All the books piled on the table in the Dunbar High School auditorium in Washington, D.C., last fall had three things in common: They all were written by some of the United States’ most celebrated authors, including Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston; they all were written by queer authors or authors of color; and they all had been banned in various places around the country.
That is not a coincidence, said Shermena Nelson, chief of staff with the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), which also provided the table of books.
“It's extremely strategic, it's not happenstance,” she said. “If you're not able to write and read about your history, you're not able to talk about your history, so you can't change it.”
AAPF, the AFT, award-winning (and banned) author Elizabeth Acevedo, and students from three D.C.-area high schools gathered at Dunbar last November for a panel discussion on the wave of the book bans that has slammed into schools and communities nationwide over the last few years. The event, and the books provided by the AFT for the students to take home—which included Acevedo’s The Poet X—were part of AFT’s Reading Opens the World program. The program distributed more than 2 million brand-new books to kids and communities since its launch in December 2021.
Banning books has never been about protecting children from harmful content or “themes,” Acevedo said. It’s about enshrining inequality.
“We're not talking themes,” she said. “We're talking about people who exist in the world. We're talking about characters who exist; we are people. They’re not banning these books to protect y’all, because oftentimes these books are about y’all. They're banning these books because they're saying, ‘We don't want certain demographics of kids to know that other kinds of young people exist and that within their community, other kinds of people exist.’
“If you are a young person who is queer in a community where they tell you that you can't even read about queerness, what does that say about your existence? If you're the only Black student in a predominantly white school and you can't even read books that talk about Black pride, what does that say about what you should be prideful about? What does that say about how they see you?”
Consider Abigail Rose-McCoy, a student at North Marion Middle School in Florida. She checked out Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices from her school library because she wanted to learn more about Islam. She was called out of class a matter of hours later and told she needed to return it because it “wasn’t supposed to be on the shelves.” The book was removed.
In 2022, the American Library Association recorded more attempts to ban books than in the entire 20 years it has been keeping track. The attempts accounted for a staggering 467 percent rise compared with 2021, and nearly 40 percent of the challenged books featured main characters of color. More than 30 percent featured queer protagonists and 7 percent included transgender characters or addressed transgender topics.
The challenges don’t make Acevedo angry or sad, she said. They remind her of what so many kids and communities are up against.
“It just makes me realize the different ways they try to disempower folks and disempower communities who are trying to say that not only do we exist, but we should be allowed joy,” she said. “We should be allowed stories that show us in our fullness. It makes me realize that at many different levels, we are being attacked.”
What does make her angry, she said, is how the groups behind the attempts continually underestimate kids.
“There's a huge underestimation about what you need to be protected against, because somehow The Hunger Games is still in school, so kids can kill each other and that's OK, but if you write about a queer character, if you write about anything having to do with sexuality, that's not OK? What are we saying? What are we protecting kids from? It makes me really angry that they're trying to push y’all not to be critical thinkers and try to “protect” y’all when they're really just doing you a disservice.”
Abigail Rose-McCoy shared Acevedo’s sentiment.
“It’s not right the way they’re treating us. I feel if something is a part of history, I should be able to learn and decide whether I am able to contain my emotions on how I see the event,” she says.
Acevedo said she never underestimates her readers, regardless of their age.
“I don't underestimate my reader; I don't talk down to my reader,” she said. “But I also write with a lot of tenderness. I love young people, and I want young people to feel loved by my books. I want you to open the book and be like, ‘Well, I'm safe here,’ even if I'm looking at subjects that are really difficult to talk about. There’s a balance to how am I really loving, but I also trust my reader to be really smart and to be able to handle the content.”
Acevedo’s The Poet X has been challenged based on claims that it violates the freedom of religion, because the teenage protagonist questions her Catholic faith. The book has also been challenged because it deals with issues around race and sexuality.
“If you’re banning my books, I know that I’m loving in my process, so it’s not the book that needs to be watered down,” Acevedo said. “It’s that the subjects are being talked about in a way that is unflinchingly honest, and people are scared to look at it.”
Christopher Stewart, the librarian at Columbia Heights Education Campus in Washington, D.C., said that he has received some questions from parents about books in his library. Each time, he invites them to have brunch in the library and a good conversation assuages their concerns.
“A personal discussion that addresses their concerns has always been really productive,” he said.
Protecting access to books is crucial to ensuring the arc of the moral universe continues to bend toward justice, Nelson said—because the end game behind banning books has never had anything to do with protecting children. “There’s something about giving someone The Bluest Eye [by Toni Morrison] and saying, ‘This is the second-most banned book across the country.’ It opens up a conversation, and it gets us to the bigger issue, which is the overall censorship of our history.”