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5 Tips for Responding to Book Challenges

As Book Challenges Reach Record High, UMD Doctoral Student Outlines What to Know and Steps to Take

By Natifia Mullings

Stacks of books with American flags in the background

Stacks of books that have been banned or challenged by U.S. school districts from a Capitol Hill press conference in March. During Banned Book Week, a UMD doctoral student offers tips on responding to book challenges.

Photo by Francis Chung/POLITICO via AP Images

Whether it’s a silver-haired U.S. senator reading graphic passages from “Gender Queer” aloud on the floor of Congress, or parents seeking the removal of National Book Award winner “The Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo MFA ’15 from school libraries, the number of book challenges in the United States has drastically increased in the past year, according to the American Library Association.

Banned Books Week (Oct. 1-7) in 2023 arrives during a heated debate between conservative-leaning parents’ calls to limit what books children can access in schools and the rights to free speech and expression and pleas for diverse voices on libraries’ shelves.

Pamela Callahan, a doctoral candidate in the University of Maryland’s education policy program, has explored trends in book challenges and the legal implications of classroom library challenges. She offers five things you can do if a book is being challenged in your local school district:

  1. Read the book. “One of the single most important things a parent or community member can do during a book challenge is to read the book,” Callahan said. “You’ll have first-hand knowledge about the book’s content and context and whether the premise for the book challenge is warranted.”

  2. Engage with local school board members. In addition to participating in public comment, meeting one on one with a school board member or attending their scheduled community chats can be helpful. “We’ve heard from school board members that these kinds of interactions can help them better understand their constituents and the issues they care about,” said Callahan.

  3. Join your district’s review committee. In one of their studies, Callahan and fellow UMD doctoral candidate Joel Miller examined more than 40 school districts where a public school library book challenge was reported to the American Library Association within the last five years. They found that most of these districts had formal review committees that parents and community members could serve on and actively engage in the decision-making process around whether a specific book was removed.

  4. Know the case law. The 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Island Trees Union Free School District vs. Pico offers a guideline for school boards and members of the community to use when navigating a contentious library book challenge, Callahan said. The court found that books can be removed for “pervasively vulgar” content or limited education suitability, but not for partisan or political reasons. It concluded that libraries function as special sites of intellectual exploration beyond the required classroom curriculum.

  5. Recognize the complexity of this issue. “It's important for students to explore diverse ideas and see a variety of characters and topics in their reading material. We need to be prepared to have conversations that may be uncomfortable but that help young people understand a complicated world,” said Callahan. “Yet there are times when you want a book challenge process and possible removal. For example, if I saw 'Fifty Shades of Grey’ in my niece’s elementary school library, I would be thankful for the opportunity to raise a concern.”

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