‘It Really Stings’: Students Fighting Book Bans Talk About the Harm They Cause
As efforts to ban books in schools spread across the nation, students and experts talk about how those bans target and hurt historically marginalized groups.
Few people understand what it’s like to be Indian at Central York High School. For Edha Gupta, it often feels like her peers and others in her York, Pennsylvania, community rarely try to understand her culture—where she’s from, her religion, and social norms.
She’s still learning how to be comfortable talking about her heritage. But if people could pick up a book with an Indian protagonist, she said it might start to “normalize” her identity.
“If people had that one book, you don't know the amount of change that can have on a person,” Gupta said. “At a young age, if a young person sees a young girl of color as a protagonist, that might change their whole perspective of the world around them. That might teach them to be more empathetic to their peers. That's going to teach them to be like, ‘Oh, this peer is different than me. I'm not colorblind to their differences because those differences are what makes them beautiful, and those differences are what should be appreciated.’”
In an effort to ensure those differences continue to be explored, Gupta, a senior at Central York, is part of a vocal group of students who led the charge against requests to remove books from her school that would have silenced many diverse voices. They join a rising tide of youth in schools throughout the country who are standing up against similar challenges to preserve their right to access books that reflect the lives they and their peers live.
More books by underrepresented authors and about marginalized communities started appearing on shelves in recent years, but access to these stories is increasingly at risk. And while the book challenges—a precursor to a book ban—may not always result in the removal of content, the controversy sends a message to these communities that their stories aren’t welcome.
Much of the national conversation about permanently removing content revolves around book challenges, but Central York’s target list was extensive—detailing web content, articles and films in addition to books. The list contained a disproportionate amount of material written by and about people of color and those who identify as LGBTQ+—a trend among book challenges nationwide in 2021.
The most common complaint by those challenging this material? Topics of race, racism and sexuality were too adult in nature for teenagers—an argument student activists find far-fetched because those themes affect their everyday lives.
‘We’re Talking About Bookshelves Being Removed from School Libraries’
The majority of recent requests to remove books take aim at books in school libraries, according to the National Coalition Against Censorship. Over the years, book challenges in schools have traditionally involved school books included as part of curricula, said Nora Pelizzari, director of communications for NCAC. Now, optional books are the target.
And the number of book challenges has been drastically increasing. The American Library Association tracked 729 book challenges in 2021—nearly double the pre-pandemic numbers of 377 in 2019.
“We're talking about bookshelves being removed from school libraries,” Pelizzari said about the sheer volume of books being contested in some communities. “We're talking about 100 percent optional books. We're talking about books that no student has to read… we're talking about people trying to prevent students from having the choice to read books that appeal to them.”
The purpose of a school library is to provide every student with books that represent all students—but it’s also a way for them to “explore the diversity of the human experience from your town, from your school, from home in a sort of safe way,” Pelizzari said. “And denying students the opportunity to access those stories that can challenge them really threatens our entire education system, and it threatens students’ abilities to be prepared to engage in a world full of people who are not like them.”
The book challenges have come at a time when libraries have pushed to diversify the materials offered in school libraries to serve every student, Pelizzari added.
“When those books that you've read and that impacted you so greatly are challenged, it really stings.”
Renee Ellis, a sophomore at Central York, first saw herself in the Black protagonists created by authors Angie Thomas and Jason Reynolds. Before she moved to Pennsylvania from Idaho, she attended a school that she said didn’t provide access to books about people who looked like her and shared her experiences. That’s why it hurt when both of those authors wound up on the list of materials being challenged by parents in the school district.
“It's those types of perspectives that you don't get taught about in history, perhaps that you don't get to see as often because of the way society is set up,” Ellis said. “When those books that you've read and that impacted you so greatly are challenged, it really stings.”
Thomas’s “The Hate U Give” found its way onto the list of challenged books at Central York and is often the target of other challenges across the country. The novel follows a Black teenager who witnesses her best friend, who is also Black, being fatally shot by a white police officer.
After George Floyd was murdered by police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, Ellis’s classmates at Central York started the Panther Anti-Racist Union. A few months later, they were faced with challenges to a list of diversity resources developed in response to the nationwide calls for racial justice in the wake of Floyd’s murder. That fall, the then all-white school board unanimously voted to freeze the entire list. Almost all of the materials were written by people of color and LGBTQ+ people. Nearly a year marked by student protests and meetings with board members passed before the board voted to reverse the freeze on the list. At the time, the board president said their review of the material had taken far too long.
Why Young Adult Literature Is Now a Target
Race, racism and sexuality weren’t always the primary causes for challenging a book, said E. Sybil Durand, an assistant professor of English at Arizona State University and a scholar of young adult literature. Past disputes often focused on religious viewpoints—especially in the case of the “Harry Potter” series—vulgar depictions of sex, and profanities.
But in the last several years, Durand has noticed a shift. The challenges are disproportionately affecting authors from and who write about historically marginalized communities. More specifically, Black and LGBTQ+ authors.
“If we think about it historically, this is progress, and with progress, there's going to be resistance.”
Moreover, these authors are being targeted in no small part for what they are writing about, Durand says. Young adult literature has traditionally tackled current events and issues, and that’s still true today. These books now highlight topics like the Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, and the intersection of race and LGBTQ+ identities while putting youth at the center of those narratives, she explained. Many of these books have become wildly popular. “The Hate U Give” spent 80 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list. Youth were reading it; adults were reading it; and that popularity soon led to a film adaptation.
The surge in challenges also coincides with a rise in the number of published authors who are from marginalized communities. The Cooperative Children’s Book Center reviews more than 3,000 titles from U.S. publishers in a given year to collect data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens. In 2015, 10% of books it reviewed were by a Black, Indigenous or person of color. In just six years, that rose to 36% in 2021.
This growth is thanks in part to the publishing industry’s efforts to include more diverse subjects and authors, including topics about mental health and disability, Durand said. “Not only are there more (books about these subjects), but they're also really popular. I think if we think about it historically, this is progress, and with progress, there's going to be resistance.”
When people say removing these books from the shelves is about protecting children, Durand is skeptical. “Is it now about protecting youth? Is it about these perspectives not reflecting the community? Or is it furthering the marginalization of groups that have already been historically marginalized?”
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Exclusion and Its Toll on Learning
According to the ALA, most requests to remove books from school libraries originate with parents–as it did in Central York. Requests are also coming from school boards and administration, religious groups, and in some instances, schools are seeing politicians getting involved.
In Virgina, book bans became central to an election campaign platform in 2021. Fairfax County Public Schools temporarily removed two books after they were challenged: “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” which are by queer authors and tackle issues the LGBTQ+ community faces. Those two books topped ALA’s most-challenged books list of 2021. A parent and former teacher challenged the books at a school board meeting—citing depictions of sex and falsely claiming they contained pedophilia. The book challenges later became a flashpoint in a gubernatorial candidate’s campaign for election.
After convening with committees made up of school administrators, librarians, parents, and students, the Fairfax County school board reinstated those books last fall. The challenge, though, sent a message that queer students aren’t welcome, said Aaryan Rawal, a senior at Westfield High School in Fairfax and founder of Pride Liberation Project, which collected 425 petition signatures against the books’ removal and organized student protests.
“There are so many books in our libraries that talk about sex and have graphic descriptions, and there's no doubt that these books do talk about those concepts,” he said. “The difference was that these folks are talking about them in a queer context. We got the message that other forms of sex were OK, that other forms of relationships were OK, but relationships that involve queerness were not OK.”
That message often extends beyond the classroom, too. Only one in three LGBTQ+ youth come from affirming households, according to The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health. With LGBTQ+ youth often experiencing isolation, school resources like library books might be the only way they get access to stories that validate their identity, Rawal said.
Despite the books being reinstated, the controversy created a chilling effect in Westfield High, Rawal said, leading some teachers to question whether they can talk about LGBTQ+ issues in the classroom. That fear could become more widespread as book challenges spread and anti-LGBTQ+ legislation is introduced and passed in states nationwide.
After two months of exhausting activism, Rawal feels the lack of discussions about the LGBTQ+ community also have an adverse effect on his education. The books may be back on the shelves, but he’s taking measures—such as talking with the press and mobilizing students—to make sure this doesn’t happen again and remains a top priority. He and his peers aren’t poised to learn, he said, because of the strain on their mental health.
“A student cannot learn if they do not feel heard and if they do not feel represented,” he said. “A student who is struggling with their sexual and gender identity is not positioned to learn calculus. The reality is that it is far, far, far too stressful for a student in that position to actually be in a position to succeed in school.”