Seldom have adults taken so much interest in the reading habits of American teens. As evidence of the power of literature, and testimony to the rampant homophobia, racism and general ignorance found in governing bodies throughout the country, book banners have been on a real spree recently.
But luckily for teens — and the future of our nation — librarians are fighting back.
According to the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association (ALA), there were “729 challenges to library, school and university materials and services in 2021,” targeting 1597 titles, an all-time high since the ALA started tracking twenty years ago. These included prizewinning classics like Maus and The Bluest Eye, and the pattern was clear: books with LGBTQ+ stories and/or BIPOC protagonists featured prominently. From the ALA’s list of top ten challenged books of 2021, half have queer content, and many, like Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, are narrated by nonwhite or non-Christian characters.
Another thing a lot of these books have in common? They’re great. We’re talking about the kind of stories that even kids who don’t think they like to read pick up and then can’t put down. The kind of books teachers and librarians long to stock their shelves with. The kinds of books that grow empathy and change lives.
But some conservative adults can’t seem to get enough of taking them away. And for every absurd act of censorship that makes the news, many others slip by unnoticed. The ALA emphasizes that its list of banned titles is really only the tip of the iceberg: “surveys indicate that 82-97% of book challenges – documented requests to remove materials from schools or libraries – remain unreported and receive no media,” says its Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Until they land on their college campus, of hop that bus to the big city, what are open-minded, curious teen readers to do? The diverse tales of the wide world will come — virtually — to them, courtesy of the Brooklyn Public Library.
The enterprising librarians have devised an innovative solution to ban across the nation. Via their Books Unbanned program, any young person aged 13-21 who lives in the United States can apply for a free e-card that will allow them access to 350,000 ebooks and 200,000 audiobooks, including most of the titles that are getting pulled in other places. All they have to do is email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Other creative ways the library has devised to fight censorship and oppression? Through Brooklyn bookmatch teen, young people can get personalized lists of recommended titles from teens like them, and local NYC teens can join the Intellectual Freedom Teen Council to learn more about these issues and become advocates for the freedom to read. Readers of all ages can also check out frequently targeted titles on the Books Unbanned list.