Meeting The Challenge

Teens take a stand in the intellectual freedom fight

May 1, 2023

Photo of Ava Kirtley, who raised money to purchase books from frequently banned lists and gave them away to teens in Walla Walla, Washington.
Ava Kirtley raised money to purchase books from frequently banned lists and gave them away to teens in Walla Walla, Washington.

Ava Kirtley was a high school junior when she first learned about attempts to ban books at her school library in Walla Walla, Washington.

In summer 2021, several parents and community members challenged a handful of books at the school, including the memoir Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. In response, Kirtley and about 40 of her peers met that fall at a student-run social justice club to discuss how to respond. They made plans to attend the next school board meeting in December to protest the proposed bans.

“One of the most infuriating things was that [the book ban supporters] were claiming they were speaking for us,” says the now 18-year-old. “We felt like our voices were not just being ignored but being taken away.”

Feeling exhilarated from speaking out at the board meeting alongside her peers, Kirtley was determined to address the issue further. She began planning a club for students focusing on banned books.

With more than $3,500 raised from a GoFundMe campaign—with leftover funds donated to the local public library—she collaborated with a local independent bookseller to acquire 40 copies each of four titles: George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, Kobabe’s Gender Queer, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give (see our Newsmaker interview with Thomas). Each title has appeared on frequently banned books lists. The copies were distributed to teens for free and discussed at the bookstore monthly between February and May 2022. Johnson even joined one of the meetings, which were attended by an average of 10–15 students, to discuss their young adult memoir.

“I like these books,” Kirtley says. “I think they talk about important things, are educational, and help build empathy. They are good literature.”

As book challenges, bans, and associated legislative efforts continue to accelerate around the country, teens are speaking up for intellectual freedom, and librarians are finding ways to support their activism. This includes hosting banned book clubs like the one Kirtley organized at her school and sponsoring other initiatives to help teens address the issue and gain access to frequently challenged materials. Many of the recently challenged books include themes that address LGBTQ+ and racial justice issues.

Youth want to join this fight in different ways. Some might want to write a letter to the editor or make social media posts. Some may want to speak at a school board meeting or form banned book clubs.—Karen Keys, coordinator of young adult services at Brooklyn Public Library (BPL), organizer for BPL’s Books Unbanned initiative and Intellectual Freedom Teen Council

The American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) documented 1,269 attempts to ban or restrict library resources in 2022, with 2,571 unique titles targeted—most of which were young adult and children’s literature. These figures significantly surpassed those recorded in 2021, itself a record-breaking year.

At Kirtley’s school, none of the book challenges ended up successful. School board members and the superintendent mentioned that student voices were impactful during the decision process, Kirtley recalls, adding that the school now has a committee to review book challenges and that it includes student representatives.

“When students started showing up, it was a breath of fresh air and [gave] a different perspective,” Kirtley says. But in many communities, censorship attempts have succeeded, and threats continue.

Libraries Lead

During Banned Books Week in fall 2022, Lexington (Ky.) Public Library (LPL) held its first banned book club meeting for teens. Jennie Samons, teen librarian at LPL’s Northside branch, says she chose titles that had been the subject of national challenges within the previous three to four years and planned a few talking points to kickstart the conversation for each meeting.

“I wanted to keep the format really open and let the teens guide the conversation,” Samons says. “They come to the group having big feelings.”

The city’s Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning community center provided copies of frequently banned titles to launch LPL’s program. The meetings were marketed through social media and word of mouth, including through some local teachers. Initially held monthly, the meetings are now bimonthly with the hope of attracting more participants. (They currently host about five students per session.)

One of LPL’s selections was Cemetery Boys by Aiden Thomas, which features a transgender protagonist and themes of identity, poverty, and homelessness. Another was the first book in the graphic novel series Heartstopper by Alice Oseman, which chronicles the budding romance between two teen boys and inspired a Netflix series.

“These are all issues that youths are dealing with on a daily basis,” Samons says. “They need to learn to find their voices—they will be adults in no time. The quicker they learn to stand up for themselves and their peers, the better.”

Samons says the meetings bring in different attendees depending on the subject matter. Although she braced herself for at least some negative feedback from community members, she has received only supportive comments about the club.

Beyond Banned Book Clubs

“I have tremendous respect for the librarians who are out front with banned book clubs,” says Virginia Walter, professor emerita at University of California, Los Angeles, and author of Young Activists and the Public Library: Facilitating Democracy. “It puts a light on what is otherwise a hidden thing [but] they need to be prepared for the heat as well as the light.”

Young adult books taking on increasingly diverse subject matters serve as a powerful tool for librarians today to meaningfully connect with youth, Walter says.

“The books have gotten much more realistic,” she adds. “Authors are tackling more difficult topics, librarians are ordering [these titles], and kids are reading them.”

Walters suggests library staff get ahead of book challenges targeting young adult materials and foster activism by engaging and organizing youth ahead of any issues. For example, she says, libraries could start teen councils.

Students have voices that need to be heard. We need to do everything we can to support students, who are the primary stakeholders in their education.—Cameron Samuels, 2022 Banned Books Week youth honorary chair

That’s exactly the route Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library (BPL) has taken. Although schools and libraries in the New York City borough haven’t faced challenges, staff members wanted to educate teens on the issue of intellectual freedom and connect them with youth activists dealing directly with book bans in other parts of the country.

“Even though teens in Brooklyn don’t experience it, it’s still a topic that they care about,” says Karen Keys, coordinator of young adult services at BPL. “I think they see it for what it is. It’s not about banning books; it’s about saying certain people don’t have a right to participate. It’s very much about trying to silence a marginalized part of the community, and they see that. Often, they are members of those communities themselves.”

BPL convened a teen focus group, and as a result, launched Books Unbanned in April 2022, an initiative that provides free electronic library cards to youth across the US who may wish to access books banned in their school or public libraries. At the same time, BPL also formed an Intellectual Freedom Teen Council, which meets every month virtually to discuss book challenges in the news, have conversations about the members’ favorite banned books, and strategize about how to support and engage with teen activists around the country. About 12 to 15 teens participate in each meeting.

Teen council members helped organize a program for 2022’s Banned Books Week called Banned Camp—a summer initiative including events and programming around challenged titles—in collaboration with Austin (Tex.) Public Library, which continues to host programming under the moniker. The council also helped to plan the Freedom to Read Advocacy Institute that took place this past February. The institute, a four-part virtual program hosted in partnership with the nonprofit PEN America, was open to teens across the US and addressed various aspects of intellectual freedom as it pertains to banned books. BPL hopes to replicate and host similar live programs accessible to different time zones so that young people across the country can attend and build upon their advocacy efforts.

“Youth want to join this fight in different ways,” Keys says. “Some might want to write a letter to the editor or make social media posts. Some may want to speak at a school board meeting or form banned book clubs with other youth.”

Speaking ‘Truth to Power’

Photo of Cameron Samuels, along with a group of students from Katy (Tex.) Independent School District, preparing to distribute books with LGBTQ+ themes to their classmates in afterschool clubs.
Cameron Samuels (right, in yellow shirt), along with a group of high school students from Katy (Tex.) Independent School District, prepares to distribute books with LGBTQ+ themes to their classmates in afterschool clubs.

In November 2021, then-17-year-old Cameron Samuels spoke out against censorship at a school board meeting for Katy (Tex.) Independent School District (KISD). Book bans had been escalating at their school, they said, and an internet filter at schools prevented students from accessing websites advocating for LGBTQ+ causes. A virtual visit from Newbery Award–winning author Jerry Craft had also been canceled because of accusations that his work promoted critical race theory. Those events prompted Samuels to speak out.

“I was the only student there, and it was quite an empty room,” they recalled about the board meeting. “There were many speakers there speaking against other books…. It was an awful experience to be the only person in the room who supported intellectual freedom and diversity.”

Despite feeling isolated by the experience, Samuels was inspired to start organizing in the 90,000-student district. They connected with school groups likely to be interested in addressing intellectual freedom, such as book clubs and groups supporting LGBTQ+ youth.

“In February [2022], we packed the school board room,” they said, estimating a majority of the 200-person capacity room was supporters, many of whom were students. “We outnumbered the opposition and we spoke truth to power.”

Samuels and the other students successfully defended and helped reinstate several books to KISD’s libraries, including Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust. Later, Samuels worked with a local ACLU chapter to challenge the internet filter, which KISD dismantled at the high school level and in some middle schools. For their work, Samuels was appointed a youth honorary chair for Banned Books Week 2022. But some books remain banned at district schools.

Teens need to see themselves so they don’t feel so alone or different—whatever they are experiencing.—Kelly Tyler, principal librarian of youth services at Los Angeles Public Library

Samuels says their organizing efforts at KISD had the support of librarians. They suggest libraries can continue supporting teens publicly when possible and creating intellectual freedom initiatives geared toward youth. Cities can also declare themselves Book Sanctuaries, as Chicago Public Library (CPL) did in fall 2022. CPL describes a Book Sanctuary as a space committed to supporting the right to read and expanding access to commonly challenged and banned books.

“Students have voices that need to be heard,” says Samuels, who is now 19, attending college, and planning to major in political science. “We need to do everything we can to support students, who are the primary stakeholders in their education.”

Making Space for Teens

Having access to stories that reflect the diversity of young people’s experiences is essential to youth, says Kelly Tyler, principal librarian of youth services at Los Angeles Public Library and coauthor of Intellectual Freedom for Teens: A Practical Guide for Young Adults and School Librarians. Librarians should be prepared to defend intellectual freedom and support teens who want to take action, she notes.

“It’s important to make these materials available for teens who want or need to read them,” Tyler says. “Teens need to see themselves, so they don’t feel so alone or different—whatever they are experiencing.”

In addition to promoting Banned Books Week (which takes place this year October 1–7), Tyler says librarians can support teens wanting to defend intellectual freedom by sharing with them how their libraries handle challenges to materials. Teens can use these materials, she says, as talking points when faced with pushback.

Libraries can also connect budding teen activists to resources from ALA’s OIF, as well as help them understand how local government bodies work so that they can engage with them.

Photo of Shiva Rajbandhari, who successfully ran for Boise (Idaho) School District’s board of trustees, during his campaign
As a high school senior, Shiva Rajbandhari successfully ran for Boise (Idaho) School District’s board of trustees. He spoke out against book bans during his campaign.

One student activist engaging with local government is 18-year-old Shiva Rajbandhari, who spoke about his opposition to book bans during a successful campaign for a two-year term on the Boise (Idaho) School District’s board of trustees.

In September 2022, Rajbandhari, a high school senior and activist, defeated an incumbent who was endorsed by a hardline conservative group called the Idaho Liberty Dogs, which had campaigned for the removal of books in Boise-area libraries.
Rajbandhari says that reading Nepali American writers while he was growing up helped him find a sense of confidence in his interracial identity while living in the majority white community of Boise.

“It made me realize I’m valid just how I am,” he says of having access to that literature. “Books create a safe space in the lives of people who don’t have one otherwise.” That experience made him empathetic to LGBTQ+ and other marginalized youth and is part of what prompted him to speak out against bans and challenges.

Like Kirtley in Washington, Rajbandhari remains deeply concerned about the forces driving book bans and other policies affecting teens. He thinks librarians are natural allies in the fight against extremism.

“Libraries already are providing us the resources that we need to achieve our goals and to defend ourselves against hatred,” Rajbandhari says. “We have to stand strong, and we have to stand together.”


Book Bans a Focus of State of America’s Libraries 2022 Report

Report features Top 10 Most Challenged Books list and a new campaign to fight censorship

When It Happens to You

Library workers and school administrators talk about getting caught in the crossfire of book challenges