Larger-than-life banned books are walking through downtown Doylestown, Bucks County, on Saturday evening. The marchers are dressed as books that have been banned across the United States. The books, including Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” and Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy,” depict LGBTQ themes, racism, and some have sexually explicit scenes.
“At a time of unprecedented attacks on marginalized youth, we want to send the message that everyone is equal in value and importance to our community,” said Kate Nazemi, Doylestown resident and Central Bucks School District parent who helped organize the parade.
The parade is part of national Banned Books Week. Bucks County residents are celebrating the books that have been banned across history, and the ones targeted in their hometowns.
A coalition of community organizations, authors, students, parents, and residents have been honoring the freedom to read and spreading awareness of local issues around censorship.
During Saturday’s parade, Nazemi says she will explain to onlookers the reason each book was banned or challenged, and award each one a “freedom to read’‘ ribbon of excellence.
Pennsylvania had the third most banned books across the country, with 457 bans in 11 school districts, according to a September 2022 report from PEN America. That’s more than 400 more banned books than Oklahoma, which censored 43 books and is fifth on the list.
The PEN America report shows the rapid growth of organizations pushing for book bans across the nation. Bucks County has not been immune to the influence of those groups, including Moms for Liberty, a national organization that has coordinated Bucks County parents in favor of censorship. The county has become a battleground over book policies that many view as bans.
In March 2021, a small group of Central Bucks parents read book excerpts listed on an anonymous website, Woke Pa, that they wanted removed from schools, many with LGBTQ- related content. Some claimed teachers could use books for “left-wing” indoctrination or to “groom” children, while some wanted more parental choice. After months of public outcry in opposition to censorship, the Central Bucks School District passed a book policy in July intended to filter books before they enter libraries, using vague selection criteria like “sexualized content.” Another policy passed in August to limit all school materials, including classroom books, using similarly vague criteria.
Some Central Bucks teachers started filtering their own libraries last school year, before policies were enacted, out of fear of retribution. Nearby in Pennridge School District, administration requested the removal of all books “referencing gender identity” from elementary school libraries.
A new local group that arose from the battles over book censorship, Advocates for Inclusive Education, helped coordinate the events promoting expansive book policies over the last week.
The Rainbow Room in Doylestown hosted a “story time” for youth as part of Banned Books Week to read inclusive childrens’ books and discuss the issue of censorship.
Carson Delany, 16, is a junior at Cheltenham High School, in Montgomery County, and attended the event at the Rainbow Room, where they also volunteer.
While Delany is a teenager, they felt comforted while reading childrens’ books with characters they identify with, surrounded by community. They said they wished they had access to these books when they were younger.
“I was born a girl, so I didn’t know I was allowed to like girls. I didn’t know it was okay that I didn’t feel comfortable when I started puberty and that I didn’t have to stay a girl,” Delany said. “I think I would have understood why I was feeling the way I did so, so much sooner if I had been able to read those books.”
Delany has been scattering banned books throughout Little Free Libraries in Doylestown. They don’t want younger kids to feel the same isolation they felt before finding the Rainbow Room: “I think that’s one of the things that really hurts, is I just I don’t want anybody else to have to go through that.”
They said they hope that book censorship policies backfire, “and the more people that know about the banned books will look into them.”
Amy McGahran, a Doylestown resident of 27 years, is a regional organizer with Red, Wine and Blue, a national organization working against censorship. The group hosted an event on Thursday evening to discuss censorship in Central Bucks and the district initiatives that many view as anti-LGBTQ.
About 150 books were collected, the majority of which were banned or challenged books, and will be restocked in Little Free Libraries throughout the area. Event attendees also wrote thank you notes to local school librarians.
“I think it’s really important in our community that we support our LGBTQ kids because they are facing a lot of bullying,” McGahran said, “and let them know that they are supported by the majority of the community, and that we love them, and that we care for them, and that we want school to be a safe place for them and an inclusive place for everybody.”
Banned books popping up around Bucks County
Most branches of the Bucks County Free Library have a banned books display for books that have been challenged through the last four decades. The county library’s book collection team also created a banned books shelf with more than 100 books on the cloudLibrary app.
At the entrance to the Bucks County Free Library in Doylestown, a table full of banned books includes George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a book that has been targeted by parents during Central Bucks school board meetings, “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, and “1984” by George Orwell.
“It’s important to remind people that this is not a new thing. It’s always gone on. And there’s a lot of books you’ll be surprised that have been challenged,” said Library Assistant Manager Charlie Lasorda. “It’s important to keep those voices and those people’s stories at the forefront for people to find and read.”
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