New Yorkers and Libraries Fight Book Censorship

As PEN America, the non-profit that celebrates literature and free expression, celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, it released a study that found more than 1,600 books, mostly about racism and LGBTQ issues, had been removed from school districts across the country during a past school year alone.

Across the country, lawmakers are passing laws that restrict access to specific types of books. Last April in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed the Stop Woke Act, which put strong limitations on in-class discussions of topics, including racism, LGBTQ+ topics, and economic inequality. Now, if House Bill 999 becomes law, faculty would need to censor discussions and materials in general education classes. In Oklahoma, a senate bill that restricts access to reading materials in libraries and school districts was passed by the Senate two weeks ago. 

In the face of increasing censorship across the nation, New Yorkers and libraries have been fighting against book bans by trying to get as many books as possible into children’s hands. 

The New York Public Library is hosting a banned book meeting every month to discuss a book that has been banned or challenged. Attendees discuss why the book was banned. In April, the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon was chosen to be discussed. Last year, the New York Public Library also offered unlimited eBook copies of “Bluest Eye” and “Beloved” through October to honor the distinguished author and NYPL’s trustee Toni Morrison. 

Parents, students, and educators have joined the fight against censorship by relying on public libraries and public resources to expose students to books they feel are essential to understanding history and culture.

“Schools have suppressed reading and made it so, people hate reading. I personally do not like reading in school,” said Morah Bloxson, a high school student at an Upper West Side public school. “It is all happiness, friendship, everything is great, beautiful, let’s overcome problems. It is just the same thing over and over and over again. I like things that are different.”

Bloxson said she’s now a reading advocate and finds her own books. “My peers do not like reading because all they’ve read are books from school, and I tell them to go out and look at books themselves.”

Michael Lee, a writer from Queens, said his 9-year-old daughter loves “New Kid,” a banned book that taught her about inequality, he said. “My daughter first saw the gap or cultural differences between people who have different backgrounds, especially social-economic backgrounds.”

The New York Public Library also hosts a week-long program each year called “Banned Book Week.” 

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, one of the main libraries in Midtown, stayed busy handing out banned books to the public last year. As libraries closed and scaled down during the pandemic, last year’s Banned Books Week was like celebrating the reopening, said Shauntee Burns-Simpson, the associate director of the New York Public Library’s Center for Educators and Schools.

According to PEN America, the nonprofit organization defends free speech, approximately 41% of the banned titles in U.S. schools involve LGBTQ themes, and 22% account for stories about abortion, sexual assault and pregnancy. Additionally, 21% are about race, and 40% of the major characters in the prohibited books are people of color.

“When we ban books, we ban a part of life; we are banning the fact that racism exists, and we are banning the fact that sexism still exists. Racism will never disappear; sexism will never disappear,” said Bloxson. “If you teach people about racism then people might stop being racist.”

“The books that are being banned are some of the most essential works,” said writing teacher and author Blaise Allyson Kearsley. “They can expose students to the world beyond what they know, to historical truths that are being withheld, erased, or denied. And they can validate the experiences of students of color and other underserved groups. Representation matters.”

Ian Rosenberg, legal counsel for ABC News and the author of “Fight for Free Speech: Ten Cases Define Our First Amendment Freedoms” and “Free Speech Handbook,” who spoke at last year’s Banned Books Week, said literature restriction prevents people from learning about different ideas. He added that ignorance can essentially result in making laws that disadvantage minorities.

Book banning is a “long-standing problem,” said Burns-Simpson. “Unfortunately, a lot of people want to censor your voice and ideas and that’s not New York Public Library,” Burns-Simpson added. “We don’t want to stand for that, we want people to be able to read materials and come up with their ideas.”

While the challenge of censorship continues, Lee hopes schools stop underestimating kids and give them the freedom to read.

“I strongly believe our children are able to decide what’s good for themselves,” said Lee. “The role of adults or schools should be providing our kids with open space where they can freely think, debate, and decide, not to regulate them.”

About the author(s)

Miho Ouyou is a journalist and student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, specializing in data.