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Disturbed by book ban, teenager starts a banned book club in the small town of Pa

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When the book ban in schools reached unprecedented heights in the United States, 14-year-old Joslyn Diffenbaugh had none of it.

“It’s really problematic because books are the only way 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. “It’s books that make you think.”

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

“These books are great works of literature, and I really just did not 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 turning point came in late October when a Republican lawmaker in Texas launched a study of school libraries in the state and compiled a list of 850 titles – mostly written about race and sexuality – and demanded that schools reveal whether they keep the books. . .

Local attempts to restrict books have also been increasing in Pennsylvania. In January, the Kutztown School Board voted narrowly to keep “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe in the high school library, despite calls from some parents and community members.

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

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

“Reading a book on racism does not make you racist, and reading a book on gender identity will not make you transgender,” Lisa Diffenbaugh said. “Reading a book only benefits you.”

With the support of his family, Joslyn contacted Firefly Bookstore, a local store, and asked if they would be willing to help facilitate a banned book club for teens.

Instead of starting a book club in school, “we wanted it to be open to children from other districts, and we wanted the freedom where everyone could express their opinions without anyone saying those opinions were wrong,” said Joslyn.

The bookseller’s staff were on board immediately.

“All of us here at Firefly Bookstore agree that book bans are 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 himself, who they are, or what their worldview is, and by banning these books, we are basically banning their voices.”

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

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Last month, PEN America, a nonprofit focusing on free speech, published a report showing that there have been 1,586 book bans – many of which have racial and LGBTQ themes – in U.S. schools over the past 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 written by LGBTQ or black writers.

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

The book ban has mostly been driven by parents, politicians and experts. At the district level, many of the book bans are secretly enforced by school administrators as a way to avoid controversy.

Young people who want the freedom to read a wide range of topics have chosen their own path, not just by starting book clubs, but also by suing.

“It’s so encouraging to see them come together to get the books they deserve,” said Nicole Cardoza, founder of Banned Books Book Club, a monthly virtual book club, online library and endangered book foundation. “They deserve to see stories that represent their own lived experiences.”

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

The Teenage Banned Book Club had its first meeting in the Firefly Bookstore in January, and the group of 12 teenagers has been meeting every other week since. The youngest member of the club goes to seventh grade, and the oldest goes to 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 pick titles.

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

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

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

Since joining the club, Johnson said it does not make sense to her why many of the books are blacklisted.

“A lot of the time, after reading the book, I just think, ‘Why was this banned at all?’ ” she said.

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

“If you want to ban a book, it will just 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 also learned a lot and has also found a diverse group of new friends who share her love of literature.

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

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