Three book buses are on the move this October, spreading awareness about the freedom to read and giving away copies of frequently challenged books.
The progressive action group MoveOn.org’s Banned Bookmobile is on the road again, after an inaugural multi-stop tour of the Midwest and South in July. Penguin Random House’s Banned Wagon, a project of PRH’s Intellectual Freedom Taskforce and its consumer marketing team, is doing a weeklong tour of the South with stops in Atlanta, Nashville, New Orleans, and Houston. And the New Republic, in partnership with the nonprofit House of SpeakEasy, is crisscrossing the country with its bookmobile on a monthlong journey “aimed at championing the First Amendment and combating censorship,” according to a press announcement.
All three tours made their first stops on October 1. Both the Banned Bookmobile and the PRH Banned Wagon visited separate bookstores in Decatur, Ga., with MoveOn at Little Shop of Stories and PRH at Charis Books & More. TNR’s initial stop on a 13–city tour was at the Brooklyn Book Festival, where the media organization collected book and financial donations at the SpeakEasy Bookmobile.
MoveOn’s Banned Bookmobile Rides Again
Mana Kharrazi, MoveOn.org’s rapid response campaign director, developed the Banned Bookmobile’s tours. “My work has become focused on combating extremism,” Kharrazi said, “and this year I’ve been looking at book bans. Our freedom to learn and freedom to read have become such a target of attack.”
Burnout can undermine activism, yet the Banned Bookmobile idea captured MoveOn staffers’ imaginations. “Our campaign director [David Sievers], who focuses on authoritarianism and MAGA extremism, was trying to think of a way to engage folks and connect with folks on this,” Kharrazi said. “There’s definitely fatigue. He came up with the idea of the Banned Bookmobile. We tested it with our members and got an incredible response. Our members were very quick to donate, support it, and ask us to bring it to their communities. Within a matter of weeks, we organized it,” including chartering a bus (with air conditioning) that could carry the inventory and be wrapped in their design.
Kharrazi sees the bookmobile as “a celebratory way of owning our power and showing that we are the majority, and the minority are book banners.”
According to MoveOn, the Banned Bookmobile’s coming visits will align with live podcast events for the Crooked Media programs Pod Save America and Lovett or Leave It. In addition, authors including Jocelyn Nicole Johnson (My Monticello) will appear at select stops, and people who visit the bookmobile can sign petitions, including an Artists Against Book Bans campaign letter touted by LeVar Burton, who is 2023’s honorary chair of Banned Books Week.
At the Banned Bookmobile’s first destination, Little Shop of Stories, Georgia–based YA author Becky Albertalli (Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda) brought three student activists from the Georgia Youth Justice Coalition. Another guest, educator Katie Rinderle, urged listeners to support the freedom to read. In September, the Cobb County (Ga.) school board fired Rinderle, who had come under criticism after reading Scott Stuart’s gender inclusive picture book My Shadow Is Purple to her fifth grade class.
Hannah Hyde, event planner at Little Shop of Stories, was excited to welcome the Banned Bookmobile, Albertalli, and Rinderle. “We’re very fortunate that we live in a pretty progressive town, and we wanted to make a bigger splash” during Banned Books Week, Hyde said. “We’re primarily a children’s bookstore, and we love that we can host our local authors who might be facing challenges. Bookstores can still be safe spaces” for the freedom to read.
Ashley Valentine, owner of Rooted MKE in Milwaukee, Wis., hosted the Banned Bookmobile on July 15, on its debut outing. At Rooted MKE, a BIPOC bookstore with a nonprofit wing called Rooted in Community, Valentine features books written and illustrated by Black and brown creators. “We were definitely glad to have them,” Valentine said, because “when we are talking about banned books, we’re not always talking about the people most impacted” by censorship, namely people of color and gender nonconforming individuals. “It was a great learning experience for everyone involved, and I was glad to partner with a mission aligned cause, to broaden the awareness of their message.”
PRH Trawls the American South
PRH partnered with the Freedom to Read Foundation, PEN America, and Little Free Library, and connected with bookstores and other community partners, to organize a Banned Wagon Tour of the South. In an email to PW, PRH director of brand marketing Carly Gorga explained that the tour rapidly took shape over the summer: “We felt it was critical to engage with readers on the ground, providing them with the tools and resources they need to fight book bans in their communities (and handing out some free banned books!).”
Tours require lots of resources and logistical planning, from marketing to staffing to fuel to book giveaways. “We are lucky to have fantastic agency partners for this project: Momentum Worldwide for experiential support and Sprouthouse Agency for local PR and community outreach,” Gorga said.
“The true heroes of this undertaking have been our bookstore partners—Charis Books & More in Decatur, The Bookshop in Nashville, Baldwin & Co. in New Orleans, and Kindred Stories in Houston—who have rallied behind the Banned Wagon and made the events their own by adding local flair,” Gorga said. PRH estimates that 400 attendees came to the Georgia event and 300 to the Tennessee stop. On October 5 in New Orleans, Baldwin & Co. plans an (Un)Banned Book Festival with music, food, and a panel discussion with authors including Ani DiFranco, Jumata Emill, and Maurice Carlos Ruffin.
At all four stops, PRH is sharing resources from the Freedom to Read Foundation on contacting school boards and elected officials, regionally specific information on book bans from PEN America, and giveaways including bookmarks, totes, and copies of a dozen titles including Jazz Jennings’s picture book I Am Jazz, Trung Le Nguyen’s graphic narrative The Magic Fish, Kyle Lukoff’s Too Bright to See, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, among others. “It was important to us to highlight titles across a number of different categories to represent the breadth of this issue,” Gorga wrote, “and this list only scratches the surface, with 3,362 instances of book bans during the 2022–23 school year alone, according to PEN America’s latest report.”
Gorga added that “for folks who can’t make it to one of our events, we’ll also be dropping copies of these 12 books at Little Free Libraries along the tour route and hosting a digital giveaway here.”
Although the Banned Books Week stops are the only ones scheduled thus far, “we are hopeful this won’t be the last you’ll see of the Banned Wagon,” Gorga said.
TNR Takes a Road Trip
The New Republic bookmobile is the brainchild of CEO Michael Caruso, said marketing director Kym Blanchard. "We started planning for it in June and as we brought on partners, especially the American Federation of Teachers and American Library Association, the plan has blossomed,” she said. In August, TNR hired Inspira Marketing to handle tour logistics and creative elements. Author Nora Roberts contributed funding, and the initiative is also supported by the African American Policy Forum, Banned Books Week, Bookshop.org, and the Urban Libraries Council.
Blanchard said the organizers targeted the tour to areas where book books are the most prevalent. With help from the AFT and the literacy organization First Book, they hope to distribute more than 40,000 free books in their travels, along with resources on combating book challenges at schools and libraries.
During Banned Books Week, TNR stops include Pittsburgh (Oct. 3), Washington, D.C. (Oct. 4), and Daytona, Fla. (Oct. 7), with further stops planned in Virginia, Missouri, Kentucky, and Texas. “We'll be on tour until the end of October, with expectations to do another tour in 2024,” Blanchard said. “Unfortunately, this issue is only getting worse.”