As the right wing continues to ban books and promote censorship, writers, publishers and free speech activists are stepping up to provide anti-racist and pro-LGBTQIA+ materials to both educators and caregivers.
“Most U.S. teachers have not been trained to discuss white settler colonialism, white supremacy or race,” says Oriel Maria Siu, author of Christopher the Ogre Cologre, It’s Over! and Rebeldita the Fearless, books intended for elementary school readers. Her books, and an accompanying teaching guide, are meant to fill this void.
“My books help build communities of resistance through truth telling so that our children are no longer lied to by white Eurocentric curricula,” Siu tells Truthout. What’s more, she says that her books introduce kids to the “legacy of Black, Brown and Indigenous resistance” to conquest, domination and discrimination.
This, of course, is exactly what the U.S. right wing is trying to stop, and ongoing efforts to restrict the materials used in classrooms and available in libraries have continued to escalate.
PEN America, a 98-year-old international organization that promotes free expression, recently issued an index of school book bans. The report covers nine months — July 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022 — and found that 86 school districts in 26 states have banned one or more books, with restrictions impacting more than 2 million kids attending nearly 3,000 schools. No literary category was spared: Banned texts include fiction, non-fiction, poetry and graphic novels.
Not surprisingly, the themes most likely to inspire conservative ire include gender, gender identity, race and sexuality. Nonetheless PEN America did find something unexpected: 41 percent of the bans were promulgated by state officials or elected lawmakers, not parents or caregivers.
Director of Free Expression and Education at PEN America Jonathan Friedman told Truthout that “while it is not unprecedented for people in political power to use their power, what is unprecedented is the number of demands from politicians to remove books.” Even more troubling, he says, is what he calls “the abdication of responsibility” by schools and libraries to do due diligence and investigate claims before taking books off shelves or disallowing their use.
“Removing books as soon as a complaint is made takes away the serendipitous rifling through books on a shelf and is an impediment for lots of students who just want to explore what’s available,” Friedman said. “The right to go to school and access a library should not be sacrificed to accommodate a small minority of people who want to override others and impose their preferences on an entire community.”
But that is exactly what is happening.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, reports that queer-affirming books have been among the most challenged titles since 2018, “but efforts to conflate the idea of sexual or gender identity with pornography and pedophilia” have recently ramped up.
“Opposing books that are queer or BIPOC-affirming has always been part of the agenda of conservative Christian groups,” Caldwell-Stone told Truthout. “These groups have been building infrastructure to deny human rights to LGBTQIA+ people for years, but there is now conservative control of many state and local governments. The right is using this control to steer the agenda and introduce legislation to limit what kids can read and learn.”
Caldwell-Stone calls the current moment “an inflection point” in which conservatives — politicians and educators as well as faith and community leaders — are flexing their muscles to stifle public education, public libraries and the idea of diversity as a public good.
At the same time, a raft of writers, progressive and pro-LGBTQIA+ publishers, and free speech activists are not only pushing back against book bans and censorship, but are promoting the creation of materials to elevate previously marginalized voices and perspectives.
“Scholars of color and Indigenous writers are doing what we’ve been doing for more than 50 years,” Siu told Truthout. “We are not reactive. Instead, we persist, persist and persist. If we respond to every attack on our work, it will eat all of our time. Rather than get sidetracked, we find the stories we wish to tell and do the work of telling them. We will not let anyone impede us.”
Jason Tharp is the author of 18 children’s books, including It’s Okay to Be a Unicorn and It’s Okay to Smell Good. “I write for the kid who wears glasses, has a lisp, who is gay or trans, or just feels different,” he told Truthout. Tharp, who says he was bullied as a child in the 1980s, hopes his writing will resonate with those who feel invisible or insecure. “All of my stories connect kids to the idea of inclusion and self-love, what it means to be kind to yourself.”
This message, he continues, came under attack in early April when a parent objected to a scheduled reading of It’s Okay to be a Unicorn at a school in the Buckeye Valley Local School District near Columbus, Ohio. The book, which Tharp says urges kids to be themselves, includes rainbow imagery but makes no mention of LGBTQIA+ identity.
Tharp says he was shocked when his reading was canceled. “What do you do with this kind of thing?” he asks. “For me, it’s about sticking to my message and connecting to platforms that can reach the kids who are bullied and hate themselves. I want my writing to resonate with the kid who feels alone, lost or weird.”
Winter Miller, author of a newly released children’s book called Not a Cat, tells the story of Gato, who confides that he does not actually feel like a member of the feline community. How can he be sure that he is not a bunny, cow, dog, duck, horse or human? he wonders.
“My sincere hope with Not a Cat is that the earlier we reach children about skipping limited tropes, the easier it will be to nurture an innate sense of self-love, freedom and empathy,” Miller told Truthout. “I want my books to show kids, and remind parents, that everyone deserves love, whether or not they fit into the narrow boxes they’ve been given.”
That message — that everyone deserves acceptance, affection and respect — is the raison d’etre of Flamingo Rampant, a Toronto-based children’s book publisher with over 20 titles to its credit.
S. Bear Bergman, Flamingo Rampant’s founder and co-publisher, calls the 10-year-old initiative “the project of a lifetime,” adding, “We are incredibly lucky to be connected to communities throughout the English-speaking world where people take our books into schools, libraries and communities and say, ‘This is important to our families.’”
“Kids are not naturally inclined toward bigotry,” he says, “They are generally inclined toward living their lives.” This is why Flamingo Rampant routinely supplies books to people in areas where access is restricted; right now, he reports, the publisher is focused on getting books to people in Alabama, Florida and Texas to counter bans and removals.
Bergman sounds incredibly proud of this, but takes a breath before continuing. “I want to stress that censorship and bans are based on a myth of childhood innocence,” he says. “The idea that we can protect kids from racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia is only true for those kids and families that are not facing these things. Everyone else has to prepare their kids for hatred before it arrives at their front door.”
Jennifer Baumgardner, founder of the 4-year-old Dottir Press, agrees with Bergman and says that Dottir’s mission is similar to Flamingo Rampant’s. “Fifteen of the 20 books we’ve published so far have queer themes, nonbinary characters or were written by queer authors,” she told Truthout. “For me as a feminist publisher, this is imperative.”
Dottir Press further strives to promote complicated narratives and nuanced stories. “In earlier decades, feminists tended to focus on saying that girls can do whatever boys can do and boys can do whatever girls can do. We’re now trying to puncture the idea of gender,” Baumgardner says. “The years of feeling like we need to drain misogyny from our brains to protect women, still resonate on an instinctive level, but we’re also addressing what we think it means to be a woman. It’s certainly always been more than reproductive capacity but what is it we are still protecting?”
Books that ask these questions have made Dottir Press a target of the right. In fact, Anastasia Higginbotham’s Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, part of a six-part series, has been a favorite of censorship proponent Chris Rufo. But being in Rufo’s crosshairs has not deterred either Baumgardner or Higginbotham. “I am pro-gay rights and pro-feminist, so there was not a moment I was fearful about publishing books like this,” Baumgardner says.
Similarly, Flamingo Rampant’s Bergman says that while the company has recently seen an uptick in hateful messages, the overriding goal of publishing books that tell kids that “it’s fine and good to be themselves and fight racism, disability injustice or bigotry” will always be front and center.
These publishers — and others including Seven Stories Press, the Feminist Press, The New Press and Beacon — have allies in activist groups that are fighting censorship and limits on what can be taught and read. The American Federation of Teachers, for one, is doing what it can to support teachers who come under fire and is planning to send a million books to schools through its Reading Opens the World program.
The more grassroots group Red Wine & Blue has created Book Ban Busters! to draw attention to censorship and monitor where bans have taken effect. The group also runs weekly online Troublemaker Trainings that offer instruction in the rudiments of community organizing for people living in every corner of the U.S.: from how to testify at a school board hearing, to how to write a press release, file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, or use social media to fundraise or promote diversity, equity and inclusion. To date, nearly 3,000 mostly suburban-area moms have participated, according to the grassroots group.
“We focus on hyper-local community work,” Julie Womack, Red Wine & Blue’s organizing director, told Truthout. “The right is using scare tactics to try to win suburban voters. But suburban areas are becoming more diverse and are moving away from conservative politics.”
Among the group’s most successful efforts: a national read-in with banned writers to promote free speech and the right to read.
In addition, Womack says that Red Wine & Blue is educating communities about the broader agenda of the U.S. right. “The right’s censorship and book bans actually have very little to do with books,” she says. “They are a coordinated effort to get folks upset; they are using fear to win elections and consolidate power. Their ultimate goal is to undermine public education, public libraries and the public good.”
In fact, Womack continues, many efforts to ban books are neither organic nor parent-led but are a coordinated attempt by right-wing forces to take charge. “The movement is being organized by the Heritage Action Fund, the Manhattan Institute and the Koch Foundation, and is then amplified by an echo chamber that includes Fox News, The Daily Caller, the Blaze, the Watchman, the New York Post and Breitbart.”
Nonetheless, despite the threat from the right, Womack says that she is heartened by a recent announcement from the New York and Brooklyn Public Library systems that they will give people over the age of 13 access to many banned titles, in e-book or audio format, regardless of where they live.
Similarly, a newly formed American Library Association project, Unite Against Book Bans, will ensure that opposition to censorship emerges as a key issue in the upcoming midterm elections.
“We’ve found that where a community shows up to oppose bans and censorship, these efforts are defeated,” Womack said. “But we have to keep pushing back.”