Illinois is once again a haven amid a sea of restrictive Midwestern states — this time over intellectual freedom and protections around keeping library books on shelves.
As Illinois became the first state to make a public stand against book bans, many neighboring states are making statements in the reverse: They plan to make it easier for books to be challenged and the consequences for pushing back against such restrictions more severe.
In April, Missouri cut libraries out of its budget because two library groups challenged a new Missouri law that made it a misdemeanor for librarians and educators to give students access to books deemed sexually explicit.
Meanwhile, in Iowa this summer, a school district used the AI chatbot ChatGPT to find and then ban books after Gov. Kim Reynolds signed legislation “prohibiting instruction related to gender identity and sexual orientation.”
In May, Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb of Indiana signed a bill that requires schools to publish their book catalogs online so that community members can more easily review which books they would like to challenge.
And in Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, has publicly argued against bills proposed by the state’s Republican legislators — one of which would prosecute school staff. However, the state has not yet passed the numerous bills that have been introduced.
Although Illinois has protections that surrounding states do not have, the threat to democracy remains. Anti-censorship advocates urge Illinoisians to also be vigilant and vocal in their support against these efforts as they are often politically motivated and aimed at removing access to books about underrepresented groups. And, they argue, the state’s bubble of protection could pop with any change in leadership.
The issue is also continuing to grow nationwide. Book challenges nearly doubled in the U.S. in 2022, with the majority of those books written by and about people of color or LGBTQIA+ people.
“As citizens, we all have to speak up and make it understood to our elected officials that we won’t tolerate it and we want policies in place that prevent that, but to support individuals whose right to read and other states is being infringed, to support the librarians who are being attacked for providing books to their community,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the ALA’s director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom. “We have to come together and provide support for those folks.”
Book challenges “anywhere, anytime, to anyone”
Mark Letcher is an associate professor and director of English and Secondary Education at Lewis University in Romeoville, Ill., and is a resident of Indiana.
“Even though Illinois is well ahead of the game in terms of this anti-book-banning legislation and the book sanctuary designation, book challenges can still happen pretty much anywhere, anytime, to anyone,” he said. “It’s just that over here, in Indiana, we are seeing a lot more concentrated legislative efforts to make it easier for individuals or groups to basically force removal of books from school or library shelves.”
Educators and librarians face very strict penalties, including substantial fines and even jail time, if they are deemed in violation of this Indiana law, Letcher said. As a member of the NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Standing Committee Against Censorship, he said that supporting advocacy organizations that help them can be essential.
“From the teachers’ and librarians’ perspective, I know that when a book gets challenged, it can be a very frightening and a very isolating experience,” he said. “You feel like you’re pretty much on your own against the world and you’re not quite sure who has your back.”
Letcher also recommends people in Illinois patronize independent bookstores that have a really strong anti-censorship stance — stores like Anderson’s Bookshop, which has locations in Naperville and Downers Grove.
Marketing manager Kerry Clemm, who runs Anderson’s anti-censorship efforts, said awareness is a way to support the fight against book bans as a whole.
“Because we’re in a position where bans aren’t happening here [in Illinois], the best thing we can do is spread information,” Clemm said. “It is just critical that the information that we’re spreading … is correct and it comes from legitimate news sources.”
Clemm said Banned Books Week, which the ALA launched in 1982, has been a way for the literary community to support free access to books. But now, as challenges and bans have exponentially increased in recent years, it’s becoming more imperative to amplify, fact-check and cite information about updates from all over the country.
“[If] these book removal campaigns were to come at any of our school districts or our public libraries, they have the support of the state right now,” she said. “So we do live in a nice little bubble. But one thing that I keep reminding people is that elections have consequences, and our bubble could pop at any rate. So it’s really, really, really important to stay on top of everything that’s going on around the country.”
Deciding access for everyone
Angelina Cicero is the head of the English department at a public school in Wisconsin. She said students and their families have the right to opt out of reading any book, for any reason.
“I believe — and I think most educators believe, I think most librarians believe — that parents have every right to decide what their own children have access to and read,” she said. “That is radically different from one parent, from one viewpoint, religious perspective, political perspective or personal cultural perspective, saying that they have a right to decide what anybody else’s child has the right to have access to.”
A student and her family requested that a book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, be removed from the curriculum and also from the school’s library. The district gathered volunteers from a pool of staff, students and parents who read the book and discussed it. Cicero defended its place in the curriculum. Then, the committee voted 13-1 to keep the book.
Cicero said how the challenge was handled felt fair and democratic.
“They actually read the book, had an intelligent discussion about it and then voted,” she said. “So that was wonderful. That was democracy in action, that was accountability in action.”
As far as support, Cicero does caution people to be careful in interfering with what is happening at the local level, as people who challenge books are sometimes community outsiders. Instead, she said, it’s important to support efforts that encourage others to be an inspiration to take action within their own communities.
“The empowerment of other parents who believe in intellectual freedom,” Cicero said, “is bolstered when the word is out that [collective efforts to protect access to books] can work.”
Arionne Nettles is a lecturer and director of audio journalism programming at Northwestern University’s Medill School. Follow her @arionnenettles.
This story is part of “The Democracy Solutions Project,” a partnership among WBEZ, the Chicago Sun-Times and the University of Chicago’s Center for Effective Government. Together, we’re examining critical issues facing our democracy in the run-up to the 2024 elections.