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  • Writer's pictureMary Mathew

Let Freedom Read: A Banned Books Week Reflection

Updated: Mar 7

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 people of color and/or members 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.

This week, I join Book Harvest in declaring our commitment to every child’s and every families’ freedom to read. View our statement shared in support of Banned Books Week here.

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.

Shared with permission from The Regulator (student artist unknown)

"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.


Visit the Diverse Books for All Coalition and Let Freedom Read Day page to learn more, and check out one of the following books at your local bookstore.

  • 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


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