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How One Teenager Fought Book Bans

Book Banning
As book bans continue throughout the country, many people have taken action to stand against them. In 2022, the American Library Association reported the highest number of calls to censor library materials since it began documenting them over two decades ago. A staggering 1,269 books were challenged.Some of those books include “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison “Flamer” by Mike Curato “Looking for Alaska” by John Green, and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky.

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An 18-year-old from New Mexico recently made waves when he announced an urgent message for local students in New York City. Ivan Torres shared his experiences with book-banning campaigns at a meeting of the Brooklyn Public Library’s Intellectual Freedom Teen Council. The program brings kids from several U.S. cities where book bans are frequent together. He had a simple message form the Council:

“You always think it can’t happen to you until it does.”

Torres’ own hometown has contributed to the book bans with a small activist group asking for the removal of several books from libraries. Some of these books included “Never a Girl, Always a Boy,” by Jo Ivester, a memoir about his experience being a transgender man, and “This Book is Gay,” a guidebook for queer life by Juno Dawson. A few speakers claimed the books were “predatory” and had “no social value.” They claimed they wanted the removal of the books to protect their children. While New York boroughs have had reports from parents requesting the removal of books, they remain mostly insulated from the country-wide book challenges. Some teen councilmembers mentioned being surprised about the books on many New York City school reading lists being banned elsewhere. 16-year-old Miri Bawa expressed her appreciation for living in NYC:

“I think it’s just kind of crazy hearing about all the book bans. I think about my English teacher and her little library in her classroom. I can’t really relate to that because we had books…that were written by Black people and by queer people, and I think about how I’m sort of privileged to have the opportunity to read those books.”

Taking the fight to the city council

After gaining experience and preparing through previous meetings on book bans, Torres brought together a group of students to testify in support of the challenged books at a City Council hearing. He spoke about the necessity of representation: “It’s deeper than just literature. Representation does matter. When you ban books, you ban people. You’re sending a message that a certain kind of person is not fit for public display…to be publicly visible.”The challenge in Rio Rancho ultimately failed. Now, Torres is running for the local school board and sharing what he’s learned about his experience as part of the Brooklyn Public Library’s teen council. He’s still putting effort into bridging the gap between the youth experiencing book bans and first hand with those not.15 year Xin Yi He Cen, who is also a council member and library intern, spoke about how she plans to launch a banned book club at her Staten Island high school next fall: “I feel like removing books from school [is] how certain ideas and perspectives are suppressed and hidden. It limits students’…exposure to different viewpoints, so we don’t develop empathy to diverse opinions.”Karen Keys, the library’s youth services coordinator, spoke about the origins and purpose of the council, which began as a focus group in the library to increase access to challenged books, known now as Books Unbanned:

“Think of it as an intellectual freedom meetup, a place of entry for teens wanting to know more about book bans and what actions they can take.”

Free library cards for teenagers

The library offers free e-cards to youth nationwide, an idea that resulted from the teens' brainstorming sessions. The Brooklyn Public Library’s free e-card program makes its entire digital catalog available to applicants ages 13-21 years nationwide. Over 6,500 youth from all 50 states have applied for e-cards through the program, resulting in over 110,000 items.Many members of the council are LGBTQ+ or people of color, both marginalized groups that are heavily affected by most bans. Keys also mentioned the importance of acknowledging how bans affect people who don’t experience them directly:

“They’re often part of marginalized communities targeted in these bans and challenges. They understand how important it is to be involved in this fight.”

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