be ready

Your 101 Guide To Fighting A Local Book Ban

The nuts and bolts of what you need to know to be ready for censorship f*ckery.

Written by Molly Wadzeck Kraus
Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Amazon
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“It’s not about the books. It’s never been about the books,” says Kelly Jensen, an award-winning author and editor at Book Riot. “Books are just very easy and convenient tools.”

In 2023, the American Library Association (ALA) recorded the highest number of titles targeted for censorship in over 20 years, a significant rise from the previous two-decade average. This surge in book challenges highlights the increasing pressure on libraries from organized censorship efforts. Nearly half of the targeted titles represent LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC voices, with seven of the top ten most challenged books in 2023 falling into these categories. Some frequent fliers on the most challenged list over the years include: George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren't Blue, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, Alex Gino’s George, and Raina Telgemeier’s Drama.

These bans and challenges are part of a broader political movement to undermine trust in public institutions like schools, libraries, and hospitals, transcending the red and blue state divide. In other words, no matter where you live, your local school or library system could face a book ban — but there are resources out there and levers you can pull to stand up for inclusion. In an effort to understand how your community can respond to censorship, Scary Mommy spoke with two experts on the front lines of the movement.

Who’s Behind Book Bans?

Political groups have long used local level organizing tactics to gradually gain control, a strategy that has proven effective for decades, says Jensen. This is part of a larger scheme led by some of the country's most influential and wealthy conservatives, who aim to benefit from intensifying the culture war at every level.

While groups like Moms for Liberty are prominent, many other local groups are equally, if not more, disruptive. By organizing small numbers of people, these factions can cause significant damage, often more swiftly than larger organizations. "This is part of how they succeed if they start at the local level where people do not pay as much attention,” says Jensen. “And when they take over in this way, you're like, ‘How did this happen?’ Well, it’s because they’ve been there the whole time."

Libraries are essential institutions, and they should be kept that way, says Emily Drabinski, Associate Professor at Queens College, City University of New York, and current president of the American Library Association. “The challenges are about more than just the books; they're about undermining trust in the institution and undermining the authority and agency of library workers.” In other words, one thing you can do now is get involved with your local library before there’s ever an issue in the first place.

And the stakes here are immediate and clear: Book bans don’t encourage more reading. A book being banned is not a “badge of honor,” says Jensen, because the kids who need access to the books being pulled are the ones who need them the most. “The point is these kids don't have access, they don't have money, they don't have parents who can take them somewhere.”

Where to Start: Tap Into Your Community

Advocacy work, Drabinski says, needs to be integrated into everyday life. “People already have communities that they spend time with: the people in your moms’ group, the parents of the kids your kids have play dates with, the people at your daycare.”

Sitting in the Little League bleachers, sharing snacks and engaging in friendly chatter, is precisely how you connect with others who care about these issues. It’s where trust is built, enabling you to join forces against a book ban: “Vigilance is less about staying afraid and more about staying connected to people who you want to spend time with in the fight,” Drabinkski says, adding, “making sure you're building those connections while having a good time is really key.”

The good news is that you’re probably going to find a lot of people who disagree with censorship: Research shows widespread opposition to book bans. And if you want some help figuring out how to approach the issue, the ALA toolkit offers talking points that you can use to engage with various groups you're involved in.

Become an Engaged and Informed Citizen

To respond to a book challenge, first understand the details: which book is challenged, why, who is challenging it, what content is targeted, and the timing of the challenge. Check with your library to see if a review policy for handling objections, reviewing them, and taking appropriate actions, exists, and if it was followed. Using ALA's Book Résumés helps defend books from censorship by detailing each title's significance and educational value. They are easy to share with administrators, book review committees, elected officials, and board members.

Stay informed

Yes, you’re going to need to keep your ear to the ground. If you’ve got one, periodically check in with your town or neighborhood Facebook page, chaotic as it probably is. Monitor local news outlets, both in print and on social media. Keep yourself informed about intellectual freedom by subscribing to the free Intellectual Freedom News newsletter, and follow or subscribe to sources that compile news about book banning.

Communicating what you read and hear about to your friends, family, and people in your local community is vital. “If something is going down at the local school, you can send an email to five people that you know who live in town, who may not be aware,” suggests Jensen.

Get Involved in Board Meetings

Make a plan to attend your library or school board meeting or read the minutes and agendas. If you are unsure how to start a letter or about speaking publicly, consider using a template.

Positive feedback is just as necessary as advocating against challenges, says Jensen. “Sending a comment to the board or showing up to a meeting and saying something nice about what's happening in the library or the school is so powerful.”

Engage Your Elected Officials & Vote

Pay attention to politics at all levels — local, state, and federal. Sign up for mailing lists of your representatives and regularly reach out to them about library and school issues. Every Library tracks library bills nationwide, so take action when you see relevant developments in your state or nationally by contacting your representatives via phone or email.

In the most recent local elections in Jensen's county, only 18% of eligible voters participated. "Fewer than one in five people in this county made really important decisions for the future of this county. That, to me, is terrifying.” In her most recent guide, she also suggests sending an email to local friends about who you’re voting for and why.

A recent survey found that more than 71% of voters across party lines oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries, and oppose efforts to remove books from school libraries by a 34-point margin. “Who are the people showing up? It's the people who have an agenda,” says Jensen.

The data is clear: to prevent a small portion of the community from making all the decisions, we have to participate in the decision-making process by voting. And here’s where you can involve your kids in the democratic process even more: Bring them with you to vote, if you can! Every single state permits parents to bring their minor children into the voting booth.

Don’t Assume You’ve Lost

It’s easy to feel like censorship is a giant boulder rolling downhill toward your library and you can’t stop it. Well, it’s not. Talk to and stay engaged with your local librarians and organizers. If you hear of an attempted ban in your local school or library, contact your librarians to offer support and report the incident to the ALA. Reporting censorship is crucial to defending library resources and preventing future challenges.

“The best way to protect institutions is to use them,” adds Drabinski. “Making sure that you have a library card that you can use is the single most important thing you can do.”

Overall, don’t lose hope. Resistance is growing. Students in districts across the country have played a crucial role in reversing book bans. According to a report by PEN America experts, their actions reflect a larger movement, also evident in legislative and judicial actions, to defend the freedom to read and learn.

As for the adults in the room? We have the power, too. “If you look at the most successful political movements in history, you will see that they are led by mothers,” says Drabinksi. “It's the people who have children and care about children who are responsible for every good change in the world.”

“If you're surrounded by book bans and you feel them encroaching, it could be quite isolating and can leave a person feeling sort of hopeless,” explains Jensen. “But when we do work together, that's when we're really most effective.”