Numerous activities and events at the ALA annual conference addressed the problem of book bans: librarians heard about the topic during author talks from the Diversity in Publishing stage, and recorded videos of themselves reading aloud from their favorite challenged titles at the Banned Books from the Big Chair booth sponsored by Sage, Banned Books Week, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and Unite Against Book Bans.

Sometimes books are quietly removed from circulation, don’t get to shelves after their launch, or never make it past the submissions and acquisitions process at the manuscript stage. At a panel on “Soft Censorship of LGBTQIA+ Content and Its Chilling Effect on the Children’s Book World,” moderator Kit Ballenger of the Help Your Shelf literary consultancy cited an OIF estimate that 82–97% of challenges go unreported. Although ALA does collect abundant data from across the U.S., “there are things happening behind the scenes that nobody tells ALA about,” Ballenger said, and those erasures are “unquantifiable” in their impact on young readers who may never know a book exists.

“The institutional [library] market is one of the most powerful markets there is,” said Antonio Cerna, marketing director at Levine Querido. “Librarians can make a huge difference in what is shown to kids, and librarians have immense power,” which is why they’re under fire. He recalled marking “a large donation of books” by Newbery Medalist Donna Barba Higuera for a school, only to be told that district officials needed to approve all the books before accepting the gift.

People used to see “the shiny medals as protection” from banning, Ballenger said, referring to prize stickers, but that signal of quality may no longer persuade wary parents or officials.

All the panelists shared examples of how so-called “soft” or indirect censorship had influenced their ability to connect with audiences. Darcie Little Badger (Sheine Lende) planned a middle school event in Iowa, only to learn that someone complained about a mention of asexuality in her novel A Snake Falls to Earth. “How many times am I not invited?” Little Badger asked, wondering what opportunities she’d missed due to assumptions about content. To ensure that her Indigenous-focused novels circulate widely in states where banning is frequent, she does outreach to tribal libraries and organizations like Diné poet Kinsale Drake’s NDN Girls Book Club, and her publisher Levine Querido has provided book donations and merchandise.

Vicki Johnson made her picture book debut last year with Molly’s Tuxedo, illustrated by Gillian Reid and published by Little Bee in partnership with GLAAD. “Besides the fact that I’m a queer writer, Molly is a gender-nonconforming character” who wants to wear a tux rather than a dress for school picture day, Johnson said. Her local indie bookstore gives books to Title 1 schools through its literacy nonprofit, but when Johnson arranged an event on school picture day, “we were told to come collect the books” rather than distribute them to 240 students, she said. “I don’t rely on school visits for income, but I know a lot of my author and illustrator friends do.” She later visited five schools through Lambda Literary’s LGBTQ Writers in Schools program and is working on a companion book, Mac Wears a Hat.

“Unlike the other authors on this panel, I’m not being targeted for my identity,” said Katherine Roy, author-illustrator of Making More: How Life Begins and illustrator of Barb Rosenstock’s Sea Without a Shore: Life in the Sargasso (both Norton). Making More, a STEM picture book on animal reproduction, was banned in Roy’s school district in eastern Washington, and Roy can only speculate that a realistic, nonexplicit illustration of mating rabbits may have had something to do with it.

Making More came about thanks to a scene about a baby elephant in Roy’s How to Be an Elephant. When a child asked, “How did the baby elephant get out of the mom?,” Roy said, she decided to write about how “cells meet and merge to form a new life. Censors “may not be ready to talk about it, but kids are ready to learn about it,” Roy continued. “Also, Moms for Liberty are moms—they’ve reproduced.”

Bans are not only frustrating but dangerous to authors and readers, the panelists acknowledged. Levine Querido publishes the sapphic fantasy Markless by C.G. Malburi, who works under a pseudonym because she “cannot be out in her community.” At LQ, Cerna added, “We have this conundrum of making a book accessible to LGBTQ kids but not outing kids who want to read them.”

Despite the hurdles, “queer romance is selling, especially in adult and YA,” Cerna said, leaving the audience with some optimism that readers are finding books with positive representation. When designing the paperback edition of Sacha Lamb’s When the Angels Left the Old Country, Cerna said, “we thought, ‘maybe this isn’t a queer enough cover’ and we made an adjustment.” The market has spoken, yet the gatekeeping continues.