Efforts to ban books in schools and libraries are moving full speed ahead across the country.

So advocates for education and freedom of expression have taken to the road to give parents and communities resources to fight back against censorship.

The Banned Bookmobile tour arrived Tuesday in Pittsburgh, the first stop in its trek through much of the nation spreading awareness about the importance of the freedom to read. The New Republic magazine and the American Federation of Teachers organized the tour, the first week of which takes place during the American Library Association’s Banned Books Week. On Wednesday, the tour hits Washington, D.C., before heading down to Florida.  

Through Aug. 31, there have been 695 attempts to censor library materials and 1,915 challenges to unique book titles, according to the American Library Association. That figure is 20% higher than at the same time last year, which set the record for the number of challenges. A Washington Post analysis released last month found that 11 people were responsible for about 60% of the challenges nationwide.  

“Most of these books tend to be about LGBT characters, African American characters, Jewish characters, Black history and sex,” said Kym Blanchard, a spokesperson with the New Republic. “It’s them deciding what’s appropriate.”

Various studies have shown that a large majority of parents are against book bans. But the bans continue to be pushed, mostly by conservatives, who in recent years called for schools to remove protections from LGBT students and to stop teaching critical race theory, even though K-12 schools don’t teach the academic theory that focuses on the idea that racism is systemic and U.S. institutions maintain the dominance of white people. 

The Banned Bookmobile brought more than 1,000 free books for students as well as literacy tips and tools, professional development resources, and information on how people can work to keep books widely accessible for all. Some of the books on tour are among those being challenged around the country, according to tour organizers.

“When you start to ban books, you give kids the impression there’s something they should be afraid of, whereas books are really meant to open up worlds for them and open up doors for them,” said Leslie Getzinger, a spokesperson with the American Federation of Teachers. “That’s what we want everybody to see. Reading is a pathway to learning and to opportunities.”

The Banned Bookmobile tour made its first stop in Pittsburgh because of the city’s status as a sanctuary for writers. In addition to the book giveaway, the event — hosted by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers — featured music from the Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts Jazz band, Italian ice, and local author Sharon Flake, who has had books removed from shelves.

Ebony Pugh, a spokesperson for the Pittsburgh Public Schools, said no books have been challenged in the city school system, although one man did recently inquire about a number of books used in the district. 

District Superintendent Wayne N. Walters, school board member Sylvia Wilson, and Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, all spoke out against book bans at the event.

“We know that often the books that turn up on banned lists are those that highlight the experiences and perspectives of the most marginalized, including African Americans and other people of color, as well as members of the LGBTQIA community,” Walters said. “If we’re going to put students first always, then we must ensure that they have equal access to books that reflect in both narrative and illustration a diverse American society, providing equal representation of African Americans and other cultural and ethnic groups.” 

Learn more about the tour at https://bannedbooksweek.org/event/the-new-republic-the-banned-books-tour-2023/2023-10-03.

Pittsburgh author Sharon Flake, who’s had books pulled from shelves, reads to students Tuesday at Faison K-5 in Homewood during the Banned Bookmobile’s stop in Pittsburgh. (Andrew Goldstein/Pittsburgh Union Progress)

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at agoldstein@unionprogress.com.

Andrew Goldstein

Andrew writes about education and more for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at agoldstein@unionprogress.com.