Adam Treat, a high school English teacher in Melbourne, Florida, woke up at dawn on April 3. He worked a full day and then drove to meet his wife and dozens of volunteers who organized an event to distribute banned books to young people and their families. parents. They distributed 900 books that night.
Tritt has been hosting these events for the past year through his Foundation 451, a reference to Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451 which is set in a dystopian world in which the government burns illegal books. He has received death threats, but these threats only encourage him to give up more books.
At an event in July, he saw a teenager picking up a copy of this book as gay. People walked over it and I put it on the ground. He saw her pick it up and put it down a few times before she grabbed another book and left. Later, she came back and asked, “Can I return this and take the book I need?” Treat said yes, and I started to cry.
Last year, he signed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis HB1557which LGBT rights advocates call the “Don’t Say Like Me” law because it bans discussion of sexuality or gender in K-3 classrooms, and allows parents to sue if they believe a teacher has violated the law.
DeSantis also signed the STOP WOKE Act, or “Stop WOKE” Act, which bans the teaching of critical race theory in schools. Laws do not ban books outright, but due to their broad language, Florida schools remove books that may be infringing. Teachers are caught in the middle: They can only hand out approved books in the classroom or they could face severe consequences.
School districts have reported removing 175 books from schools across the state. DeSantis claims it restricts books in class that contain “pornography and sexual material,” including This Book Is Gay. The governor confirmed that most of the removed books were determined to be pornographic, violent, or inappropriate for their grade level.
Book bans are on the rise in the United States, according to a recent report by the American Library Association. 2,571 unique addresses targeted for censorship in 2022, ALA mentioned. Freedom of speech group PEN America has also recorded rapidly expanding book bans in schools across the United States. Even as these laws proliferate, educators and librarians are finding creative ways around them.
Librarians and educators told Al Jazeera the restrictions mostly target books and curricula on LGBTQ+ issues and race-related topics, and the increased censorship is a backlash for African-Americans and LGBT people who demand equal treatment.
Thousands of banned books
In May 2022, Treat received an email from the Florida Department of Education that made his blood boil. I asked him and the other teachers to remove Slaughterhouse Five and The Kite Runner from their shelves. When he got home, he directed his anger into setting up a GoFundMe to buy copies of the two books and make them available. Within a week, he had raised more than $15,000.
Almost a year later, an influx of books forced Trit and his wife to get a trailer to store them. They have created four small free libraries in churches and businesses. Recently, a teacher realized she couldn’t hand out 40 copies of The Stars Beneath Our Feet to her students because the story featured an LGBTQ character, so she gave the entire box to Tritt. He estimated that his staff had distributed 3,000 books so far.
“What happens when these specific books aren’t available,” he said, “is that they reduce representation significantly, and when you’re not represented, you know you don’t have the power.”
Availability of digital books
The increase in book bans may seem alarming, but for those who can connect online, digital library cards allow anyone to access e-books and audiobooks.
Last year, Linda Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library, was alarmed by widespread book bans and wanted to fight censorship in other states. The library reached out to schools and libraries in Texas to try to partner with them, but they were hesitant because they were afraid of losing accreditation or funding. “We decided, well, we’re going to do it ourselves,” Johnson said.
The library launched Books Unbanned, a program that allows anyone between the ages of 13 and 21 in the United States to access banned books by requesting a free digital library card. The library offers 350,000 e-books and 200,000 audio books without a waiting list to cardholders.
A year later, Johnson said, the library issued cards to people in every state. “We’ve issued about 7,000 cards and distributed nearly 90,000 books.”
However, teachers who refer their students to online materials may face consequences. In Oklahoma, a teacher covered her bookshelf in response to a new law banning the teaching of critical race theory. She sent the QR code to the Brooklyn Public Library with the message: “Definitely don’t scan this.” As a result, I was forced to resign. “It really ended up hiring her,” Johnson said.
Several books online tell the stories of LGBTQ characters, deal with critical race theory, or explain the history of the Holocaust, she says.
“These are the stories that children and teens feeling isolated really want to have. So we were able to help them,” Johnson said.
A 14-year-old from a small southern town asking for a library card wrote, saying their local library had LGBTQ books “available” but they couldn’t actually find them. Books have also been removed from their school library. They wanted to read The Hate U Give but couldn’t find it anywhere. “The last time I went to the local library to look at books about LGBTQ+, I was told I didn’t need to have these kinds of thoughts in my head,” they wrote.
Johnson stressed that not everyone has access to the Internet at home, so the digital program does not solve the problem for these people. She added that it is important to challenge these censorship laws because they can lead to more limited curricula, and this also limits the books that people crave because they don’t know what they are missing.
Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle high school teacher and organizer with the Zinn Education Project, hosts virtual study groups across the country to teach students and teachers about structural racism. He said the group recently heard from a teacher in Florida who said they were terrified to say anything about enslavement because it might make students uncomfortable.
Hagopian believes that the wave of legislation “imposing gag orders on teachers” is a backlash to the Black Lives Matter movement and the growing numbers of people adopting their transgender identities.
“This book ban is part of the campaign of political repression in this country, and we do not respect this assault on basic democratic rights,” he said.
The project has partnered with New Press to send free books to teachers in states facing book bans. The program launched in February, and all 56 copies of a book on critical race theory have already been claimed.
The current censorship movement, Hagopian said, is an effort to bring back the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s that sought to systematically remove communists and LGBT people from public institutions. “They want to drag us back in time to that period when it was outlawed to be gay or organized for racial justice,” he said.
Without access to curricula and books on identity and history, he said, “the consequences are dire.” Young people will lose access to the stories that affirm their lives and help them build a more just society.
Treat encouraged teachers and parents in states with book bans to attend school board meetings and talk to principals to take a stand against censorship. He asked parents to stick to teachers who are in a vulnerable situation. “We need an avalanche of parents writing emails to principals and school boards, because emails are public records,” he said.