Let Freedom Read: A Banned Books Week Reflection
Updated: Oct 16
By Mary Mathew, Director of Advocacy
I recently stopped by The Regulator, a beloved bookstore in Durham, North Carolina, to pick up a copy of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. I hadn't read it yet and was thinking that Banned Books Week (October 1-7, 2023) might be the perfect time.
The book, intended for teens ages 12 and up, had been at the center of attention in New Hanover County School District this summer following a parent’s challenge to ban its use with high school students as a part of the AP curriculum. In my role as Director of Advocacy at Book Harvest, I have been paying close attention to the situation and to the response – including community-led “Let Freedom Read” rallies – surrounding it.
On September 1st, I witnessed online the school board’s decision to temporarily ban Stamped from curriculum use in a 4-3 vote.
This decision is worth taking notice of. It is one of many in a surge of book bans and challenges taking place across the country. According to preliminary data reported by the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, there were almost 700 attempts to ban or restrict school and public library materials and services, and documented challenges to more than 1,900 unique titles, between January 1 and August 31, 2023; this is a 20% increase from the same period in 2022, a year that recorded the highest censorship attempts in decades.
In North Carolina alone, over 100 titles were challenged in 2023 to date. You can search for some of the titles impacted by school book bans here.
Most challenges target books written by or about a person of color and/or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Here is what is tragic about this: authors from different backgrounds bring their unique perspectives and experiences to the stories they share, often providing a more authentic portrayal of underrepresented groups. Their voices benefit all children, including those who identify with these groups – who see themselves reflected in and celebrated in books – and the children who seek to learn from them.
As a child who did not have or see any books with characters that looked like me, or told my family’s story, I know deeply and personally that this matters.
Books are powerful. They have the power to build brains, strengthen relationships, encourage ideas and critical thinking, spread joy, and – perhaps most importantly to me – increase children’s sense of belonging and empathy. I imagine a future where this power is freely shared, with a diverse tapestry of stories and perspectives that all children and families can be nourished by and can have access to if they so choose.
The good news is there is a lot to be hopeful about. Just over 70% of voters oppose efforts to remove books from public libraries, and 67% for school libraries. Almost 85% of North Carolinians surveyed say discussing race is not a valid reason to ban books. Research continues to support the many benefits of diverse and culturally inclusive books, including a recent study showing their positive academic impact.
Another thing that gives me hope is listening to our youth. As I finished purchasing my copy of Stamped, a staff member asked if I had noticed the poster on display in the children and young adults section of the store. She said a student, maybe around 10-years-old, had given it to them a while back. Curious, I went to have a look.
"Protect your Rights to Read By Reading Banned Books. Buy Them. Talk about them. Share with Friends!” the title read. “Don’t Ban Books!”
I couldn’t say it better myself.
Black Boy Joy: 17 Stories Celebrating Black Boyhood by Kwame Mbalia
Captain Underpants by Dav Pilkey
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
The Name Jar by Choi Yangsook
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
To Kill a Mockingbird by Lee Harper
Separate Is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh
The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country by Amanda Gorman
Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson
Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o and Vashti Harrison
The Giver by Lois Lowry