School culture wars push students to form banned book clubs, anti-censorship groups
2023 has seen a record number of book banning efforts so far.
Across the country, a generation of young readers is standing up against efforts to ban or restrict certain books in schools and libraries.
Student-led banned book clubs and anti-censorship groups have been popping up in states where a conservative-led movement to remove certain books or lessons has led to boisterous board meetings, protests, and more.
The students behind these groups say they have long been left out of the conversation, despite being the most impacted by such restrictions.
"I thought it would be perfect to do a banned book club -- one: as just a way to read beautiful literature that's important and should be read and then two: kind of as an act of resistance," said 16-year-old Iris Mogul who recently started a banned book club in Miami, Florida.
Between January 1 and August 31 of this year, 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles were tracked by the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.
But these students have a long fight ahead, as book bans surge "at a record pace with numbers we never seen," according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom.
The students behind the movement
Iris held the first meeting of her banned book club on a rainy day in late August. She said a small, intimate group of students showed up and voted to start off their reading list with "Their Eyes Were Watching God," by Zora Neale Hurston, a book that touches on slavery, race, gender, and more.
In Florida, there were 22 attempts targeting 194 titles in the first eight months of the year, according to the ALA.
Books that touch on subjects like race and the LGBTQ community have made up the majority of book banning attempts. In many cases, these books also touch on discrimination and oppression.
These issues have also been at the center of legislation restricting classroom curriculum about race or LGBTQ identities in some states.
"Trying to hide the kind of unpleasant truth from us, that doesn't do any good," said Iris. "In fact, that's harmful."
In Austin, Texas, high school senior Ella Scott began leading a banned book club as a freshman when she first learned about attempts to challenge and censor certain stories.
Since then, book ban attempts have risen in the state -- and so has participation in her club, which grew from three people in its initial meeting to 30 current participants.
In Texas alone, there were 30 attempts targeting 1,120 titles in the first eight months of the year, according to the ALA.
"It's happening in our classroom, but students don't have a voice," said Scott.
Ella, 17, says students want an inclusive world, and books help students learn about different perspectives.
Ella believes the adults behind the book bans need "to understand that times are changing," arguing that the backlash to her club has come mostly from online strangers and a minority of parents at school board meetings.
As she prepares for graduation, she'll hand the responsibility on to her successors -- but she said doesn't plan on leaving her activism behind when she goes to college.
Euless, Texas, high school student Da'Taeveyon Daniels said his school did not have many materials to begin with, arguing that lacking reading resources is a form of censorship.
It spurred the 16-year-old to join the National Coalition Against Censorship as a student leader, calling for increased access to a wide array of titles.
"If we don't have access to those materials, and those opinions and perspectives ... we won't be able to understand where another person comes from, in order to feel for them and empathize with them and understand their own life stories and opinions," said Da'Taeveyon.
Another Texas student Cameron Samuels, who is nonbinary, got their start in the fight against censorship in high school. At a school board meeting in the 2021-2022 school year at the Katy Independent School District, Cameron spoke out against restrictions to certain websites via the school internet. The school restricted access to sites geared toward the LGBTQ community, including the website of the Trevor Project, which is an LGBTQ suicide prevention group.
Samuels, who graduated later that year, said they were the only student in the room at the time "and therefore the only one whose future was directly affected by the district's policy."
"There was no one there supporting me," they said. "I felt isolated and alone."
After rallying students, and getting the backing of the ACLU to file a complaint on their behalf, Samuels got the internet filter for LGBTQ websites unblocked. The district told local news station KHOU that the content was filtered through a third-party vendor.
"The District routinely assesses filtering practices, as well as responds to requests from individuals and organizations to review sites. At times, sites that may have been previously inaccessible due to Children's Internet Protection Act concerns," the district told KHOU.
Now, Da'Taeveyon and Samuels are part of Students Engaged in Advancing Texas, a local anti-censorship group led by students. They've distributed hundreds of banned books and continue advocating for more books on shelves.
"Banning is most definitely targeting books that challenge the status quo, which leave queer students and students of color out of the picture," said Samuels. "We are such a diverse generation and policies made by adults do not reflect our needs."
Supporters of book bans say some of the material is inappropriate or contains references to sex. Some argue that it's their right as a parent to restrict access to such books.
Those against book bans argue book bans restrict the ability of other students and their families to choose what they are able to read.
In the past, most challenges to library resources only sought to remove or restrict a single book.
So far this year, 92% of attempts sought to censor multiple titles, according to the ALA. At least 11 states saw some cases that involved challenges of 100 or more books.
Caldwell-Stone says this highlights the impact of pro-book banning activist groups that aim to restrict certain topics in schools.
"We're no longer seeing numbers that would indicate that a parent is raising a concern about a book they see their student reading, and taking that concern to a librarian or an educator," said Caldwell-Stone. "Now what we're seeing is the demand to remove 25, 50, 100 books all at once from one person bringing the challenge to the school or the library."