How to Start a Banned Book Club | News & Commentary

Millions of students went back to school this year and have faced censorship efforts that limit their right to learn. Since 2021, dozens of states have moved to introduce and pass classroom censorship laws that prevent students and educators from discussing race, gender, and sexual orientation in K-12 classrooms and universities. At the same time, politicians and school boards across the country have taken steps to ban books — particularly books depicting Black and LGBTQ experiences — from public schools and libraries.

Students directly affected by these censorship efforts are on the front lines of fighting for their right to an inclusive education. We spoke to Ella Scott, a Vandegrift High School student who co-founded the Vandegrift Banned Book Club in response to book bans at her Texas high school. We hope this conversation inspires you to defend your right to read and learn.

ACLU: What inspired you to start Vandegrift High School’s (VHS) Banned Book Club?

IT: The VHS Banned Book Club is run by myself and my childhood best friend, Alyssa Hoy. Alyssa’s mom is a teacher at our high school, and she mentioned that there was a list of books that our school district, the Leander Independent School District, wanted removed from our classroom shelves and libraries. The books have also been removed as reading and discussion opportunities in our English classes.

For a long time we had no idea this list existed because our school struggled to communicate it. We were really shocked that the students didn’t know this was happening as it is something that affects our education and has a huge impact on what we can learn and what materials we have access to. So we really wanted to create the club as an opportunity for students to become aware of this topic and make sure students have the materials they need to talk about it.

ACLU: After you decided to start a banned book club, what were the first steps you took to get it started?

IT: We started reaching out to our friends first to spread the word about the club and try to recruit members. We were initially a very small group as there were only six of us at the beginning. But now we have tripled our size, which is very exciting! We met at the library about every month and started going through the list of books our school was trying to remove and focusing the discussions on them.

I think what really helped us in the beginning was talking to other students and reaching out to friends through the club because there is power in numbers. The more people you involve, the more awareness you can create for the topic. It really helps because it shows how many people are passionate about their right to read and their right to an education.

ACLU: When you tried to start your club, were you rejected by your school?

IT: Like any other school club in our high school, we had to go through an application process to become a club. But overall we have not received any opposition from our teachers or librarians to form the club. You all really supported us. However, the biggest hurdle at first was that we had difficulty getting access to the novels we wanted to read due to our district’s book ban. We asked some of the English teachers who had extra copies of some books on their shelves if VHS Banned Book Club students could borrow them for a month, but they couldn’t because of the school district’s ban. So instead we published Amazon public wishlists for books that were contributed by donors who allowed us to get some of the books on our list for club members.

ACLU: How do you choose books to read for the club?

IT: All of the books we have read and suggest reading are from the list of books that the district has removed from our school. We have a Google form that we update every month where we have all of these books listed and our members can vote on which one they want to read next.

ACLU: How many books has the banned book club read so far?

IT: Oh, that’s a good question. We read 7 books.

ACLU: What’s your favorite banned book you’ve read so far?

IT: The story of the maid!

ACLU: How often do you meet?

IT: We meet twice a month.

ACLU: How do you decide what questions to ask to lead these book club meetings?

IT: We have officer positions for our club and one of the positions is discussion curator. You are responsible for formulating approximately five questions at each meeting to guide the discussions. Most are standard book club questions like “What characters are you related to?” or “Which scene in the book did you particularly notice?”. But there are also questions like “How does the ban on this book affect you and make you feel like a student? and How does this affect your learning?”. These are the types of questions we will address as a group.

ACLU: Why do you think starting a banned book club is an effective way to take action and stand up to administrative and school boards trying to remove books from schools?

IT: There are some people in our school district who have very strong beliefs about whether or not books should be allowed. And you can definitely see that in our board meetings where a lot of people are voicing their opinions. But our focus is really on making sure every student has an opportunity to access and discuss these books. The best way to fight censorship is to engage students in the conversation adults say we shouldn’t be having.

ACLU: What advice would you give to other students who want to take action against book bans and other efforts by adults trying to limit their reading ability?

IT: I would say don’t be afraid to push boundaries. I think that was something I really learned from that experience. Many adults have not asked for student opinions in this book ban debate, but our club puts it where it wasn’t asked for, and I think it’s made a big difference. It helps many people understand that students add value in this conversation, and our opinion is just as valid as everyone else’s. As students in high school, we learn how to navigate the world around us, and these books really help us with that. If you support this issue, don’t be afraid to show that support and fight for it because you’re fighting for your rights. And you deserve that as a student. So there’s no reason to be afraid to stand up for what you believe in.

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