In Universal Ninth Grade English teacher Zia Grossman-Vendrillo’s classroom, students are learning to write their own picture books. They read examples from the library like “Julián is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love. “Julián is a Mermaid” is about a little boy who wants to be a mermaid. He sees a group of people on the subway dressed as mermaids, and he wants to be like them. Love’s book sounds like a sweet, innocent story, but it hasn’t always been received as such. It’s been permanently banned in a school district in Florida and challenged in many other states.
“I told students that this book was banned in many places … I think some were shocked that some people could find this lovely book unacceptable,” said Grossman-Vendrillo.
In the last year, the number of book bans in the United States has increased by a staggering 33 percent, according to PEN America. The American Library Association reports it went from 2,532 instances of book banning in the 2021-22 school year, to 3,362 during the 2022-23 school year. Most of these challenges came from parents who worried that their children were being exposed to “obscene” books.
Many book bans occur because they contain diverse characters from historically marginalized communities. Book banning and other forms of censorship are also being used to further politicians’ agendas.
“The idea of book banning is being used politically, in order to suppress … voices of the queer community and people of color,” said Amelia Monagle-Olson, the president of Berkeley High School’s Amnesty Club. “I think in Berkeley we’re very lucky to not even know which books are really banned … but I think people should know that even in California, there are threats of books being banned and people’s right to choose what they read being taken away.”
The Amnesty Club recently hosted a letter-writing event, demanding that governments in places like Nigeria, China, El Salvador, and Iran release any writers or artists who had been imprisoned for exercising their right to free speech. This event was a part of Amnesty International’s campaign to protect freedom of expression. According to Monagle-Olson, the club will be hosting another letter-writing campaign this winter called Write for Rights.
It is often assumed that Florida has one of the highest numbers of permanent bans in the country. While this is accurate, it is important to note that California has attempted to implement more bans, despite having a lower number of permanent bans than Florida.
To combat this, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law on Monday, Sept. 25, that prohibits school boards from banning books that are classified as diverse. This is a rare case, as there are hardly any protections against book banning. For Ayla Conway, a BHS sophomore, the few procedures in place to stop book bans is not enough.
“Kids need to read a wide variety of books to give them perspective and broaden their worldview,” said Conway.