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Understanding the Nation’s Mounting Book Banning Crisis in Public Schools, with PEN America’s Sabrina Baêta

From July 2021 to June 2023, PEN America recorded 5,894 instances of book bans across 41 states and 247 public school districts. And Pennsylvania was one of the worst states, coming in behind just Florida and Texas.

While voters overwhelmingly rejected pro-book banning, Moms for Liberty-backed Republican school board candidates in Bucks Countyand across the United States – at the polls in November, the country still finds itself in the midst of a book banning crisis. In fact, Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of cracking the Top 5 book banning states, coming in at #3 with a reported 644 instances of bans across 16 districts. PEN America published a report last month, Spineless Shelves, documenting this censorship scourge afflicting K-12 school libraries and classrooms. I spoke with one of the report’s authors to discuss the scope of this problem over the last two years and why librarians, teachers, students and communities need to remain vigilant and proactive in protecting student’s freedom to read.

Sabrina Baêta is a Program Manager with Freedom to Read at PEN America. She engages in research and awareness-building around censorship attacks on public K-12 education, especially as it relates to literature accessibility in libraries and classrooms. Sabrina graduated from the University of Florida with a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Bachelor of Music in Voice, and then from the University of Central Florida with a Master of Nonprofit Management. She is a poet, essayist, and writer and prior to PEN America, worked in educational publishing and in a variety of performing arts and education nonprofits.

[Also listen on Apple, Spotify, Google, iHeart, and Podbean. Read the transcript below.]

My 5 Reading Recommendations to Further Shine a Light on the Issue:

  1. The Magic Pebble and a Lazy Bull: The Book Ban Movement Has a Long Timeline, by Laura Pappano
  2. ‘Major Win’ in Florida Court Case Against Book Banning, by School Library Journal
  3. Book Banning Will Not Stop at Schools, Kelly Jensen
  4. Teachers, Students and the Central York Community Defeated a Racist Book Ban in Their School District, by Cyril Mychalejko
  5. The Bucks County Courier Times Fails Readers With Its Book (Banning) Policy Editorial, by Cyril Mychalejko

ORGANIZATIONS

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TRANSCRIPT

Cyril Mychalejko: First, what made you want to work for an organization like PEN America to essentially become an anti-censorship “FReadom Fighter” for authors and their books and a defender of reading rights?

Sabrina Baêta: Yeah, so my reasons are probably as basic as they get, and it’s probably anybody who is in this fight, because there’s a lot of freedom, what did you call it, freedom fighters out there who are advocating against censorship. We love books. I always say loving books is not an unpopular opinion. And that’s what brought me to PEN America’s work, is that I was interested in how I could uplift authors and their works and continue that fight. And to be honest, I did not know my work would be around book bans. I was just interested in the organization as a whole. I joined two years ago now, so it was almost at a time when nobody really understood what was happening and book bans were more whispered about in classrooms than kind of loudly proclaimed in media. So, I just came about it from a curiosity and wanting to continue to do literary nonprofit work and got put on what was originally a three month project of tracking book bans and has now turned into a two year plus endeavor.

Cyril: So last month you co-authored a report, Spineless Shelves, which sounded the alarm that we’re in the midst of a book banning crisis in the United States. Can you highlight some of the most troubling findings of your research into the last two years of book banning?

Sabrina: Yeah, so like you already brought up, PEN America has been doing this research for two years, tracking the book ban crisis, specifically in K through 12 public education. That’s what all of our research and all the data that I’ll be speaking to today concerns. And really the biggest takeaway is just how big the issue is. Almost 6,000 bans is what we’ve tracked over the last two academic years. This is from 2021 to 2023.

And honestly, even looking at the bans happening last fall, fall 2023, going into this winter/spring 2024, we continue to see that number of bans increase. We had a 33% increase from year to year in the two years of data that we have. And when you think about that, it’s not just the books that are banned, it’s the authors who are implicated in this, the schools, 41 states have now reported bans. So when the total number of bans increases, every other data point also tends to increase. And it comes down to also the students. More bans means more students affected and more students left without resources.

Cyril: Pennsylvania has the dubious distinction of cracking the top five of book banning states, coming in at number three with a reported 644 instances of bans across 16 districts. You know, although the numbers may actually be a bit higher. So for example, in Bucks County’s Pennridge School District, that district kind of was able to go around officially banning books by removing them under the false pretenses of weeding out so-called old and obsolete titles. But, one thing that I found was interesting is that Pennsylvania was an outlier, in a sense with some of the other states that were in the top five. Could you explain that?

Sabrina: Yeah, absolutely, because you bring up two really good points, actually, how Pennsylvania is an outlier, which I promise I’m teasing right now, but I will get to in a second, but also the nuance of this movement, how there’s many ways to ban a book, whether that is, you know, putting them out of circulation through a weeding process, whether it’s just holding them for quote unquote review, but then that review takes six months, a year. So one of the things we’ve tried to track is the level of banning, not just that it’s banned itself, but what that level of banning looks like, which we’ve seen an increase in just complete bans. But to your point of Pennsylvania being almost an outlier in this top five grouping, because of course, you know, a lot of probably what you’ve heard of states that are banning books, it’s a Florida, it’s a Texas, it’s ones that when you think of the makeup of these states, you think you expect it But it really, it’s coming everywhere. It’s happening in districts with many political leanings, not one way or another. And for Pennsylvania, there’s really two large factors that lead to bans. That’s advocacy group coordination, and these, I call them advocacy groups, so what they’re advocating for is censorship, is taking away access to books, right? And when legislation at the state level starts playing a role.

What you’ve heard probably known as the “don’t say gay” legislation in Florida, which has actually been now repeated across the country. And usually it’s a combination of these that causes a large number of bans in a state. So the top four states all have that combined, those combined elements of this kind of censorship group advocacy work plus state legislation that is intimidating districts into removing books  – except for Pennsylvania – which actually does not have state legislation and only has group activity. And we hear a lot in the news when that legislation gets passed and when it’s enacted and what the results are, because a lot of times they’re so huge. It’s why Florida is the number one book banning state in the country right now. But what it starts with is the group activity, is a Pennsylvania, and people should be looking at the state of Pennsylvania and be keeping an eye on it, but be using that as a warning call for what can happen anywhere, really, which is when those groups coordinate on the ground individually in districts like Penridge, like you mentioned, start advocating for censorship in the removal of books.

Cyril: Yeah, in fact, you know, while you said this isn’t the legislation isn’t an issue in Pennsylvania, you know, thanks in part to the last election where, we have a government democratic governor and a democratic house. It is a problem across the country. So for example, Every Library, which is a group that tracks legislation that puts school and college librarians, higher ed faculty, etc, at risk of criminal prosecution, they’ve already identified 44 bills in 14 states as legislation of concern for the 2024 session. But going back to the report, one of the things that Spindler’s Shelves noted is that young adult books are especially in the crosshairs. And a significant number of those are grappling with, like violence and racism, or books that are targeted include or are written by historically marginalized individuals, mainly people of color, LGBTQ plus people, et cetera. Has your research given you any insights as to why we’re seeing these targets?

Sabrina: Yeah, so it’s a nuanced issue and you touched upon it, but you’re right that the largest section of these books are young adult books. Because one of the things that we hear is like, oh, okay, but is this appropriate? The appropriateness of these books in a school library in a K through 12 public school library, they can access it elsewhere, they have their phones, they see so much information there. Why the young adult novels in schools? Well, one thing to note in them being young adult novels is they are written for young adults. They are reaching their intended audiences. And even the adult books in there were curated, were selected for curriculum, or mostly for the school library for their availability to students, by a media specialist, by a librarian. These are not random collections that any community member can just add a book to, right? So these are curated collections based on the student needs and based on the specific community needs. 

So the fact that this is yes, do those young adult books deal with some difficult concepts? Do they deal with concepts of race and racism? Do they deal with concepts that may be outside of viewpoints of some members of the community? Do they deal with some really heavy topics of death and grief? A lot of them have, you know, sexual assault. A lot of them, yes, absolutely, they deal with these difficult concepts because young adults are delaing with these difcicult concepts.

And I always say, what softer introduction is there to a concept than a book? These are, Curated Collections , they are not random, you know, samplings of books. These are meant for students to be able to have access to. And largely, they’re places of open inquiry where a student can go seek out that book. And limiting access to a material, to a concept that a student is asking for more information on is much more dangerous than having a book that has already been vetted by a professional available to that student. So yes, of course there’s some things that especially adults looking into K-12 public education may feel discomfort about. But the idea is that parents and community members have always been in conversation with teachers and media specialists and librarians and administrators. They have always been able to help cultivate the education for their student. But what we’re seeing now is one parent, one community member taking away access to a wide range of literature from all students. And time and time I’ve heard from parents, from other parents saying, I don’t want that. I don’t want my student’s access to these materials to be determined by another family, by another community member. I want that availability and I wanna be able to be in conversation with the district for that. So that’s kind of the large difference between what… a lot of these books have been on shelves for decades. Why is it suddenly a book ban crisis? That’s the difference. It’s a few people trying to control what’s available for the entire community.

Cyril: Yeah, and it should be noted, and we’ve noted this here on previous episodes of The Signal, is that parents actually already do have the option of opting their kids out of having access to some of these books. But I think another troubling aspect of this is just how it’s been kind of weaponized and how a lot of these works have been bastardized by people just kind of cherry picking certain passages. So for example, you know, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, which is one of the most targeted books, you know, like you were saying, that deals with some heavy issues around like sexual assault. But as what we’ve seen here in Bucks County, and you know, a lot of these, you know, parents that are part of these pro-book banning movements, they’re reading from the same talking points. They’ve tried to equate, you know, a piece of literature like The Bluest Eye with, you know, sexualizing children or grooming children. I was wondering what kind of thoughts you had about, you know, these types of attack,s and disingenuous attacks, on pieces of literature like The Bluest Eye.

Sabrina: Yeah, and I mean, for those of us who read Toni Morrison in school, it’s kind of hard to believe that this is happening, especially with the classic, like that one, but it is. And it’s conflating, it’s confusing these concepts to mean more than they do. I mean, for one, a lot of the books that deal with sexual assault, they’re being misinterpreted as being sexualizing or being sexual content. It’s not, it’s violence, it’s portrayals of violence. So that’s one of the points I always try to make, talking about the content. I always try to really emphasize, and some of these books do have sexual content. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have a place in the library because one, young adults preparing for the real world need to be aware of what’s out there; but two, it’s in the context of the story. And that’s what we’re always trying to bring this back to is exactly what you said, not cherry picking passages, not putting images up on posters and taking pages out of context of books. For any review of a book, you’re supposed to take the full context of the work to understand how that plays a part in the rest of it. That is how books are assessed.

So to do that, it’s purposeful though, which is why you see the same passages over and over again. They’re not going to go take the passage that –  flip the page is what we always say, flip to the next page that explains what’s going on or the relevance of what’s going on. They wanna be able to stick to just that salacious part that they think is going to cause a reaction from people. So that’s what we always ask is go and if you’re, because, and some of this may be shocking for some audiences, some of that, you’re like, okay, why is this available?

But what I ask is before you make up your mind one way or another, you know, for the book banners or for those advocating for the books to stay on shelves, go look at the material yourself. Flip to the next page. Take the full context, read the full thing, and understand what the work is actually about instead of just seeing what the headline is about.

Cyril: Sure, and I would argue at least that this targeting of public confidence with teachers and librarians and administrators and kind of sowing this distrust, which has been a goal of the book banning movement, is just part of like the larger anti-public education movement and they’re just kind of like using that as a Trojan horse of sorts. 

And I think what we just spoke about also kind of shines a light on why like good policy is so important because one of the things that we saw in Central Buck School Sistrict is you know before the last election you know when there is you know a huge change in a democratic sweep of the school board because you know a lot of the parents and the community members were just turned off by the extremism and the book banning that the the old school board majority, the Republican school board majority was championing. One of the things that they did was that they rewrote the book challenging policies and more importantly, the administrative regulations kind of dictating how these book challenges would be approached and ruled on. And the school board actually secretly kind of reached out to this right-wing Christian legal firm, the Independence Law Center, to help them draft these policies. It’s part of the PA Family Institute, which is just known for just its kind of reactionary, anti-LGBTQ interpretation of Christianity, et cetera. And they wanna kind of force that on everyone. But what had happened was when they redrafted these administrative regulations, what they did was exactly what you were kind of condemning. They made it so the librarians had to just strictly just zero in and determine whether or not there were any passages that would be considered sexual rather than kind of judging the merit of the book on the actual complete book.

So that leads to like another thing, like I just said, like in Bucks County and largely across the country, we saw kind of a backlash against this kind of right-wing overreach with school library policies. And I think at least for our listeners, and the readers of the Bucks County Beacon, there was a huge sigh of relief, right? However, I’m concerned that like, you know, I don’t want folks to get complacent, right? Because they’re not going away, no matter how much we wish that would happen. You know, they’re gonna kind of regroup and recalibrate. What can school boards do and, or communities, the larger communities do to inoculate or insulate themselves from any kind of like, you know, reactionary backlash that might come down the line because, you know, elections, you know, we have elections every couple years and, you know, just school boards kind of like can often swing back and forth at times depending on the makeup of the district. So what can school boards do specifically to make sure censorship policies and sentiment don’t gain the upper hand again. And then second is like, what can the larger community do?

Sabrina: Yeah, and I mean, you’re really hit on an under talked about just because it’s not as flashy and as interesting, but the policies, the policies behind this. So when I’m thinking about what a school board can do, I’m thinking about their policies and it’s just applying best practice. The American Library Association, National Coalition Against Censorship, they all have best practices of what a book reconsideration policy should look like of what, the review committee that should be formed, the process basically that should be followed. And it’s not that no community member can ever challenge a book and can ever … it’s about making sure that the process is stated, transparent, and followed. That’s the main thing, is we’ve seen a lot of policies that are not followed or policies that are not followed or policies that have been changed to make censorship easier. They are not following best practice on what a review process should look like. So for a school board, that’s the first thing I would advise: is look at your policies, listen to your community members about what you want instead of just kind of having a knee-jerk reaction to these groups coming in and calling for these books to be censored. I mean, I’ve heard of so many stories where one person emailed a school board member and suddenly 10 books were pulled. It’s like, okay, well, what does the rest of the community think about this? There’s no policy out there, no responsible policy, I should say, out there that says you should be able to email your school board member and they’re gonna take Toni Morrison off the shelves. Like that shouldn’t be happening. But two, like making sure books stay on shelves even during the review process is an important element. There’s a lot of nuance to what these are, but there’s a lot of organizations out there willing to help wade through that nuance, including PEN America. So that’s what I would say as far as a school board, is to actually listen to your full community and to look at your policies. And for community members, I would say, yes, this is a long fight. Public education, advocacy work is always a long fight, unfortunately. But it can be really overwhelming, especially to look at the state of the country and know where to start. 

But go local.

You don’t need to fix all of the country, you don’t need to fix all of Pennsylvania, look at your own county, look at your own district and find out what’s happening. Just increasing awareness is your first step. See what’s on the school board meeting minutes. Go to a school board meeting, a lot of them are offered online if you can’t make it in person. Follow your, if you are lucky enough to have an education reporter who’s covering this in your county follow what they’re saying and what was said if you know you don’t have the capacity to be able to attend a school board meeting. Just be aware of what’s happening, maybe what’s not happening in your own district. And be vocal about whether you agree or disagree that’s one of the steps sometimes people forget is if everything seems okay they forget to voice their support and that’s good for school boards to know that you support the decisions to not censor books or you support decisions to make policies, follow best practice. Like one of the things I say is even whether it’s a school library or public library, if you agree, if you walk in and there’s a book there that you are happy are on shelves, go to your librarian and say, thank you so much for stocking this book. It’s so important to me that this is available. Either I’ve read it or I’m glad that it’s available for my niece, my nephew, my daughter, myself, my parents….

Make both your opposition very vocal when it needs to be, but make your support really vocal as well so that when there is a time when somebody emails a school board member and says, please remove this, then you can say, okay, but I’ve already gotten shows of support from five other people. So no, I’m not gonna have this knee jerk reaction. And that’s when I talk about creating that trust between public school systems and their community members. That’s kind of what I’m trying to reference is opening those lines of communication.

But being aware of what’s happening is always the first step.

Cyril: I think students have often been some of the most eloquent defenders of reading rights and books in their respective schools and school districts. In your research, have you seen an uptick of student activism pushing back against these book banning crusades? And if so, did you want to share one or two examples?

Sabrina: Yeah, so we haven’t, we don’t officially track it. So I wish I could say this many student groups, and this many states. But where there are people banning books, there are always people fighting those bans. And that is something we always like to highlight, whether they’re student groups. Parents, I think, get a bad rep in all of this. Like there are so many parent groups that are advocating for books, that are fighting against this. Like I wanna make sure people understand that communities overwhelmingly in every survey we’ve seen are in support of books staying on shelves or against book bans, which is not hard to believe because book bans and American ideals are not something that ever have ever gone hand in hand. So I just want to highlight that, but no, students have been huge, what we call them a glimmer of hope in what has been a very disheartening landscape over the last two years of book bans. 

But they are the ones that this is most affecting. And on both sides of the fight, they’re the ones we’re fighting for. If you’re advocating for the removal of these books, it’s for the students to protect the students, to do whatever for the students. And if you’re advocating for them to stay, we also say it’s to protect the students, to inform the students. So when they speak, it’s so powerful. I wish they didn’t have to. I wish these books were just available. I wish we could allow teachers and the experts to do their jobs and not have to have students intervene, but when they speak and say we want these available, it turns into a really powerful proclamation. And some groups that we’ve highlighted before, I mean there are countless of them, but the Panther Anti-Racist Union in Pennsylvania has done really wonderful work on getting books back and being very vocal as well. There are several other ones. There’s one in South Carolina, Diversity Awareness, Youth Literacy Organization. A lot of these even started as banned book clubs in schools. And when they heard this was happening, they organized together or they were part of other organizations and they came together. There’s been, I’ve heard, I think there was even a case in California where students, not somewhere where they had banned books, but the protest was happening around the country. They wrapped their backpacks in like caution tape or something just to create an awareness of what’s happening. 

Students are getting activated and they have made their voice very clear that they want these materials available. For a lot of them these stories have been life changing and life saving is what I keep hearing. And that having both that representation for themselves but a lot of times for their own peers. Being able to read books about communities and people that are different than them, whether they are part of or they have friendships or community members that are part of the LGBTQ community, or deals with race and racism, or depicts stories with characters of color. It’s something that they’re advocating for and they’re asking for that diversity of literature to be available to represent themselves, represent others. So they can be better prepared for entering a pluralistic society where they invite the diversity. They invite those different viewpoints and they want to have that available to them through a book which is obviously the easiest resource to make that available, the cheapest, easiest resource for a school to be able to provide those different viewpoints as they prepare to enter … they’re already in the real world. So I hate saying that as an argument, but they’re preparing themselves as adults. They’re preparing themselves to be adults, and many of them in high school already as adults going past public school education.

Cyril: And just for listeners, you know, when Sabrina mentioned the Panther Anti-Racist Union, that’s a student group in Central York School District. And we actually had Ben Hodge and one of the students, Christina Ellis on, back in episode eight, which I’ll link to in the school notes, about how this like student-led movement helped organize the larger community to kind of roll back a really massive and extensive not just book, but resource ban that the school board had rammed through a few years back. And in addition, you talked about like the importance of community organizing with parent groups and, you know, that’s something that we’ve thankfully seen here in Bucks County and Central Bucks with Advocates for Inclusive Education, as well as the Ridge Network in Pennridge School District.

So, you know, I can’t stress enough, not only the importance of community organizing and getting involved in organizations like that, but what we’ve seen this last election is like, I believe that those two organizations were really instrumental in pushing through change with the last election. And then we’ll kind of like see that translate into policy changes that are more pro public education, more anti-censorship, and actually policies that rely on the expertise of teachers and librarians who have Master’s degrees and PhDs that make them best suited to make these decisions. Although for some reason, we’ve seen that, some of these teachers are librarians, or even school board members with PhDs in education and like decades of experience get attacked for that actual expertise and experience. Unfortunately that’s the world we’re living in today in 2024, but you know, as the elections show, hopefully maybe that’s starting the change and we’re seeing kind of a paradigm shift finally. Just a few more questions, Sabrina. 

One is like in your research, have you done either specifically for Pan America or just within your own thoughts and kind of like analysis of your research, any kind of media critiques about how media are covering, a lot of these issues? Because for me, I am at times a critic of some mainstream media reporting, which I think often  falls into the trap of like, what might be called like the fallacy of attribution – just because you’re kind of attributing a quote or a statement or an argument to someone kind of absolves you of the responsibility of potentially spreading or kind of legitimizing misinformation. Have you seen any kind of, either good or bad examples of media coverage of these book banning and censorship issues.

Sabrina: Oh, an excellent question. One I don’t think I’ve ever gotten before, but we have a lot of internal discussion about. I have no official tracking for you, but like I mentioned, it is something that we are aware that the reason we put out this research, we conduct this research in the first place is not to just hoard stories of book bans across the country. It’s to increase public awareness of what’s going on. It’s to be able to help resource our partners on the ground and make them aware of the trends of the movement and a lot of times too, validating what’s happening, what people already know are happening in their local communities so they can then see a larger national picture, so they can get connected, so they can fight, so they can give books back on shelves. Even if we’re doing, those are our larger reports, but even if it’s just raising what’s happening in an individual community, it’s to be able to activate the community to help bring the books back or keep the books on shelves. 

And for me, I think the media beast is always gonna run with its own story. And certainly there are some ones that I’m more grateful for than perhaps others. One of the main ones is that … narratives I’ve heard that I really wanna make sure people dig into more is that it’s a Florida problem. Is it? You know, over 40% of our bans in the last index for the last year, I should say, not the two year, but the last year, were in Florida. 

So is Florida heads and shoulders above the rest of the country in terms of number of bans, absolutely. But it’s not a Florida problem and it can happen anywhere. It is not a red state problem. It is not a Republican school board problem. Like this is something that is happening in California. This is happening in New York. This is happening in Pennsylvania. Like this is happening everywhere. And Florida should be just a word of caution. When Don’t Say Gay passed, you know, HP 1557  there was this uproar of like, oh, Florida, homophobic state, blah, blah. We’ve seen it pass now across a bunch of different states. But it almost happened much more silently than when it happened in Florida. And of course, yes, is Florida leading this? Absolutely, DeSantis and Florida are leading the charge here. But we really need to look at that as a cautionary tale of what can happen everywhere, regardless of the makeup of the state, because these are not communities that are pushing for this, right? These are individual actors, which means it can happen anywhere. 

So that’s one of the main narratives that I don’t, that I see and I’m like, okay, yes, it’s like there’s kernels of truth there. Like I can’t say that that’s not true that Florida is a large part of the issue right now, but I want to take that extra step and say, but that does not mean that it’s a southern state problem by any means. I live in Michigan and I see the problem here as well, regardless of our state government, because this is happening with individual actors who are creating a lot of fear and intimidation and sweeping up even well-meaning parents and community members who are just not — they’re getting swept up in the rhetoric of the other side of this movement. You have to really be engaging with your community members, both in schools, but just your neighbors and your peers to understand truly what’s going on.

I would say that’s one of the main ones. Two, you know, and this is one of the critiques of the media across the board, is that you always report more bad than good, right? So there’s a lot of wins out there. There’s a lot of groups who are fighting to put books back on shelves. You know, community members have largely, and parents have largely said they don’t support book bans. And a little bit more light on when that happens versus when a bunch of books get pulled off shelves, which is important to highlight, but I would love more coverage of the other side of this movement, the people who are advocating for anti-censorship policies and legislation. 

So those are some of the key ones that come to mind. That as well as, sorry, one more point I just remembered. The authors who are implicated, a lot of times what we hear are these major authors, the Margaret Atwood’s, the Judy Blooms, who have been vocal and have been great about supporting the anti-censorship activity that we’ve put on, but it’s important for us to also realize there’s a lot of authors, like this mid-list range. It’s important, their livelihoods are being ripped away when they lose the library market, when they lose the school market. So they have dedicated their lives to writing for students, for children, and children book authors, are the ones being attacked in this movement. So it may be a name that you would recognize the cover of the book or perhaps, you know, it’s something that your niece or nephew or son or daughter like, or, you know, child like loves and you’re less aware of, but so many people being implicated and being hurt by this, it’s not just the major names who are, you know, are probably fine. And it’s not that book bans for some books may create more sales, you know, for some of those, especially the ones that are in the top banned book lists, that might drive more traffic towards their books. But for those who are relying on library traffic, for those who are in the middle of the list of books that we have, it’s not. It’s not a good thing. It’s not good for sales. It’s not good for publicity for them to get banned. It just means they can’t write for the audiences they have dedicated and passionately written for. They’ve dedicated their lives to and their livelihoods to. And they’ve lost their source of income, whether that’s school visits, or I’ve heard a lot of stories of authors who can’t, who have previously been able to have a pretty constant stream of sales and being able to put books out who don’t seem to have audiences now for their books. 

So we’re going to see the impact of this for still several years with  the fear and intimidation even if book banning were to magically stop now. But to keep in mind those people who don’t appear in media as much, who aren’t as catchy of names to be able to put in a headline. It’s important to still, you know, bring them to the forefront of this fight.

Cyril: So have you guys actually thought about honing in on kind of media critique and research or is that just…?

Sabrina: Yes, so we tried to do it in a couple of different ways. You know, even like specifically with the author, we hold author, banned author town halls where we offer them support and we’re always trying to bring more attention to the issue with any media attention that we manage to get. We try to always mention and uplift these other sides, which is why, you know, you always see at the end of our reports the kind of glimmer of hope. It’s like, okay, we’ve just painted this really heavy, dark picture and we’re contributing to that, but we’re also trying to highlight the people and the groups on the ground, whether they’re student groups or just different advocacy groups. We do a lot of partnerships like, let Florida read, let Utah read — more celebratory kind of instances, because that’s something we’ve heard is really difficult for people most affected by this, especially the authors, because they have to answer question after question about their books being banned and why their books are banned, and that’s not why they wrote it. They’re constantly having to defend their own materials that are often extremely personal for them. And a lot of times, too, they’ve said it in a book because they don’t want to have to repeat it, you know, interview after interview. So we try to create more celebratory occasions. So we do address it in our own way as well, but certainly I would love to see people kind of challenge it a little bit more. And like I talked about with the book content of going and reading the book itself, it’s kind of like, okay, engaging with it beyond the headline.

Cyril: So one last final question, and let’s just make this one fun. You’re tasked with organizing and anti-censorship, freedom to read rally, and protest. Which three authors, alive or dead, would you want to organize this with?

Sabrina: Oh, this is so difficult … Okay, Toni Morrison, just because we’ve mentioned and she also has like 10 connections and stuff. So I am just like, that was, if I get to pick alive or dead then that’s gotta be my like flagship author. 

One author that is just a childhood like author I love is Meg Cabot who wrote the Princess Diaries series. A couple of her books have been banned. She’s also from Florida and I grew up in Florida. I got it from a personal connection, and that’s just like a romance writer as well. So for me, I’m like, I gotta throw her in there as well. 

Jason Reynolds, I think, would be super duper cool as well. And we’ve done some work with Jason as well, but I’ve not gotten to personally be in the same room. So that would be my excuse to be able to be in the same room as Jason Reynolds. So Toni Morrison, Meg Cabot, Jason, I would love to also hear the conversation between the three of them. Their genres are so vastly different that I would just want to be a fly in the room and listen to them talk to each other.

Cyril: Great. Well, thanks so much, Sabrina. Now, don’t take offense to this, but I hope that one day in the near future, your job will be obsolete because the country will have overcome and neutralized this kind of book banning hysteria. But in the meantime, thank you for your work and thanks for joining us on The Signal.

Sabrina: Yeah, no, absolutely. Thank you for having me.

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Cyril Mychalejko

Cyril Mychalejko

Cyril Mychalejko is the Editor-in-Chief of the Bucks County Beacon. Read his columns on Sundays and follow him on Twitter.

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