New Yorkers and Libraries Fight Book Censorship



NYPL Banned Books Week. Photo by Jonathan Blanc/NYPL

As PEN America, the non-profit that celebrates literature and free expression, celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, it released a study that found more than 1,600 books, mostly about racism and LGBTQ issues, have been removed from school districts across the country during the past school year alone.

To cope with censorship, since 1982, libraries across the country observed Banned Books Week, which celebrates freedom of reading. The New York Public Library held this year’s Banned Books Week last month, to showcase titles that some school districts have removed from classrooms and provide some of these books for free to the public.

This year, NYPL also marked the new beginning for offering unlimited eBook copies of “Bluest Eye” and “Beloved” until the end of October ,to honor the distinguished author and NYPL’s trustee Toni Morrison. Parents, students, and educators are fighting back against censorship by relying on public libraries and public resources to expose students to books they feel are essential to understanding history and culture.

“Schools have suppressed reading and made it so, people hate reading. I personally do not like reading in school,” said Morah Bloxson, a sophomore at an Upper West Side public school. “It is all happiness, friendship, everything is great, beautiful, let’s overcome problems. It is just the same thing over and over and over again. I like things that are different.”

Bloxson said she’s now a reading advocate and finds her own books. “My peers do not like reading because all they’ve read are books from school, and I tell them to go out and look at books themselves.”

Michael Lee, a writer from Queens, said his 9-year-old daughter loves “New Kid,” a banned book that taught her  about inequality, he said. “My daughter first saw the gap or cultural differences between people who have different backgrounds, especially social-economic backgrounds.”

The New York Public Library hosted its Banned Book Week September 18-24 with the theme, “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us,” a week-long program that provided banned book lists and giveaways.

Stavros Niarchos Foundation Library, one of the main libraries in Midtown, stayed busy giving out banned books to the public. As libraries closed and scaled down during the pandemic, this year’s Banned Books Week was like celebrating the reopening, said Shauntee Burns-Simpson, the associate director of NYPL’s Center for Educators and Schools.

According to PEN America, approximately 41% of the banned titles in U.S. schools involve LGBTQ themes, and 22% account for stories about abortion, sexual assault and pregnancy. Additionally, 21% are about race, and 40% of the major characters in the prohibited books are people of color.

“When we ban books, we ban a part of life; we are banning the fact that racism exists, and we are banning the fact that sexism still exists. Racism will never disappear; sexism will never disappear,” said Bloxson. “If you teach people about racism then people might stop being racist.”

“The books that are being banned are some of the most essential works,” said writing teacher and author Blaise Allyson Kearsley. “They can expose students to the world beyond they know, to historical truths that are being withheld, erased, or denied. And they can validate the experiences of students of color and other underserved groups. Representation matters.”

Ian Rosenberg, legal counsel of ABC News and the author of  “Fight for Free Speech: Ten Cases Define Our First Amendment Freedoms” and “Free Speech Handbook,” spoke at this year’s Banned Books Week and said literature restriction prevents people from learning about different ideas. He added that ignorance can essentially result in making laws that disadvantage minorities.

Book banning is a “long-standing problem,” said Burns-Simpson. “Unfortunately, a lot of people want to censor your voice and ideas and that’s not New York Public Library as well as many libraries across the country. We don’t want to stand for that, we want people to be able to read materials and come up with their ideas.”

As Banned Books Week is an annual event, NYPL will continue to observe the event next year and fight against censorship, said Burns-Simpson, adding that the new initiative of offering unlimited copies of eBooks could continue. “Maybe we will get more titles from Toni Morrison and other banned authors,” she said.

While the challenge of censorship continues, Michael Lee hopes schools stop underestimating kids and give them the freedom to read.

“I strongly believe our children are able to decide what’s good for themselves,” said Lee. “The role of adults or schools should be providing our kids with open space where they can freely think, debate, and decide, not to regulate them.”