When a group of parents in Glen Ridge calling itself Citizens Defending Education (CDE) asked the town’s public library to pull from its shelves six books they deemed inappropriate for children, it caused a massive outcry in the town. Lawn signs decrying book bans sprang up, and a thousand people showed up at a meeting in February to oppose the proposed book ban.
Even though New Jersey is considered a stronghold of the Democratic party, the state has seen growing attempts by conservative groups like CDE and parents to ban books. In the past year, officials have either removed books from shelves or fought those attempts in several towns, including Roxbury, Sparta, Bernards Township, Washington Township, Westfield, North Hunterdon and Wayne Township.
To be sure, book bans in classrooms and libraries are also rising nationally, and few states have escaped the furor. Book bans rose 28 percent in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year according to free-speech advocacy group PEN America, with many of the attempts centered on books about race, sexual orientation, gender and history.
Often, the challenges are brought by a vocal minority demanding that books be withdrawn from a public or school library or a classroom. That was the case in Glen Ridge, where eight families banded together to request that the library director and library board remove books they found offensive, including This Book is Gay, by Juno Dawson, and All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson.
Fran Deacon, one of the Glen Ridge residents who spearheaded the drive to remove the books, says she and the others in her group found them vulgar and inappropriate for children. Ultimately, the group’s request was unanimously rejected by the library board.
Organizations such as PEN America, a nonprofit that works to defend and celebrate free expression in the United States and around the world, are closely watching as cases such as this one unfold.
Kasey Meehan is the organization’s Freedom to Read program director and is leading its initiative to protect the rights of students to access literature.
“This has certainly become a nationwide issue, and we see it growing and shape-shifting almost every week,” she says. “It’s being driven by individuals and group actors. In New Jersey, in addition to the movement to ban books, we’ve also seen a really strong effort by people mobilizing against book bans. That’s showing up both in proposed state legislation as well as with some of the groups that successfully resisted book bans in their own communities and school districts.”
In May, state Senator Andrew Zwicker (D–Princeton) introduced a bill that would target libraries and public schools in New Jersey that move forward with book bans, resulting in a loss of state funding. Public libraries would also be required to adopt the American Library Association’s “Library Bill of Rights” under the bill, which calls for libraries to challenge censorship, bar book removal for “partisan or doctrinal disapproval,” and offer books with all points of view on current and historical issues.
Meehan says she’s cautiously optimistic about such legislation, because too often, PEN has seen instances where county commissioners and library boards are willing to forgo funding in order to remove certain books.
Many public school districts are finding themselves in the crosshairs, facing threats and pressure from parents on both sides of the issue. Librarians are often on the front line of the issue.
Zwicker says he was moved to introduce his bill to prevent book bans after hearing Martha Hickson, a North Hunterdon High School librarian, speak about her successful effort to fight a group’s efforts to ban five LGBTQ-themed books at her school.
This spring, a row erupted over a decision by the Bernards Township School Board to remove a new sociology textbook that it said was too extreme and ideological. A vocal group of parents and students tried unsuccessfully to push back against the decision.
Last year in Wayne, parents challenged eight books they said were unsuitable for students and available in school libraries, including Gender Queer: A Memoir, by Maia Kobabe. The effort to remove the books failed.
School Superintendent Mark Toback said in published reports that the goal of the district was to provide books in which students could see their lives and struggles reflected.
Overwhelmingly, books that are targeted for banning feature LGBTQ characters and are written by LGBTQ authors. Book-ban advocates also often target stories about racism, death, grief, violence, abuse and people of color.
One of the most banned authors in the country is George M. Johnson, a Plainfield native who penned All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir about growing up Black and queer in New Jersey and Virginia. The book was one of those targeted for removal by the Glen Ridge group.
Johnson (who uses they/them pronouns) was unable to attend the Glen Ridge library board meeting regarding the book-ban requests, but their mother and aunts went in their place and spoke.
Johnson was surprised to learn that a group in Glen Ridge wanted to ban All Boys Aren’t Blue.
“It was so close to home… and it was one of those moments where I had to sit with myself, because I would think that, at least in my own state, I wouldn’t have to deal with this,” Johnson says. “For me, it was about defending my book and defending the other books, and standing up for somebody who grew up in this state. When I was a teenager, I didn’t have access to this stuff. And so I created these books for the person that I was back then, who deserved to be able to read this stuff. I needed to stand up for 15-year-old me, who didn’t have a voice back then.”
Johnson attended a Catholic high school and doesn’t believe their book would be allowed there now.
“This was me fighting for that person who deserved to have this type of book and this type of resource when I was growing up,” Johnson says.
Reagan Arthur, publisher of Alfred A. Knopf, lives in Montclair and says that a number of her authors have been banned around the country, including Julie Otsuka, who penned The Buddha in the Attic, about a group of young women who were brought from Japan to San Francisco to become brides, and notably, Toni Morrison for her novel The Bluest Eye.
In January, Washington Township in Gloucester County removed The Bluest Eye from its curriculum after a parent objected to it, creating a controversy there.
Arthur says she’s troubled that people are trying to ban books in this day and age. “It’s a slippery slope,” she says. “In any society where we’ve seen book banning, even worse things happen. I don’t think anybody can point to an instance of books being banned where society thereafter became more free, more equal, or better in any way. So, if history is a guide, I think we should take heed and note that ideas —both good and bad—need air, and that people need the freedom to find them, and that if we try and suppress them, it only leads to further trouble down the road.”
While some authors may gain a measure of notoriety—and more book sales—for having their books banned, Arthur says they are in the minority.
“For every story about an author whose banned book gets in the news and sells some copies, I think there are many more who can quietly disappear. It takes place at the local elementary-school library level where, say, a librarian decides they’re not going to stock Beverly Cleary anymore; then those books are suddenly just not available to kids. It not only affects an author’s income, but in the long term, it could inhibit what authors feel free to write about,” she says. “If freedom of speech is threatened, then it threatens all of us.”
A SELECTED HISTORY OF BOOK BANNING
Here are some of the books that have been banned in the United States with their original publication dates:
- All Boys Aren’t Blue (2020) by George M. Johnson
- Almost Perfect (2009) by Brian Katcher
- Animal Farm (1945) by George Orwell
- The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) by Mark Twain
- And Tango Makes Three (2005) by Justin Richardson
- Beloved (1987) by Toni Morrison
- The Bluest Eye (1970) by Toni Morrison
- Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley
- The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J. D. Salinger
- The Color Purple (1982) by Alice Walker
- Dear Martin (2017) by Nic Stone
- Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury
- Gender Queer: a Memoir (2019) by Maia Kobabe
- The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck
- The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood
- The Hate U Give (2017) by Angie Thomas
- How to Be an Antiracist (2019) by Ibram X. Kendi
- I Am Jazz (2014) by Jazz Jennings
- Killing Mr. Griffin (1978) by Lois Duncan
- The Kite Runner (2003) by Khaled Hosseini
- Lawn Boy (2018) by Jonathan Evison
- Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding
- Of Mice and Men (1937) by John Steinbeck
- The Satanic Verses (1958) by Salman Rushdie
- Slaughterhouse Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut
- Speak (1999) by Laurie Halse Anderson
- To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee
- Tricks (2009) by Ellen Hopkins
- Ulysses (1920) by James Joyce