We Must Fight for Books

by Alicia J. Novo

“I can’t buy you any more books,” my mother told me the spring I turned ten. She wasn’t being mean. A big reader herself, she recognized the realities of 20,000% annual inflation. Purchasing five books a week for me to devour wasn’t economically feasible.

Where I grew up, libraries didn’t exist. A handful stood, testimony to a golden era of lauded authors and progress, when learning mattered. By my time, libraries were moldy places housing reference tomes and encyclopedias. Not a picture book in sight. No novels. Barely some classics.

After my mom’s pronouncement, I set out on a quest, raiding the homes of everyone I knew… But if no one owned a book I craved, I didn’t get to read it.

This is censorship in the form of access.

Where I grew up, books weren’t banned. They just weren’t easily available: the result of populism and the exultation of ignorance, combined with dictatorship and two military regimes. This type of censorship seems easy to dismiss. It appears excusable. After all, my parents could buy books. Except they couldn’t. And I was privileged; other kids didn’t have wall-to-wall shelves at home, a literature professor aunt, and bibliophile friends.

Only after I moved to Germany did I discover a library as it is meant to be, a place of wonder and plenty—so generous after every excursion, I ferried my plunder home in a red Radio Flyer wagon. Once, an old man watched me push my bounty up the ramp of the tram. 

“I remember when they burnt them,” he said with sadness, clutching a volume to his heart. Even though I never saw him again, his words stayed with me.

It starts with books. 

Every tyrant in history has used censorship as a weapon. First comes cutting access, restricting subjects. Then widespread banning. The persecution for reading. For writing. For speaking one’s mind. By the time they build bonfires, burning is an act of propaganda—the destruction of freedom already complete.

So when I heard my Indiana library was relocating YA books to the adult section, I was shocked. How could this be happening in America, my adopted home of overflowing libraries and ultimate freedom? 

But it WAS happening. People talked of restriction as protection, of controlling content, of dictating what children in other families should read.

With a project cost of $300,000, the list included titles by Judy Blume, Rachel Hartman, Andrew Smith, Gayle Forman, Elizabeth Acevedo, many diverse authors—and John Green. An Indianapolis native, Green sounded the alarm. Suddenly, national news outlets were paying attention, and when an SCBWI member shared a letter she planned to read at the library board meeting on behalf of children’s writers, I recognized the chance to act. We started a signature petition, coordinated with local authors, and joined a group campaigning against the issue. I spoke with a reporter at the Indianapolis Star. We spread the word among family and friends.

At the next board meeting, over two hundred people showed up. So many that dozens had to watch the proceedings onscreen in an overflow room. Author Tracy Richardson read our letter and many—parents, retired librarians, teachers, veterans, and book lovers—decried the policy. The board halted it. Three meetings later, they cancelled it. Two board members have resigned since. Another was replaced.

This is the power of speech. Of words put to action.

As writers, words are our superpower, so it's our responsibility to wield them.

I want to be clear. My involvement in this victory was infinitesimal—a face in the crowd. But that is the beauty of it. What’s required of us is a tiny effort, which becomes outsized because we aren’t alone. Free speech nonprofits agree that grassroots campaigns are the most effective in defeating censorship. Showing up and speaking up makes a difference. We shouldn’t be afraid to be a single, small voice either. According to PEN America, over fifty percent of banning attempts were initiated by just four groups. If so few can drive bans across thirty-three states, surely, we—writers, illustrators, members of SCBWI—can be louder still. Who could be more empowered and better positioned? 

I hope other states will look to Indiana’s debacle and be deterred in their censorship efforts. I suspect, instead, we’ll have to defend the First Amendment over and over. 

I know I will—because if a child ever asks me as I asked that old German man in the tram, “What did you do?” rather than his silence and darting eyes, I want to be able to answer, “I fought for books.”