Upset over book bans, teen sets up banned book club in small Pennsylvania town

Upset over book bans, teen sets up banned book club in small Pennsylvania town

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As the school book ban reached unprecedented heights in the United States, 14-year-old Joslyn Diffenbaugh had none of that.

“It’s really problematic, because books are the only way to be in another person’s shoes,” said Joslyn, a self-proclaimed “book nerd” who lives in the small town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania. near Allentown.

She has read several books that have been banned by school districts across the country, including ‘The Hate U Give’ by Angie Thomas and ‘All American Boys’ by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, both of which deal with police brutality. .

“They really opened my eyes,” said Joslyn, an eighth grader at Kutztown Middle School. “These are books that make you think.”

As attempts to ban the books increased both in Pennsylvania and in other school districts across the country, Joslyn felt she had to do something. Like several other teenagers across the country, she started a banned book club – where members read books that have been banned from schools and then meet regularly to discuss them.

“These books are great works of literature, and I really couldn’t understand why so many people wanted to ban them,” Joslyn said. “It’s important for people to read these books because it helps them grow.”

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For her, the tipping point came in late October, when a Republican lawmaker in Texas launched an investigation into the state’s school libraries and compiled a list of 850 titles — written mostly about race and sexuality — demanding that schools reveal if they carry the books.

Local attempts to restrict books have also increased in Pennsylvania. In January, the Kutztown School Board voted narrowly to keep Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir” in the high school library, despite outcry from some parents and community members.

Growing efforts to challenge the books “forced me to start something where we could talk about forbidden things,” Joslyn said.

Her mother enthusiastically encouraged Joslyn to start her own “Teen Banned Book Club”, which is what they decided to call the group.

“Reading a book about racism doesn’t make you racist and reading a book about gender identity won’t make you transgender,” Lisa Diffenbaugh said. “Reading a book only benefits you.”

With the support of her family, Joslyn contacted Firefly Bookstore, a local store, asking if they would be willing to help host a forbidden book club for teenagers.

Rather than start a book club at school, “we wanted it to be open to kids from other districts, and we wanted the freedom where everyone could voice their opinions without someone saying those opinions are wrong. “Joslyn said.

The bookstore staff members were on board right away.

“All of us here at Firefly Bookstore agree that the book ban is wrong,” said Jordan Busits, a sales associate who has offered to help run Joslyn’s book club. “Books are supposed to say something about the author themselves, who they are or what their worldview is, and by banning these books, we are essentially banning their voice.”

Two recent reports highlight the growing book ban movement in school districts across the country.

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Last month, PEN America, a nonprofit focused on free speech, released a report, which found there had been 1,586 book bans – many of which feature racial and LGBTQ themes – in American schools over the past nine months.

The same week, the American Library Association released its annual book censorship report, which found that there were 1,597 book challenges or removals in 2021, the highest number in 20 years. history of the association. Most of the titles were written by LGBTQ or black authors.

There’s even a baby book, “Everywhere Babies,” that was on a list of books slated for removal in Walton County, Florida.

The book bans have been driven mostly by parents, politicians and pundits. At the district level, many book bans are done by school administrators in secret, in order to avoid controversy.

Young people who want the freedom to read a wide variety of subjects have made their own way, not only by forming book clubs, but also by filing lawsuits.

“It’s so encouraging to see them stepping up so they can have the books they deserve,” said Nicole Cardoza, founder of Banned Books Book Club, a monthly virtual book club, online library and fund to support endangered books. “They deserve to see stories that represent their own lived experiences.”

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In addition to hosting monthly book clubs, “we also purchase books to send to schools and libraries across the United States,” Cardoza said, adding that her organization offers “resources and training” on the way to start a book club, so students like Joslyn have the tools they need.

The Teen Banned Book Club held its first meeting at the Firefly Bookstore in January, and the group of 12 teenagers has met every two weeks since. The youngest member of the club is in the seventh grade and the oldest is in the 10th grade.

So far, they’ve read six novels, including George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘1984’, as well as Alex Gino’s ‘Melissa’ and ‘Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You’ by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi.

“We’ve compiled a list of historically banned and recently banned books,” said Joslyn, who consults with Busits ​​and book club members to select titles.

“One of my biggest fears at first was that no one would show up, but it’s really cool to see that people are willing to talk about these tough topics,” Joslyn said, explaining that she was also stunned by the media attention on her initiative. has received. “I never thought so many people would be interested in this tiny book club in this tiny town.”

When 13-year-old Bridget Johnson heard about what the teenagers were doing, she was eager to join.

“I love the book club,” she said. “It’s a connection through reading and learning, and it’s a really special experience.”

Since joining the club, Johnson said it didn’t make sense to her that many books were blacklisted.

“Most of the time after reading the book, I’m like, ‘Why is this even forbidden?’ ” she says.

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Jillian Rager, 14, another member of the Teen Banned Book Club, said the restrictive material makes it more desirable for young people.

“If you decide to ban a book, it will only make children want to read it more,” she said, adding that discussing books with peers has helped her to think more critically about their subject.

Joslyn also said she learned a lot and found a diverse group of new friends who shared her love of literature.

“There are other book lovers who are really interested in these banned books,” she said. “It gives me hope for the future.”

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