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Leigh Hurwitz is Coordinator of School Outreach Services at Brooklyn Public Library.Over the last eight months, 6,000 teens from all 50 states took a bold step to defend our civil rights: they applied for a library card.In April 2022, for National Library Week, my colleagues at Brooklyn Public Library and I launched Books Unbanned. Responding to a dramatic increase in book challenges and bans in school and public libraries, almost half of which were targeting young adult titles, we offered a free national teen eCard, giving access to our collection of half a million eBooks and eAudiobooks to anyone ages 13 to 21. We asked teens to email us about their experience with censorship. The results were both sobering and hopeful. I know because I read nearly every one.
An overwhelming number of the teens who wrote to us are the real-life counterparts to the characters depicted in challenged and banned books. “I am queer,” they wrote. “I am black.” “I live in a rural state.” “I am gay and live in Mississippi.”According to PEN America’s September 2022 report Banned in the USA, the two categories of books targeted most frequently bans in schools were those with LGBTQ themes, protagonists, or prominent secondary characters, and those with protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color. Of all banned books, 40 percent were intended for a young adult audience.These aren’t just your garden variety “think of the children” responses to books. The challenges come from well-organized conservative groups attempting to erase entire communities. Banning books is just one tool in their arsenal.According to the PEN America report, an estimated 40 percent of bans are tied to proposed or passed legislation—like the Parental Rights in Education bill, better known as “Don’t Say Gay,” and the Stop the Wrongs to Our Parents and Employees (Stop WOKE) Act in Florida. The sharp spike in book bans corresponds with an alarming uptick in anti-trans legislation, with 155 bills being proposed across 23 states in 2022 alone. These include proposals that seek to ban trans youth and young adults from using the correct bathrooms, playing in school sports, and accessing gender-affirming healthcare.
When a Black student can’t read about their own history or the social movements currently in progress, or when a trans student can’t experience the affirmation brought on by seeing themself authentically, or even joyfully, portrayed in a book, it is a fracture that has a long-term impact on their well-being and their understanding of the world around them.“Books on topics such as race and sexuality are quickly disappearing from our shelves, often to an extreme degree,” wrote one teen. “Earlier in this school year, a book about Rosa Parks was temporarily banned in my county and the government is at war against educating students about critical race theory.” Another important thing I learned from reading these emails is for many teens, accessing books of any kind can be difficult. Underfunded libraries in rural areas may have limited hours or be too far to visit on a regular basis.Some teens have fines, and their borrowing privileges are blocked. Trans teens who don't have IDs with their chosen names avoid the library since they would have to use their deadname to get a library card, possibly outing themselves. Others are currently unhoused and unable to apply for a library card because they lack the required identification. Still, they are determined to read. "I run into many issues trying to get into different public libraries due to me being a foster kid…I would like this email linked to the digital BPL account if I can get one," wrote one teen.
We read thousands of letters from teens who wished to read books but could not. Teens with print disabilities or who are neurodiverse need audiobooks, or eBooks with accessibility functions like OpenDyslexic type, a special font style which helps make text more legible to people with Dyslexia. Patrons with disabilities should have the same reading options as those who are nondisabled, but many libraries do not have the funds to provide them.We also heard from teens who did not feel safe being seen with books about anti-racism, sexuality, or trans narratives; for them, requesting and borrowing digital books is a lifesaver. One teen, who had recently come out, found their library card blocked by family members. Others said at school, they were often victims of racial slurs or physical assaults and simply were afraid to go out, even to the library. When you can’t safely leave your house (or stay in it), when you lack access to books, you cannot fully participate in public life. And that should concern everyone. When our neighbors have access to information and education, we all reap the benefits of a stronger community and more vibrant culture.Like other members of my team, I read the notes, often hundreds at a time, on nights and weekends, on top of my regular responsibilities as BPL’s coordinator of school outreach services. Some of the letters were hopeful, like the thirteen-year-old who was starting a book club “to stand up to discrimination” and wanted a card for every member.But there were times when after reading so many pain-soaked refrains, I needed to step away. Still, I always returned because it was an honor to be trusted with their stories and because these young people were counting on us, often writing at great personal risk.“It may save another kid's life because reading saved my life a few years ago when I was struggling the most with my identity,” said one teen.I also took to heart that teens have allies in every corner. We heard from educators, pastors, family members and neighbors wanting to help the young people in their lives get a library card. While having access to one’s own history is important, it is as critical to connect with the present and with all of the possible futures. The removal of books is ultimately a tool designed to discourage young people from building a more just future. We must summon all of our power to ensure the necessary ingredients for imagining that future remain close at hand.