When Ella Scott founded a book club with her friend Alyssa Hoy, their high school could not provide any of the books they wanted to read.
Why? Because all of the titles were banned by the district.
Scott and Hoy first had the idea for the Vandegrift High School Banned Book Club at the end of their freshman year when Hoy’s mother, a teacher, told them about book bans in their Leander, Texas, school district. The bans are based on complaints from parents and school administrators, leaving students — the ones who read the books in question — out of the conversation entirely.
“We had no idea it was happening,” says Scott, “and we felt the need to do something and get students involved and raise awareness on the issue.”
The issue at hand is not exclusive to Texas. Book bans are soaring nationwide, with the American Library Association documenting nearly 730 attempts last year to censor library resources, with some 1,600 books challenged or removed. That’s the highest number of banning attempts since the organization began compiling records 20 years ago. It predicts this number will go up this year.
At the very first meeting of the Vandegrift High School Banned Book Club in 2021, only two people showed up.
“It was…humbling,” says Scott, now a junior.
But Scott says students and faculty quickly became supportive of the club, and the only pushback they have received has come from “random people on the Internet.” One obstacle they did struggle with, however, was obtaining their reading material.
Because members choose from a list of titles banned from classrooms in the district, their school couldn’t provide the books — leading the club to post public Amazon wish lists for the books. After the club received media attention, lots of donations and support began to roll in.
To date, the club has grown to 20 regular members who have read nine books as a group, meeting twice a month to discuss them. During meetings, a discussion curator presents three to five questions to get members talking about why the book was banned and whether they agree with it being banned.
“Our conversations can get passionate,” Scott says. “There can be a lot of emotions. Everyone wants to talk about the books.”
Members then write statements and send them to reconsideration committees, which determine whether or not books should be allowed back in classrooms. Because students aren’t allowed at committee meetings, librarians read the statements on the club’s behalf. Many librarians have told Scott that the club’s statements are helpful because they provide a simpler student perspective.
“That’s really the whole point of our club,” Scott says. “ A lot of the time, parents can get political and talk about points that students don’t necessarily consider when reading a book..”
The club has enjoyed some success. For example, the first book that members read, Kiss Number 8 by Colleen A. F. Venable, is now back on shelves after initially being banned for covering teenage sex, drinking, sexual orientation and gender identity.
In the club’s statement for Kiss Number 8, members wrote: “We believe that it is vital to expose students to these concepts, instead of censoring us from things that are completely common.” They further asserted that minority students, who often find themselves to be under-represented in media, need books “they can connect and relate with, something vital for every student.”
It’s worth noting that of all the titles banned last year in schools nationwide, 41% explicitly address LGBTQ+ themes or have prominent LGBTQ+ characters, and 40% contain prominent characters of color.
“We’re starting to see more representation and a wider array of opinions represented in these books,” Scott says. “And I think that really scares some people, seeing this kind of change. It’s not what they grew up with.”
Scott, who will still lead the club next year as a senior, is happy she gets to watch the club she founded “grow up.” After getting through this year’s book list, she wants to expand next year’s reading list to include books banned in other districts.
The club’s most current read, Shout by Laurie Halse Anderson, was banned for “negative portrayal of men” and “sexual assault and rape.” In a statement on the book, members wrote that having novels like Anderson’s on shelves “allows young readers to understand the importance of speaking up…”
Scott, perhaps inspired by the club’s most current read, advises other students interested in reading banned books to not be afraid to speak up.
“Putting my voice and my opinion out there in a conversation that revolves around adults was really intimidating,” she says. “But through using my voice, I have found an amazing community.”