,” said Kobabe, whose memoir tops the American Library Association’s list of 10 most-challenged books. “I have seen a rise of book sales, but I think most of those sales are to adults and people who listen to NPR. People in book deserts are the ones missing out. We shouldn’t have to have a lawsuit in every single school district just to have the books in schools and libraries. It’s such a drain on resources.”

At Green Feather Book Co. in Norman, Okla., Hall got swept up in a local book banning case last August. Summer Boismier, then an English teacher at Norman High School, had been instructed to restrict students from reading material in order to be in accordance with Oklahoma’s House Bill 1775, known to some as a critical race theory ban. Boismier complied, but she informed students by displaying a QR code linked to the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned initiative. Boismier resigned from her job and now works for BPL. In solidarity, Hall “started making buttons, little sheets of QR codes. You can take out your rage on the button makers—lots of punk rockers have done it.” At Winter Institute, she wore one of the buttons on her lanyard and claimed Norman is now plastered with QR stickers.

DeLaney, whose Rediscovered Books is in Boise, Id., likewise encounters challenges in her state. She spoke against a school library that put up a “parental permission barrier” and the practice of “shadow-banning, where people pre-emptively pull books from their library shelves. It’s conforming ahead of the fact.” She has her eye on Idaho House Bill 139, which would allow a parent to sue a library or school for sharing material deemed harmful to minors. “That would mean no one under the age of 18 could check out books from the library,” DeLaney said.

The ABA is aware of these efforts, said Daniels, and is in conversation with Media Coalition, the Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights, the ACLU, and the ALA, and has legal counsel on call to review proposed legislation that threatens the freedom to read and speak out. “We’re working to repudiate bills before they move forward and monitoring legislation across the country,” he said.

Washington, of the ACLU, encouraged local action as well. When he walks into a school board meeting as an ACLU representative and attorney, “they know where I sit,” he said, meaning the ACLU’s position on social justice is clear to school board members. “They need to see the people able to vote them out of office,” he said. “We have entire toolkits on our website about how to advocate. When a community pulls itself together and makes a stink, that is where the real work is done. It’s all local, and that’s where the dig is.”

Risks and Benefits of Political Involvement

Attendees moved on to a banned books idea exchange moderated by Diana Capriola of Little Shop of Stories (Decatur, Ga.) and Brein Lopez of Children’s Book World in Los Angeles. “If you face a challenge, how are you going to respond to it?” Capriola asked the group.

Participants shared strategies and looked ahead to further conversations at Children’s Institute this June. Jackie Kellachan of the Golden Notebook Bookstore in Woodstock, N.Y., said her store invited LGBTQ+ individuals and families to contribute a high-quality photo for a “Just Say Gay” Pride month banner in 2022. DeLaney, in the keynote, offers a Read Freely Project that lets customers buy and distribute a set of 10 books promoting marginalized voices. “We want to take the proselytizing strategy and use it in reverse,” she said. Others touted Little Free Libraries or book-giveaway shelves to promote reading widely.

The group reminded one another to be mindful of staffers’ mental and physical well-being in stores that take an activist stance. Hall, who attended the idea exchange, acknowledged that “it’s dangerous to be political when you own a business, especially when you’re in a community that largely disagrees with what your politics happen to be. We also want to pay the mortgage.” Even so, many in her Oklahoma town are open to the idea that she runs a private business. “We have to figure out a way to leverage that language, to make them unable to step up to us in a lawmaking or legislative capacity,” she said.

DeLaney echoed Hall’s thinking. “Our stores aren’t funded by government money. We can speak on people’s behalf,” she said, when public institutions like schools and libraries are being intimidated into silence. She allowed that the present situation lends new meaning to the term frontline bookseller, but she has been steadfast in her deep red state. “They come in ready for a fight, you’re just nice to them, and they deflate a little bit,” she said of belligerent visitors to her store. “At the end of the day, this is our turf. You don’t get to deny access to the people who read.”