School book bans spur a growing counteroffensive This year is expected to set a record for the number of book bans by public school libraries, so many people are finding creative ways to make banned books available to young readers outside schools.

Plot twist: Activists skirt book bans with guerrilla giveaways and pop-up libraries

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This school year is expected to set a record for books that are banned by public school libraries. And most often, the books that are banned discuss sexuality or race. As the books leave the library shelves, activists are finding creative ways to distribute them outside of schools. NPR's Tovia Smith has been looking into this. And we want to warn you this report includes mentions of thoughts of suicide.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It's hard to overstate how quickly a school ban can bring an unhappy ending to the shelf life of a book. This is one case where that old line that there's no such thing as bad publicity is more the exception than the rule.

ELANA K ARNOLD: I get a lot of, like, oh, your book's been banned. Congratulations. It's going to be a bestseller now. But that's not what happens to 999 out of a thousand books.

FADEL: Elana K. Arnold saw several of her books, like "Red Hood" and "What Girls Are Made Of," banned for sexually explicit scenes that critics call pornography. She calls that a gross misrepresentation, but her book sales plummeted.

ARNOLD: It's a huge hit. And I think because in a library, kids can stumble across something they didn't know they needed until they picked it up and read it, but if something is missing, you don't know it's not there. For most books, it's just a quiet disappearance.

SMITH: New numbers from the free speech group PEN America showed those disappearances are happening even more frequently this school year than last, when there were some 2,500 instances of book bans in U.S. schools. Most of those books were race- and LGBTQ-related. It's why many people are now taking it upon themselves to get those books back where young readers will see them outside of school.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This is my favorite series ever.

SMITH: A new Banned Book Nook recently opened inside a Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop in Melbourne, Fla., lending out about 150 books on Day 1. It was set up by Florida teacher Adam Tritt and the group he started, Foundation 451, after he was ordered to remove banned books from his classroom in nearby Palm Bay.

ADAM TRITT: My reaction was, no, I cannot allow this to happen. If the kid needs this book, we want them to have it.

SMITH: Tritt has already lent or given away nearly 2,000 banned books at a flower shop, street fairs, rallies and road races. It's been a lifeline, he says.

TRITT: One family came in with a trans teenager and picked up "This Book Is Gay" and just cried. And their father held them, and they both just thanked us so much. They didn't know this book existed.



PERKINS: How are you?

SMITH: Thais Perkins, who owns Reverie Books in Austin, Texas, is one of many booksellers also giving books away. She covers some of the cost herself and raises the rest.

PERKINS: On a whim, I put on Twitter, hey, is anybody feeling extra Christmassy? And I woke up in the morning with $1,400 in an account.

SMITH: Around the nation, there's a growing number of similar giveaways, pop-up libraries, Little Free Libraries packed with banned books and even a banned bookmobile. Chris Finan heads the National Coalition Against Censorship.

CHRIS FINAN: What we are beginning to see, after a year and a half of really kind of being back on our heels, is that the opposition is growing, that the other side is overreaching, and it's making people mad, and they're getting active.

SMITH: Including students themselves.

OLIVER STIRLAND: What really got to me was two books that completely transformed my life were suddenly on a banned book list, and it kind of felt like a stab to the gut.

SMITH: Eighteen-year-old high school senior Oliver Stirland from St. George, Utah, says a school librarian recommended the books to him when he was struggling with his sexuality and fighting thoughts of suicide. Now he's raising money to slip books like those into Little Free Libraries all over town.

STIRLAND: If I can give one kid a book that helps that kid, that lets them know that they're not alone, that would make everything worth it.

SMITH: Of course, tech-savvy kids who know the banned book they want can also find it online.

ELLE MEHLTRETTER: So if we search "The Bluest Eye," which has recently been banned in Florida...

SMITH: It takes 16-year-old Elle Mehltretter from Florida about a nanosecond on Google to find a pirated copy of Toni Morrison's debut novel.

ELLE: Right here, there it is. Yeah. You can say you banned books all you want, but you can never really ban them because they're everywhere.

SMITH: Banned books are also available legally through library apps and, for example, from the Brooklyn Public Library's Books Unbanned program that's now lending to teens anywhere in the nation. Heather Hall from Oklahoma says she's thrilled that her 12-year-old daughter, who's exploring her sexuality, can access not only books, but also a librarian who can talk with her freely.

HEATHER HALL: She was so encouraging and so sweet to her. It's just been really huge to have access to the conversations with adults that are very accepting. I started crying.

SMITH: Others are also filling in the gap, not only for the books that have been banned, but also for the teachers and librarians who've effectively been gagged. Heather Fleming's Missouri nonprofit has distributed thousands of free banned books. She recently started including a kind of curriculum with shipments of Nikole Hannah-Jones's book, "The 1619 Project," that explores slavery and racism in America.

HEATHER FLEMING: We owe it to our kids to give them all the tools that they need in order to be full citizens of America. And so we were just hoping to continue to build even more.

SMITH: It hasn't gone unnoticed by groups demanding book bans that the more books are pulled from school shelves, the more they pop up elsewhere, like a game of whack-a-mole.

TIFFANY JUSTICE: A hundred percent, it concerns me. I think it's so messed up that so many people want to show children all this explicit graphic content.

SMITH: But Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, says the group's singular focus is controlling books in schools where kids can avoid them. Personally, she says, she hopes prosecutors will crack down on what she calls illegal distribution of pornography.

JUSTICE: They better be careful because we have federal obscenity laws. Adults are not allowed to show children pornography. So the idea that somehow this is some virtuous effort to distribute graphic sexual violence, pedophilia - I think the law will deal with them accordingly.

SMITH: For their part, activists behind the guerilla giveaways say they're undeterred. Plans are already underway for two more Ben & Jerry's Banned Book Nooks in Florida. But ultimately, activist Adam Tritt concedes ad hoc efforts like his are just a Band-Aid. Books need to be in schools, he says, not only because many students lack the internet access or means to find them elsewhere, but also, Tritt says, because of the message it sends.

TRITT: If it's not in the schools, they're taking away representation. And when these kids don't see themselves, they're being further marginalized.

SMITH: As one publisher summed it up, buying banned books and giving them away is a fine act of protest, but he'd rather see more people speaking up at school committee meetings and voting. That, he says, is a much better bet.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.


FADEL: If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline - just those three numbers, 988.


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