Plot twist: Activists skirt book bans with guerrilla giveaways and pop-up libraries
It was much busier than usual on a recent Friday at a Ben & Jerry's in Melbourne, Fla. But it wasn't the Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey drawing the extra customers.
A crowd gathered in the back corner of the store, browsing through newly installed, rainbow-colored shelves displaying multiple copies of some 65 books currently banned from various Florida schools. It was opening night for the shop's "Banned Book Nook," and customers with ice cream cones in one hand helped themselves to novels, memoirs and biographies with the other.
"This is my favorite series ever," exclaimed one young woman browsing the titles.
About 150 books were lent out that first night. The book nook was set up by Florida teacher Adam Tritt and Foundation 451, a group he launched last year after he was ordered to remove banned books from his classroom in nearby Palm Bay.
"My reaction was, 'Uh, no! I cannot allow this to happen,' " Tritt recalls. "If a kid needs this book, we want them to have it."
A new front in the book ban battle
The free speech group PEN America says book bans in public school libraries this year are on pace to top last year's high mark, when there were more than 2,500 instances of book bans in U.S. schools. Most of those books were LGBTQ- or race-related.
It's exactly why many people opposed to bans are taking it upon themselves to find creative ways to put those books where young readers will see them — outside of schools. Pop-up banned-book libraries, banned-book giveaways and even a banned bookmobile have appeared around the nation in an ad hoc kind of counteroffensive.
There's also been a spike in Little Free Libraries stuffed with banned books. The number of those curbside boxes on posts rose during the pandemic and climbed even higher last year as book bans spread around the nation. There were 140,000 Little Free Libraries in 2022, up 35% from 2020, according to the nonprofit Little Free Library, which has been encouraging the growth. The organization says some 87% of its members report that they share banned books.
Fight #bookbans by starting a #LittleFreeLibrary book-sharing box and filling it with #bannedbooks! Learn more about starting a Little Free Library of your own: https://t.co/v9gxOdf8Qf pic.twitter.com/dWc4bsZX6R— Little Free Library® (@LtlFreeLibrary) January 30, 2023
It's becoming something of a cat-and-mouse game. As activists come up with creative ways around book bans, the other side is starting to look at how to quash those end runs, which only leaves activists even more determined.
"The harder they push [book bans], the more of these books are going to be available. I have a bit of a history with direct action and guerrilla theater," Tritt quips.
He has already lent or given away nearly 2,000 books, everywhere from a flower shop and festivals to political rallies and road races. It's been a lifeline for young people, he says.
"One family came in with a [transgender] teen and picked up This Book Is Gay and just cried," Tritt recalls. "Their father held them, and they both thanked us so much. They didn't know the book existed."
Author Elana K. Arnold knows that all too well. Several of her books, including Damsel, Red Hood, Infandous and What Girls are Made Of, have been banned or challenged for their sexually explicit scenes that critics have assailed as pornography. Arnold calls that a gross misrepresentation. She says the books, which include portrayals of physical abuse, sexual assault and sexual acts, "protect kids by arming them with knowledge." But the bottom line, she says, is that fewer kids are reading and buying her books.
"I get a lot of [people saying to me] 'Oh, your book has been banned — congratulations, it's going to be a bestseller now.' But that's not what happens to 999 out of 1,000 books. It's a huge hit," Arnold says. "In a library, kids can stumble across something they didn't know they needed until they picked it up and read it. But if something is missing, you don't know. It's not there. It's just a quiet disappearance."
Bans are a call to action, opponents say
To compensate, even booksellers are getting into the business of giving books away.
Thais Perkins is offering free books to young readers in the bookstore she owns, Reverie Books in Austin, Texas. She's been covering some of the cost herself and raising donations to cover the rest through a tip jar at the register and appeals on social media.
"On a whim I [posted] on Twitter, 'Hey, is anybody feeling extra Christmassy?' And I woke up in the morning with $1,400 in the account," she says.
Perkins then posted little cards around the store, near certain banned titles, that say "Get this book for Free."
"Young people will take one, and they'll say, 'How does this work?' and I'll say, 'It works just like this' — and I'll just put the book in their hand and off they'll go," she says. "The word is getting out, and requests are ramping up."
In St. Petersburg, Fla., at the American Stage, marketing director Avery Anderson recently installed a banned book library next to the theater's box office.
"This isn't our normal thing," Anderson says, "but I always say a threat to any storytelling is a threat to all storytelling." More than 150 books poured in within days, and Anderson says high school students have been coming in to browse and borrow.
Publishers and authors are also getting in on the action. For Jim Plank at the nonprofit Haymarket Books, offering freebies was a no-brainer. "Doing nothing didn't feel like an option," he says. "In our mind, [the book bans] were a call to action."
George M. Johnson, author of the oft-banned memoir All Boys Aren't Blue, feels the same way: "I always carry books with me, and I travel a lot, to some obscure places at times, and any time I see a free library, I'm going to throw a book in it." Johnson also donates copies to LGBTQ organizations that can "get the book in a discreet way to where it's needed."
All Boys Aren't Blue, a bestseller now in its 10th printing, is one of those exceptions where the book was actually boosted by being banned. Making the book a "forbidden fruit" backfired, Johnson says, because it made it known to many teen readers who otherwise would have never heard of it.
"If you can't tell, I actually enjoy fighting this," Johnson chuckles.
"If I can give one kid a book"
"What we are beginning to see after a year and half of really kind of being back on our heels is that the opposition is growing," says Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. "The [book ban advocates are] overreaching, and it's making people mad and they're getting active."
Including young people, like 18-year-old high school senior Oliver Stirland, from St. George, Utah.
"What really got to me was two books that I had read that completely transformed my life were suddenly on the banned book list, and it kind of felt like a stab to the gut," Stirland says.
He says a school librarian recommended the books to him when he was coming to terms with his sexuality and fighting thoughts of suicide. It prompted him to start raising money to buy banned books that he and others are slipping into Little Free Libraries all over town.
"If I can give one kid a book that helps that kid come out of a dark place, that lets them know that they're not alone — if I could help one kid, that would make everything worth it," Stirland says.
Of course, tech savvy teens who know the title they're looking for can also find banned books online. It takes 16-year-old Elle Mehltretter of Seminole, Fla., about a nanosecond of Googling to land on a pirated copy of Toni Morrison's debut novel, The Bluest Eye, which is also one of the most-often banned books.
"There it is!" Mehltretter exclaims, pointing to a PDF of the book as it pops up on her laptop. She finds All Boys Aren't Blue just as easily. "You can say you ban books all you want, but you can never really ban them because they're everywhere."
Indeed, free banned books are also available legally — through public library apps like Libby and from a growing number of public libraries that have started lending outside their districts. Through its Books Unbanned program, the Brooklyn Public Library in New York offers free e-cards to teens anywhere in the nation, allowing them to access the BPL's full online collection.
It's been a boon for many, including a 12-year-old in Oklahoma who's exploring her sexuality, according to her mother, Heather Hall. Hall says she's thrilled her daughter has been able to access books at the BPL, as well as to talk with a librarian in ways that many school librarians cannot.
"She was so encouraging and so sweet to her," Hall says. "It's just been really huge for her to have access to conversations with adults that are very accepting. I started crying. She needed to have that."
Heather Fleming, a former teacher in Missouri, is another who's helping fill the void not only for the books that've been banned, but also for the teachers and librarians who've been effectively gagged. The nonprofit Fleming founded, In Purpose Educational Services, which has collected some $50,000 in donations and has given away some 5,000 banned books, has recently started including a kind of curriculum to accompany them. For example, along with The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones' book that explores the origins and impact of slavery in America, Fleming included a pre-reading guide, activities and a discussion guide.
"We owe it to our kids to give them all the tools they need to be full citizens of America," Fleming says. "So we're just hoping to continue to build even more."
A game of whack-a-mole
It hasn't gone unnoticed by groups behind the book bans that the more books are pulled from school shelves, the more they pop up elsewhere, like a game of whack-a-mole.
"One hundred percent it concerns me, says Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms For Liberty, a group that has been behind many of the bans. "I think it's so messed up that so many people want to show children all this explicit graphic content," she says.
As an organization, Justice says, her group is singularly focused on controlling the books in schools. But personally, she says, she hopes prosecutors will crack down on what she calls illegal distribution of pornography by activists outside of schools.
"They better be careful, because we have federal obscenity laws," Justice says. "Adults are not allowed to show children pornography. So the idea that somehow this is some virtuous effort to distribute graphic sexual violence ... pedophilia, I think the law will deal with them accordingly."
New tactics are still just a Band-Aid
For their part, activists driving the guerrilla giveaways are undeterred, insisting they are on solid legal ground. The law defines pornography as being for the purpose of sexual stimulation, and obscenity is defined as something that, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic or political value. These banned books, activists say, don't count as either of those.
Steven Chubbuck and Jessica Shaw, the owners of the Ben & Jerry's shop with the Banned Book Nook, say they're already planning to build a similar banned book library in two other stores.
"We really feel that if you have the means to act, you have the responsibility to do that," says Chubbuck.
"We learn from history that if people do not stand up and say 'no' to this kind of thing, it just gets worse," Shaw adds.
Ben & Jerry's head of global activism strategy, Chris Miller, says the company is proud of efforts by Shaw and Chubbuck "to push back against [...] regressive book bans," noting, "This is what creative resistance looks like and we love it."
Ultimately though, even Adam Tritt, who led the book nook initiative at Ben & Jerry's, concedes that such ad hoc endeavors are Band-Aids at best. As he puts it, they'll never get books to all the students who need them, especially students like his who may lack adequate internet or means to get them elsewhere.
Books need to be in schools not only for broader access, he says, but also for the message it sends.
"If it's not in the schools, they're taking away representation," Tritt says. "And when these kids don't see themselves represented and they feel they have no voice, they also feel they're being made invisible and they're being further marginalized."
A publisher echoed the point, saying grassroots efforts to promote banned books will never offset the damage done by bans.
None of it will get at the root problem, says Andrew Karre, senior executive editor at Dutton Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Random House.
"People can signal their opposition to bans by making protest purchases" and making them available to teens, Karre says. "I make my living in publishing, so I want people to buy books. But if I could choose what people do in response to a book ban, my first choice is to go to a school board meeting or library board meeting and to vote. Showing up politically is the better bet."
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