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Upset by book bans, teen starts forbidden book club in small Pa. town

The Teen Banned Book Club meets biweekly at Firefly Bookstore in Kutztown, Pa., to discuss books that have recently or historically been banned. (Lisa Diffenbaugh)
6 min

As book banning in schools reached unprecedented heights in the United States, 14-year-old Joslyn Diffenbaugh was having none of it.

“It’s really problematic, because books are the only way that you can be in another person’s shoes,” said Joslyn, a self-proclaimed “book nerd,” who lives in the small town of Kutztown, Pa., near Allentown.

She has read several books that have been banned by school districts across the country, including “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “All American Boys” by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, both of which deal with police brutality.

“They were really eye-opening,” said Joslyn, an eighth-grader at Kutztown Middle School. “They are books that make you think.”

As attempts to forbid books increased both in Pennsylvania and in other school districts nationwide, Joslyn felt she needed to do something. Like several other teens across the country, she started a banned book club — where members read books that have been outlawed in schools and then meet regularly to discuss them.

“These books are great works of literature, and I really just didn’t understand why so many people wanted to ban them,” Joslyn said. “It’s important that people read these books because it helps them grow.”

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For her, the tipping point came in late October, when a Texas Republican lawmaker launched an investigation into school libraries in the state, and compiled a list of 850 titles — written mainly about race and sexuality — demanding that schools reveal whether they carry the books.

Local attempts at restricting books have been on the rise in Pennsylvania, too. In January, the Kutztown School Board voted narrowly to keep “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, in the high school library, despite outcry from some parents and community members.

The soaring efforts to challenge books “compelled me to start something where we could talk about banned things,” Joslyn said.

Her mother enthusiastically encouraged Joslyn to form her own “Teen Banned Book Club,” which is what they decided to call the group.

“Reading a book about racism doesn’t make you racist and reading a book about gender identity isn’t going to make you transgender,” Lisa Diffenbaugh said. “Reading a book only benefits you.”

With support from her family, Joslyn reached out to Firefly Bookstore, a local shop, asking if they would be willing to help facilitate a banned book club for teens.

Rather than starting a book club at school, “we wanted it to be open to kids from other districts, and we wanted the freedom where everyone could express their opinions without someone saying those opinions are wrong,” Joslyn said.

Bookstore staff members were on board right away.

“All of us here at Firefly Bookstore are in agreement that book banning is wrong,” said Jordan Busits, a sales associate who offered to help run Joslyn’s book club. “Books are meant to say something about the author themselves, who they are or what their world views are, and by banning those books we are essentially banning their voices.”

Two recent reports underscore the growing movement to ban books in school districts nationwide.

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Last month, PEN America, a nonprofit focused on freedom of expression, published a report, which found that there have been 1,586 book bans — many of which feature racial and LGBTQ themes — in U.S. schools over the previous nine months.

In the same week, the American Library Association released its annual report on book censorship, which found that there were 1,597 book challenges or removals in 2021 — marking the highest number in the association’s 20-year history. Most of the titles were penned by LGBTQ or Black authors.

There is even a baby book, “Everywhere Babies,” that was included on a list of books targeted for removal in Walton County, Fla.

The book bans have mostly been fueled by parents, politicians and pundits. At the district level, many of the book bans are being done by school administrators in secret, as a way of avoiding controversy.

Young people who want the freedom to read a wide variety of topics have made their own path, not just by starting book clubs, but also by filing lawsuits.

“It’s so encouraging to see them rallying to be able to have the books that they deserve,” said Nicole Cardoza, the founder of Banned Books Book Club, a monthly virtual book club, online library and fund to support threatened books. “They deserve to see stories that represent their own lived experiences.”

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In addition to hosting monthly book clubs, “we are also buying books to send to schools and libraries across the United States,” Cardoza said, adding that her organization offers “resources and training” on how to start a book club, so that students like Joslyn have the tools they need.

The Teen Banned Book Club had its first meeting at the Firefly Bookstore in January, and the group of 12 teens have been congregating every other week since. The club’s youngest member is in seventh grade, and the oldest is in 10th grade.

So far, they have read six novels, including George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” as well as “Melissa” by Alex Gino and “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.

“We made a list of historically banned and recently banned books,” said Joslyn, who consults with Busits and book club members to select titles.

“One of my biggest fears early on was that no one would show up, but it’s really cool to see that people are willing to talk about these hard topics,” Joslyn said, explaining that she has also been stunned by the media attention her initiative has received. “I never thought that so many people would be interested in this tiny little book club in this tiny little town.”

When Bridget Johnson, 13, heard about what the teens were doing, she was eager to join.

“I love the book club,” she said. “It’s connecting through reading and learning, and it’s a really special experience.”

Since participating in the club, Johnson said it doesn’t make sense to her why many of the books are blacklisted.

“A lot of the time, after I’ve read the book, I’m just like, ‘Why was this even banned?’ ” she said.

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Jillian Rager, 14, another member of the Teen Banned Book Club, said restricting material makes it more desirable to young people.

“If you’re going to ban a book, it’s just going to make kids want to read it more,” she said, adding that discussing books with peers has helped her think more critically about them.

Joslyn said she has learned a lot, too, and has also found a diverse group of new friends who share her love of literature.

“There are other book nerds out there that are really interested in these banned books,” she said. “It gives me hope for the future.”

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