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Book banning efforts are inspiring readers to form banned book clubs

<i>Courtesy Lisa Diffenbaugh</i><br/>Joslyn Diffenbaugh
Courtesy Lisa Diffenbaugh
Joslyn Diffenbaugh

By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

When Joslyn Diffenbaugh learned about efforts in Texas to remove certain books from school libraries and classrooms, she was surprised by the titles that were being challenged.

An avid reader, the 8th grader from Kutztown, Pennsylvania, said she had read several of the books in question. Among the titles that had come under attack in recent years were “The Hate U Give,” a novel about a young Black girl who grapples with racism and police brutality, and “All American Boys,” a novel about two teenagers — one Black and one White — who contend with similar issues.

Those books had been eye-opening for Diffenbaugh, exposing her to realities that she might not otherwise have encountered. That some parents and politicians were trying to limit other young people’s understanding of such issues as racism was concerning to her.

“The reason these books are being banned are the reasons why they should probably be read,” the 14-year-old said she was thinking at the time.

The recent wave of book challenges inspired Diffenbaugh to join forces with the local Firefly Bookstore and start the Banned Book Club. Since January, she and other young people in her area have been meeting every other week to discuss classic and contemporary titles that have been contested.

The community is one of several banned book clubs that have formed in response to a growing push from the right to control what titles young people have access to. And it points to an ironic effect: The more certain books are singled out, the more people want to read them.

One club hopes readers find themselves in banned books

Book banning — or at least, book banning attempts — appears to be having a resurgence.

The American Library Association recorded 729 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2021, the most since the organization began tracking those attempts in 2000. While that might seem low overall considering the approximately 99,000 K-12 public schools in the US, the ALA says it’s likely an extreme undercount.

In recent months, conservative local and state officials have taken aim both at specific titles and broad categories of books that deal with race, gender or sexuality. And while attempts to remove those books from library shelves or classrooms haven’t all been successful, the efforts themselves have garnered interest in banned books from readers across the country.

That was the impetus for the Banned Books Book Club, a project from the company Reclamation Ventures, which also runs the newsletter Anti-Racism Daily. Nicole Cardoza, the company’s founder and CEO, said that young readers of the newsletter had increasingly been asking for resources on how they might engage with books being targeted for removal.

“This conservative pushback is actually generating a lot of interest in books that might not be something the average student is being exposed to otherwise,” she said. “[We want to] help connect more people to the stories that matter most — that reflect marginalized experiences that they might not hear otherwise.”

Many of the books that have been challenged recently center Black or LGBTQ characters, and Cardoza said she hopes that members of the Banned Books Book Club might find parts of themselves reflected in the books that are chosen. The club, which launched in early April and plans to meet virtually once a month, is reading “The Hate U Give” as its first pick.

“The book has been around for a while and it reflects a teenage experience and relationship to police brutality, which has been such a strong conversation of the past couple of years,” Cardoza said. “We thought it was a really great way to center the intention around the book club.”

Beyond that, the team has a list of 20 or so books that it hopes to cover over the next two years, including “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe and “Cinderella is Dead” by Kalynn Bayron for their explorations of queer and non-binary experiences. They want such books to be available to anyone, which is why the project also includes a banned books library through which readers can access discussion guides and request free copies of titles.

Other clubs have been talking about censorship

For some banned book clubs, recent book banning attempts have been a springboard for wider discussions around censorship.

The Banned Book Club at Firefly Bookstore read George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” as its first pick. While the satirical novella, which makes a pointed critique of totalitarianism, isn’t one of the books currently being challenged in the US, it was banned in the Soviet Union until its fall and was rejected for publication in the UK during its wartime alliance with the USSR. And it faced challenges in Florida in the ’80s for being “pro-communist.” That history made for some thought-provoking conversations.

“It taught a lot because it had references to different forms of government that maybe some adults didn’t like their kids reading about, even though it was run by pigs,” Diffenbaugh said. “I really thought it shouldn’t have been banned for those reasons, or at all.”

Teenagers at the Common Ground Teen Center in Washington, Pennsylvania, formed a banned book club soon after a Tennessee school district voted to remove “Maus” from an eighth grade curriculum. But while the graphic novel about the Holocaust was the catalyst for the club, says director Mary Jo Podgurski, the first title they chose to read was, fittingly, “Fahrenheit 451” — the 1953 dystopian novel about government censorship that itself has been challenged over the years.

“Obviously this whole idea of taking away books that they wanted to read or that they thought they should read sparked a nerve in them,” said Podgurski, an educator and counselor who oversees the Common Ground Teen Center.

The young people at the center take turns choosing a book and facilitating the discussion, while Podgurski helps guide the conversations. They talk about the message of the book, and why some might have found it objectionable. Since reading “Fahrenheit 451,” the club has also discussed “Animal Farm” and “1984,” which has been challenged for its political themes and sexual content. So far, the young readers at the Common Ground Teen Center have been puzzled as to why those books were once deemed inappropriate.

“I often wonder, do adults understand what kids have in their phones?” Podgurski said. “They have access to everything. Saying ‘don’t read this book’ shows that you’re not understanding teen culture. Young people have access to much information. What they need is an adult to help them process it.”

They see value in reading banned books

The Banned Book Club at King’s Books in Tacoma, Washington, has long understood the value in reading banned books. Though recent headlines have attracted new interest in the club, the group has been meeting monthly for more than a decade.

David Rafferty, who has been coordinating the club since 2014, said he first joined because he was looking for a space to engage with deeper subjects that might not come up in casual conversation. While many book challenges today take aim at young adult novels that depict the harsh realities of racism or that grapple with gender identity, the Banned Book Club at King’s Books has discussed titles that faced pushback for all kinds of reasons.

One of the first books that Rafferty read through the club was Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” which has been challenged for decades over concerns that it contributes to racial stereotypes. The meaningful conversations that came out of that meeting turned him into a regular member.

“It does use a racial slur — the N-word — fairly often and casually,” Rafferty said. “We’ve gotten into some interesting discussions about whether or not that was more used at the time and whether [Twain] is trying to reflect the time, whether or not the book itself was racist.”

More recently, the club has read “The Color Purple,” which has been banned for its depictions of homosexuality and sexual assault, as well as “The Call of The Wild,” which has been challenged for its depictions of animal cruelty and violence. But as Rafferty sees it, it’s better to read and discuss than to avoid tough subjects altogether.

“People want to shield their children from certain topics like sexual assault, sexual explicitness, profanity, racism, LGBTQ [issues],” he said. “My argument is that children and teenagers are going to be dealing with us in some form or another, and the books give them a chance to experience it or learn about it before they actually have to deal with it directly. So when they do have to deal with it, they can deal with it better.”

The teenagers in banned book clubs agree. Lizzy Brison, a member of the club at the Common Ground Teen Center, said she understands why some books might merit extra care and caution when it comes to younger readers. But she feels removing them from shelves is a step too far.

“They’re protecting what they think is innocence but in reality, they’re just limiting children to what they can access with their own identity,” Brison, who is in 10th grade, said. “It’s gonna be uncomfortable to help a child through that process. But it’s going to be worth it in the end, because your child will end up knowing who they are and where they belong in the world.”

Diffenbaugh, too, has a desire to better understand the world around her. So she plans to keep reading.

“You’re going to come across people who are of a different race. You’re going to come across people who may have a different gender identity. It’s a way that you can understand them more as people,” she said. “All these books that are being banned are about present issues. If we can read them now, we have that knowledge for the future.”

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