Curriculum

Is Your School Facing a Book Challenge? These Online Resources May Help

By Ileana Najarro — September 01, 2022 5 min read
Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
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Book challenges, restrictions, and outright bans on materials in K-12 classrooms and school libraries are popping up more and more across the country these days.

Though such challenges are a perennial problem, school districts have seen an uptick in requests to ban books about LGBTQ characters, race, and racism. A PEN America report found that 2 million students in 86 school districts across the country have had their access to books restricted this past school year. And the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom is now getting reports of at least two—and sometimes three or four—book challenges a day, when in the past they would get that many cases per week, said the office’s director, Deborah Caldwell-Stone.

Some educators have been successful in overturning such efforts by supporting students eager to push back, a balancing act requiring them to observe constitutional boundaries about student protests and First Amendment rights. Yet many now teach in states where pushback to book challenges can be even trickier, thanks to new laws that more broadly restrict how topics such as race and gender are discussed in school.

Here are some national online resources for educators facing challenges to books in their schools who want to learn more about what support they can get in tracking and pushing back against them.

The American Library Association has a wealth of tools

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom offers a form that educators can fill out to report information on demands to remove a book from a classroom or library. Doing so helps the organization keep track of book censorship nationwide, and offers educators a confidential way to both contribute to that tracking effort and seek out guidance as to what additional resources are available to them.

Educators can file a challenge report online. They can also send an email to oif@ala.org or call the helpline at (312)280-4221.

Contacting the office helps educators get further guidance. For instance, they can be provided book reviews that support the educational value of the book—a demand some districts have made of teachers’ classroom libraries or as part of a reconsideration process.

Office staff can help educators look at their schools’ policies about instructional materials or acquiring new books. They can also offer referrals to partner organizations better suited for specific inquiries, such as the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which has special resources for graphic novel and comic book challenges. It most recently defended the graphic novel Gender Queer from an attempt to ban its sales in Virginia bookstores, including Barnes and Noble. The book has been frequently challenged in schools as well.

The ALA can also supply letters of support to send to school boards.

Finally, the organization offers the LeRoy C. Merritt Humanitarian Fund, which provides support for librarians who are facing difficulties on the job because of their support for intellectual freedom, or are facing discrimination on the job because of their race, background, ethnicity, or gender. While small, the fund provides seed money for legal representation support, Caldwell-Stone said.

“We kind of function both as a source of assistance, a clearinghouse for assistance, as well as a data collection point for censorship in the United States, particularly in schools and libraries across the country,” she said.

The National Council of Teachers of English has created book ‘rationales’

The National Council of Teachers of English, a membership group for reading and English/language arts teachers, offers an email helpline at intellectualfreedom@ncte.org. NCTE staff also offer confidential information, guidance, support, and next steps.

This year, the organization also released their first-ever rationale database, which explain a specific book’s value as a teaching tool. The database contains over 600 entries for books searchable by title, author, and grade level. NCTE members write the rationales, which are peer reviewed; each includes a book summary, grade-level recommendation, teaching tools, alternative book titles, and more.

Additional information on the database can be found online. Additional information on resources the NCTE offers teachers can be found on the group’s website.

State-level organizations offer tailored support

Educators also have the option to contact their state’s chapter of the American Association of School Libraries for more information on state-level policies and laws. Some of them are setting up new state-specific resources, such as the Texas Library Association’s new Intellectual Freedom Helpline.

The helpline connects libraries with colleagues across the state who can share expertise, resources and support, matching callers with volunteers with similar library experience.

Members of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, are also encouraged to contact their local and state affiliates for support.

“Where NEA members confront efforts to ban books because of their viewpoints, NEA stands ready to support their efforts to stand up for students’ rights to have the full and complete education they need to thrive as citizens in our multi-racial democracy,” said NEA’s general counsel Alice O’Brien.

A national resource supports local advocacy and organizing

Caldwell-Stone of the ALA said that the organization has been seeing more questions from educators about what they can do under so-called anti-critical race theory laws that place restrictions on how topics of race and gender can be discussed in schools.

In response to the new landscape, the ALA began a grassroots advocacy campaign called Unite Against Book Bans.

Its website offers a toolkit for anyone who wants to advocate against book bans in their community with social media templates, information on what data to collect for grassroots organizing, and guides on contacting state and local officials and working with media outlets.

The initiative has at least 52 national partners, which include civil liberties groups, booksellers, publishers, authors, and educators.

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