Learning from Successful Challenges against Book Bans in 2022 - National Council of Teachers of English
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Learning from Successful Challenges against Book Bans in 2022

This post was written by NCTE member Cody Miller.

Earlier in the year, I wrote that the battle over book bans is one we’re equipped to win at the ballot box. That assessment was put to the test in the midterm election this past November, in which book bans, anti-LGBTQIA+ policies, and other anti–public school measures were central to several campaigns. There were instances in which politicians who sought to ban books won, which happened in my home state of Florida. However, in many cases, the side that stood up against book bans, anti-LGBTQIA+ policies, and anti–public school stances claimed major victories. As Alia Wong at USA Today summarized, ballot measures that mandated investments in public schools won in key swing states, and attempts to take over school boards in order to enact book bans didn’t yield impressive results across the country. More specifically, candidates endorsed by Moms for Liberty won only 49 percent of their races, and candidates endorsed by the 1776 Project won only 40 percent of their races. Both groups have been key in enacting “book bans, classroom censorship and bans on teaching about slavery, race, racism and LGBTQ people and history.”

Still, the fact that candidates who campaigned on banning books and honest, inclusive history won almost 50 percent of their races is harmful to our civic life and the students whose lives will be legislated by these elected officials. I do not want to minimize that harm. As I argued earlier, book bans are part of a policy constellation meant to erase LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC people from civic life. And I want us to understand how and why book bans and the politicians who support them have lost in the past year. The lessons learned from victories against book bans can encourage successful future challenges.

The defeat of book-banning candidates in November was foreshadowed by local elections earlier this year. Education reporter Jennifer Berkshire documented the campaign of Andrea Campbell, an elementary school teacher who ran against a school board member who voted to ban books in their local school district, back in March. The race was seen as unfavorable to Campbell due to her politics and partisan affiliation. However, Campbell was able to produce record turnout by campaigning on intellectual and academic freedom in K–12 schools. She won her election by a significant margin. In October, Shiva Rajbhandari won his school board race in Boise, Idaho. Rajbhandari, an 18-year-old senior, grew tired of his elected school board member attempting to ban books and curtail the honest teaching of American history. He told journalist Ileana Najarro that he believed students are the “foundation of our democracy.” His victory points to the power students hold in shaping their local school board composition. Both of these stories speak to the potential of organizing at the local level to defeat book bans and curricular gag orders.

The victories we’ve seen this year can be built upon and continued into 2023 and 2024. We will need inventive strategies and ideas to help us create equitable and inclusive schools and curricula. I want to offer four steps that I believe can be a start. Of course, these steps are not exhaustive.

First, we should learn from and support groups that helped defeat book bans this year. Both Race Forward and Book Ban Busters were vital in winning against the forces of book bans. The former provides training series for people who want to get involved in securing multiracial public schools and curricula, while the latter offers training sessions about defeating book bans in specific states and districts. Both organizations are worth recommending to people who want to get involved in protecting the freedom to read but are unsure where to start.

Second, we can continue to position NCTE as an organization committed to defending students’ right to read by providing practical tools for educators to use in our current era of book bans. NCTE, through the work of the Standing Committee Against Censorship, has created a database of rationales for teaching commonly challenged books. These rationales are direct and immediate tools that teachers and leaders can use to articulate the curricular importance of books and act as the first line of defense against book bans, especially at the local level. Additionally, we can continue supporting sessions focused on fighting book bans and share our learnings from such sessions. For example, teachers and librarians Becky Calzada, Liz Seelig, and Julia Torres presented with authors George M. Johnson, Kyle Lukoff, Dashka Slater, and Kelly Yang on protecting diverse curricula and fighting against book bans. English teacher Sarah Honore shared a developing strategy for preparing for and resisting challenges to books during the 2022 Conference on English Leadership Convention. Many teachers presenting from this past conference discussed how they are navigating the current landscape of book banning. We should amplify their voices and learn from their lessons. We should continue to pay particular attention to the work that state affiliates are doing at their annual conferences and within their organizations to fight book bans on the state level.

Next, we must sharpen our critical media literacy skills in order to call out misleading narratives that are perpetuated on television screens. Cable news narratives forwarding a moral panic about “concerned parents” often collapse under the weight of critical media literacy scrutiny. For instance, journalist Carlos Maza’s investigation revealed that many “concerned parents” who are interviewed on major cable news networks are operatives and consultants for groups like Moms for Liberty. In other words, the “concerned parents” are paid consultants who benefit financially from promoting stories that support book-banning efforts. Being able to name the real power dynamics in media stories is important in providing honest, accurate information.

Finally, we must be adamant and explicit in connecting the efforts to ban books with broader attempts to remove LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC individuals, communities, and families from public life. Book bans are one part of a broader strategy to eradicate trans health care, limit voter participation, defund public schools, and negate social progress made over the last decade. It is not a coincidence that 2022 was dubbed a “record year” for states seeking to curtail LGBTQIA+ rights and the year that saw Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir become the most banned book in the country. Similarly, states that have introduced curricular gag orders are the same states enacting voter suppression laws. Critical race theorist and legal scholar Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw reminds us that the “links between these book bans and the efforts to block Black and brown voters from the polls are as connected as the interstate routes that connect the dots on a map of our country.” The fight for inclusive, equitable, and pluralistic democracy and schools remains one we must continue fighting. I still believe we can win.

Cody Miller is an assistant professor of English education at SUNY Brockport. During his seven years as a high school English teacher and in his current role, he has positioned texts as vehicles to discuss broader sociopolitical issues in students’ lives and worlds. Miller is the editor of English Leadership Quarterly. He was awarded NCTE’s LGBTQIA+ Advocacy & Leadership Award in 2022. He can be reached at hmiller@brockport.edu or on Twitter at @CodyMillerELA.


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