Book bans and publishing’s responsibilities
For the past forty years, various library and literary organizations have participated in Banned Books Week during the last week of September. What is the state of book bans and how do they relate to the wider publishing industry? How can the book community rally to support librarians, educators, and readers facing censorship attempts?
[Dear readers: This issue contains discussions of white supremacy, transphobia, homophobia, and other forms of oppressive behavior, as well as reproductive justice.]
In 2021, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 729 censorship attempts. This number not only includes books, but also event programming, displays, films, and more. PEN America launched their own report earlier this year, and their most recent release tracked 2,532 bans across the U.S. between July 2021 and June 2022. ALA’s cited number is also significantly larger than what they recorded in prior years (in 2020 they recorded 156 incidents, for example). Yet, to many, this comes as no surprise as white supremacists enact harmful legislation across the country. These bans are not isolated from our wider societal and publishing conversations.
In PEN America’s report, they look at the correlation between book bans and educational gag orders. In the past few years, legislators and conservative groups from around the country have pushed to ban discussions of (a misinterpreted definition of) critical race theory, sex-ed, and gender/sexuality in the classroom. These same individuals have amplified and pushed forward restrictions on abortion rights and reproductive justice, voter access, gender-affirming care, and much more. In the wake of the country’s first Black president and the following rise of Trump and the MAGA movement, these calls grew louder, a coordinated attack to uphold an oppressive, antiquated, and fixed worldview that favors whiteness and Christian nationalist views.
And publishers play a huge role in enabling this harmful rhetoric; They pour millions of dollars into books by far-right politicians and speakers. In doing so, they amplify the platform of an already-powerful individual and put money behind their values and beliefs, oftentimes choosing these stories over those by underrepresented authors whose narratives have historically been silenced.
Book bans, oppressive legislation, publishing’s mistreatment and lack of true investment in DEI initiatives…these are all interconnected. In this issue, we are going to dive into what the book community can do to take action.
A Deeper Look
Censorship does not just occur in the form of outright restriction, in the way we’re seeing groups such as “Moms for Liberty” demand at school board meetings. Quiet or soft censorship runs rampant—the act of books being removed from a library, classroom, or syllabus with no notice; certain books not being bought by a school in the first place; and even what books make it onto more prominent or locatable shelves in a library. Groups have even launched coordinated efforts to check out books from Pride displays so that readers cannot.
And when we expand that view into publishing, it’s easy to recognize additional forms of soft censorship. Which books are publishers acquiring in the first place and which are overlooked? Which books receive larger marketing budgets, pushing them directly to a reader’s gaze, and which aren’t? Who are publishers hiring to make these decisions and which employee perspectives are silenced?
Cemented into the U.S. Constitution is the supposed guarantee of free speech. But such guarantee only truly upholds if you are white, male, heteronormative, abled, and cisgender. Subsequently, this false notion of “free speech” is weaponized. It’s a scapegoat to allow oppressive rhetoric, while at the same time decrying critiques of systemic and/or structural harm.
And that’s the key difference between censorship and divestment: Those that are actually being censored are those that—because of structural and systemic barriers—aren’t granted platforms by society. Mike Pence, JKR, Trump, etc.—all these individuals complain about their “freedom of speech” being taken away, yet they still have huge platforms. And publishers justify their investment in such authors as supporting “free speech.” But as long as publishers prioritize profits over real lives, we can expect book bans by way of increased support for white supremacist values and agenda.
So when industry changemakers like Jenn Baker, the former Senior Editor of Amistad, are forced out with no warning or advance, how can we be surprised? When an industry continuously chooses to value whiteness instead of their supposed-commitment to DEI initiatives, how can we trust said industry? Answer: We can’t.
September brings not only Banned Books Week, but also the fall equinox. We’re getting into ~cozy mode~ with the help of books and these refreshed phone wallpapers. Just head to the link and use password FallEquinox to download.
We’ve also updated our monthly book trackers and anticipated reads for you to share on Instagram Stories.
Tag your book besties in this post’s comments 😘
Our work to combat book bans is not about “free speech;” it’s about forcing publishers, the American Library Association, PEN America, and all book-related organizations to invest—truly invest—in equitable initiatives. It’s about fighting—and acknowledging—white supremacy and centering the BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and authors of religious minorities that are in the direct line of attack.
There are plenty of ways to get involved, no matter where you live:
Support your local libraries.
Donate money to libraries. While the idea of sending them banned books is thoughtful, these books will not be able to enter the libraries. Instead, monetary support is extremely helpful, and assists those whose politicians are withholding financial support to intimidate educators/librarians into book removal.
Know your library’s policies and procedures for content removal. In the 2021-2022 school year, PEN America found that fewer than 4 percent of book bans followed established best practices that safeguard students’ rights against censorship. Knowing these policies can help you best speak out against censorship attempts at school/library hearings, board meetings, etc.
Put in library requests to stock these critical reads, and if they are stocked, check them out. Showing demand for these stories only further demonstrates their importance.
If you haven’t yet signed up for a library card or utilized your library’s resources, do so. September is Library Card Sign-Up Month, after all. Show support and the need for their funding.
Get involved with state/local politics.
Midterms are coming up! VOTE and help advocate for the right to vote. Are you registered? Increasing voter awareness and access is critical, as these censorship bills are primarily taking place in states that uphold systemic barriers to voting.
Stay up to date on your area’s bills and motions regarding censorship and other oppressive legislation. This BookRiot article has great tips for how and where you can do so, as well as the importance behind such acts. (You can also follow the author, Kelly Jensen, on Twitter for the most recent updates.)
Vote for politicians who are proud supporters of libraries.
Write your politicians letters, sign petitions, protest, and attend sessions.
Check out local schools
Attend local and/or virtual school board meetings and legislative sessions that are discussing book bans.
Consider running for a school board position and/or getting more involved.
Write letters to schools across the country, particularly those in states/districts facing bans, to show support for these books and librarians. Here are some templates to help you get started.
Use your platform
Share updates on your social channels, blog, newsletter, etc. Talk to your neighbors, too.
Follow, promote, and support these organizations fighting book bans.
As always, thanks for reading. If you need a book recommendation, we suggest stories from these Latine-owned publishers or this stack of recommended reads. We also cannot wait to dive into these fall releases.
Next month, we’ll be sharing thoughts on Little Gods by Meng Jin. In the meantime, you can also read some thoughts on Heartbroke by Chelsea Bieker.
And if you have any feedback, feel free to send us a direct message on Instagram, an email, or leave a comment below. We appreciate any and all input!
Until next time.
Olivia and Fiona