Children’s Book Authors Are Fighting Back Against Censorship and Book Bans

The right wing continues to ban books, promote censorship, and writers, publishers, and free speech activists are taking steps to provide anti-racist, pro-LGBTQIA+ materials for educators and caregivers.

“Most U.S. teachers have not been trained to discuss white settler colonialism, white supremacy or race,” says Oriel Maria Siu, author of Christopher the Ogre Cologre, It’s Over!And Rebeldita the FearlessBooks for elementary school readers. Her books and a companion teaching guide are meant to fill that void.

“My books help build communities of resistance through truth telling so that our children are no longer lied to by white Eurocentric curricula,” Siu tells Truthout. What’s more, she says that her books introduce kids to the “legacy of Black, Brown and Indigenous resistance” to conquest, domination and discrimination.

This is, of course what the U.S. Right wing is trying stop. The U.S. has continued to increase its efforts to limit materials that can be used in schools and libraries.

PEN America, a 98-year-old international organization that promotes free expression, recently issued an index of school book bans. The report covers nine months — July 1, 2021, to March 31, 2022 — and found that 86 school districts in 26 states have banned one or more books, with restrictions impacting more than 2 million kids attending nearly 3,000 schools. The report included all literary categories: Poetry, fiction, and graphic novels were all considered banned.

Not surprisingly, conservatives are most likely to be offended by themes related to gender, sexuality, gender identity, race, and gender. PEN America discovered something surprising: 41 percent of bans were issued by state officials or elected legislators, not parents or caregivers.

Jonathan Friedman, Director of Free Expression and Education at PEN USA, told Truthout that “while it is not unprecedented for people in political power to use their power, what is unprecedented is the number of demands from politicians to remove books.” Even more troubling, he says, is what he calls “the abdication of responsibility” by schools and libraries to do due diligence and investigate claims before taking books off shelves or disallowing their use.

“Removing books as soon as a complaint is made takes away the serendipitous rifling through books on a shelf and is an impediment for lots of students who just want to explore what’s available,” Friedman said. “The right to go to school and access a library should not be sacrificed to accommodate a small minority of people who want to override others and impose their preferences on an entire community.”

This is exactly what is happening.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone is the director of The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, reports that queer-affirming books have been among the most challenged titles since 2018, “but efforts to conflate the idea of sexual or gender identity with pornography and pedophilia” have recently ramped up.

“Opposing books that are queer or BIPOC-affirming has always been part of the agenda of conservative Christian groups,” Caldwell-Stone told Truthout. “These groups have been building infrastructure to deny human rights to LGBTQIA+ people for years, but there is now conservative control of many state and local governments. The right is using this control to steer the agenda and introduce legislation to limit what kids can read and learn.”

Caldwell-Stone calls the current moment “an inflection point” in which conservatives — politicians and educators as well as faith and community leaders — are flexing their muscles to stifle public education, public libraries and the idea of diversity as a public good.

A number of writers, progressive and proLGBTQIA+ publishing houses, and free speech activists are also fighting against book bans, censorship, and are encouraging the creation of materials that elevate marginalized voices and perspectives.

“Scholars of color and Indigenous writers are doing what we’ve been doing for more than 50 years,” Siu told Truthout. “We are not reactive. Instead, we persist, persist, and persist. We will waste our time responding to every criticism of our work. Instead of getting sidetracked, find the stories you want to tell and do all the work. We will not let anyone impede us.”

Jason Tharp is the author of 18 children’s books, Included It’s Okay to Be a UnicornAnd It’s Okay to Smell Good. “I write for the kid who wears glasses, has a lisp, who is gay or trans, or just feels different,” he told Truthout.Tharp, who claims he was bullied in his youth in the 1980s as a child, hopes that his writing will be a comfort to those who feel insecure or invisible. “All of my stories connect kids to the idea of inclusion and self-love, what it means to be kind to yourself.”

He continued, “This message was under…” attack in early AprilIf a parent objects a scheduled reading of It’s Okay to be a UnicornAt a Buckeye Valley School District school near Columbus, Ohio. Tharp claims that the book encourages kids to be their best, but it does not include any mention of LGBTQIA+ identities.

Tharp claims he was shocked at the cancellation of his reading. “What do you do with this kind of thing?” he asks. “For me, it’s about sticking to my message and connecting to platforms that can reach the kids who are bullied and hate themselves. I want my writing to resonate with the kid who feels alone, lost or weird.”

Winter Miller, author of a newly released children’s book called Not a Cat, Gato confesses that he doesn’t feel like a feline member. How can he know he isn’t a bunny, cow or dog?He wonders.

“My sincere hope with Not a Cat is that the earlier we reach children about skipping limited tropes, the easier it will be to nurture an innate sense of self-love, freedom and empathy,” Miller told Truthout. “I want my books to show kids, and remind parents, that everyone deserves love, whether or not they fit into the narrow boxes they’ve been given.”

That message — that everyone deserves acceptance, affection and respect — is the raison d’etre of Flamingo Rampant, a Toronto-based children’s book publisher with over 20 titles to its credit.

S. Bear Bergman, Flamingo Rampant’s founder and co-publisher, calls the 10-year-old initiative “the project of a lifetime,” adding, “We are incredibly lucky to be connected to communities throughout the English-speaking world where people take our books into schools, libraries and communities and say, ‘This is important to our families.’”

“Kids are not naturally inclined toward bigotry,” he says, “They are generally inclined toward living their lives.” This is why Flamingo Rampant routinely supplies books to people in areas where access is restricted; right now, he reports, the publisher is focused on getting books to people in Alabama, Florida and Texas to counter bans and removals.

Bergman sounds very proud of this, but then he stops and takes a deep breath before continuing. “I want to stress that censorship and bans are based on a myth of childhood innocence,” he says. “The idea that we can protect kids from racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia is only true for those kids and families that are not facing these things. Everyone else has to prepare their kids for hatred before it arrives at their front door.”

Jennifer Baumgardner is the founder of the 4-years-old. Dottir Press, agrees with Bergman and says that Dottir’s mission is similar to Flamingo Rampant’s. “Fifteen of the 20 books we’ve published so far have queer themes, nonbinary characters or were written by queer authors,” she told Truthout. “For me as a feminist publisher, this is imperative.”

Dottir Press also promotes complex narratives and nuanced stories. “In earlier decades, feminists tended to focus on saying that girls can do whatever boys can do and boys can do whatever girls can do. We’re now trying to puncture the idea of gender,” Baumgardner says. “The years of feeling like we need to drain misogyny from our brains to protect women, still resonate on an instinctive level, but we’re also addressing what we think it means to be a woman. It’s certainly always been more than reproductive capacity but what is it we are still protecting?”

These books have made Dottir Press a target for the right. In fact, Anastasia Higginbotham’s A book about whiteness is not my idea Chris Rufo, censorship proponent, loves this particular part of a six part series. But being in Rufo’s crosshairs has not deterred either Baumgardner or Higginbotham. “I am pro-gay rights and pro-feminist, so there was not a moment I was fearful about publishing books like this,” Baumgardner says.

Similarly, Flamingo Rampant’s Bergman says that while the company has recently seen an uptick in hateful messages, the overriding goal of publishing books that tell kids that “it’s fine and good to be themselves and fight racism, disability injustice or bigotry” will always be front and center.

These publishers — and others including Seven Stories Press, the Feminist Press, The New Press and Beacon — have allies in activist groups that are fighting censorship and limits on what can be taught and read. One example is the American Federation of Teachers. It is doing all it can to help teachers who are under fire. It plans to send a million books through its schools. Reading Opens the World program.

The more grassroots group Red Wine & BlueBook Ban Busters! to raise awareness about censorship and track where bans have been implemented. The group also hosts weekly online Troublemaker Trainings. This provides instruction in the basics of community organization for people living all over the U.S., including how to testify before a school board hearing and how to file a Freedom of Information Act request. According to the grassroots group nearly 3,000 moms, mostly from suburban areas, have participated so far.

“We focus on hyper-local community work,” Julie Womack, Red Wine & Blue’s organizing director, told Truthout. “The right is using scare tactics to try to win suburban voters. But suburban areas are becoming more diverse and are moving away from conservative politics.”

Among the group’s most successful efforts: a national read-in with banned writers to promote free speech and the right to read.

In addition, Womack says that Red Wine & Blue is educating communities about the broader agenda of the U.S. right. “The right’s censorship and book bans actually have very little to do with books,” she says. “They are a coordinated effort to get folks upset; they are using fear to win elections and consolidate power. Their ultimate goal is to undermine public education, public libraries and the public good.”

Womack says that many attempts to ban books are not organic or parent-led, but are coordinated efforts by right-wing forces to take control. “The movement is being organized by the Heritage Action Fund, the Manhattan Institute and the Koch Foundation, and is then amplified by an echo chamber that includes Fox News, The Daily Caller and the Blaze, The Watchman, and the New York PostAnd Breitbart.

Womack stated that she is encouraged by the announcements made by the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library systems, that they will allow anyone over 13 years old to access banned titles in e–book or audio format regardless of their location.

A similar project is being undertaken by the newly formed American Library Association. Unite Against Book Bans, will ensure that opposition against censorship is a key issue in any upcoming midterm elections.

“We’ve found that where a community shows up to oppose bans and censorship, these efforts are defeated,” Womack said. “But we have to keep pushing back.”