Forty years after Banned Books Week was launched in 1982 to raise awareness about censorship, the issue has taken on new importance for booksellers across the country. As the culture wars being waged in public schools, libraries, and bookstores over books referring to sexuality, gender identity, and the history of racism continue to escalate, booksellers increasingly find themselves on the front lines alongside librarians in defending people’s freedom to read.
In a report, the American Library Association disclosed that it tracked 729 challenges in libraries, schools, and universities in 2021, resulting in 1,597 individual book challenges or removals—many of them by Black or LGBTQ authors and/or featuring BIPOC or LGBTQ characters. It was the highest number of attempted book bans since the ALA began compiling the list in 2002. With that type of increase, it is not surprising that the American Booksellers Association reported that it has distributed 650 Banned Books Week promotional kits this summer to stores, up 24% from last year’s 525.
While the ALA declares that its theme for Banned Books Week, which will run September 18–24, is “Books Unite Us, Censorship Divides Us,” the ABA’s 2022 tagline is “I Read Dangerously.” Many stores, like the Book Rack Quad Cities in Davenport, Iowa, are using social media to educate consumers about the aggressive efforts by some groups to censor books. In the case of the Book Rack, the store posted censorship FAQs on its Facebook page. Other booksellers are taking a different tack. Housing Works Bookstore in New York City, for example, is partnering with the National Council of Teachers of English for a series of events on September 20.
Most indies are setting up in-store displays, with some specifically referencing recent incidents that have directly impacted their customers. Burke’s Book Store in Memphis, Tenn., is setting up a window display spotlighting the removal of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic novel Maus from shelves in the McMinn County, Tenn., school district; a table display will feature titles that have been challenged in local schools.
Some indies are using Banned Book Week as an opportunity to raise funds to benefit organizations protecting civil liberties. Besides setting up displays in both its children’s and adult areas, Bear Pond Books in Montpelier, Vt., is selling store-branded “Read More, Ban Less” sweatshirts and donating the proceeds to the National Coalition Against Censorship. Itinerant Literate Bookshop in Charleston, S.C., one of a rotating group of indies conducting individual fund-raising campaigns for women’s and abortion rights organizations under an umbrella organization called Bans Off Our Books + Bodies, has set up a slate of in-store events throughout the week, kicking off with a healthcare workshop, followed by an anti-censorship panel and a banned books pizza party, and concluding with a “feminist magic market”; Banned Book Week limited edition T-shirts will also be available. Itinerant Literate is also donating 10% of its sales to the Women’s Rights and Empowerment Network of South Carolina.
The regional bookseller associations are supporting their member stores’ Banned Book Week programs. Mountains and Plains Independent Booksellers Association is providing links to Banned Book Week resources on its website and will also amplify its member bookstores’ special promotions and programming on its public social media platforms. Larry Law, Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Association executive director, has created a salty graphic for booksellers to use to draw attention to their Banned Book Week efforts.
The California Independent Booksellers Alliance’s Mosaic Committee is sponsoring a Banned Books Scavenger Hunt throughout the week, with 18 CALIBA bookstores participating. Each indie is selecting one or two books that have been targeted for removal from school and library shelves, and providing clues about them on their websites and/or Instagram accounts. Customers are encouraged to guess each book’s title and then comment on why that book should not be banned. Winners will be announced on October 24.
The New Atlantic Independent Booksellers and Southern Independent Booksellers Associations held a virtual panel session on banned books during their New Voices/New Rooms virtual conference in August that was so successful, NAIBA executive director Eileen Dengler said, that they are collaborating on another virtual gathering for booksellers on October 24. “Strength in Solidarity: Booksellers Share on Responding to Hate & Book Banning” will allow participants to discuss best practices for responding to negative customer interactions and community book banning attempts. The timing for this event is strategic, Dengler explained: “We thought it would be good to do this just before the elections.”