Kelly Jensen is an author, editor, and writer for Book Riot and Stacked. She spoke with ABFE about her reporting on book bans in 2023 and what she predicts for 2024.
Can you describe your reporting on book bans for someone who isn’t familiar with it? What are one or two stories from 2023 you’re especially proud of?
Every week, I collect and roundup the book ban news happening across the country. In addition to the documentation, I write about stories that stand out to me or offer some kind of insight into the bigger movement. My audience is the average reader, but library workers, educators, book sellers, and others in the industry are all engaged. The weekly roundups and other big stories are published on Book Riot and the Literary Activism newsletter.
I am especially proud of the pieces where I broke the story that went on to get attention in other outlets (unfortunately, it historically happens without much credit). In 2023, two that stand out are the piece on SkyTree Book Fairs — the "alternative" to Scholastic which is an arm of Brave Books — and the story behind BookmarkED, an app designed to "help" with book bans in Texas (it's in two parts).
What in your background led you to write about the ongoing book ban crisis?
I'm a former public librarian. In undergrad, I did an internship at my college's library and my mentor had me work on a project related to book bans. That was a Long Time Ago, and it's what really ignited this passion.
2023 was an important year in terms of both book bans and the movement to resist them. Looking back, how do you think we’ll remember 2023 in these terms?
I'm not sure we will, if I'm being honest. We tend to forget this is cyclical and absolutely none of this is new. Go back to the 1950s and the mass panic around comics and the same exact language and rhetoric was used then; go back post-Civil War and look at what the United Daughters of the Confederacy were doing–they're the models for groups like Moms For Liberty. We just have new tools, which have both allowed such a quick, wide reach in banning, as much as they have helped people connect and coordinate resistance.
This increased wave of censorship began in 2021. I guess I'm curious why it took until 2023 for more people to listen to those of us who began sounding the alarm years ago. There are still so many who believe because they live in a "good" state, it's not in their backyard. It is–and it has been.*
What are some of the stories you’ll be following in 2024?
I'm watching the lawsuits happening in several states [like Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and Iowa], as they're going to offer some guidance as to what the legal system thinks of these First and Fourteenth Amendment violations.
I'll also be keeping an eye on the fact that more books are going to be pulled without any cause and with no guidance by policy. As PEN America has reported, most books pulled from schools were in violation of policy, if there was any policy in place at all. We're seeing it over and over. It's going to continue, if not get worse.
In terms of book bans, what are you most concerned about in 2024?
Right now, it's that people think Moms For Liberty is the only player in the game because they have cutesy nicknames on social media. Yes, they lost many school board elections. Their *former* director has gotten press for her extracurricular activities. But what about all of the other groups out there doing similar work? How many schools, libraries, and, frankly, journalists, continue to see things like BookLooks as legitimate "crowd sourced" book reviews (it's a Moms For Liberty creation and also not the only one–see RatedBooks.org, from several other groups' efforts).
I'm worried about burnout, too. This burnout will be with those working on the ground in schools and libraries, as well as activists. Those of us who've been doing this since the start are tired of being dragged over and over for doing this work, are tired of being spied on, are tired of being told we're pornography-peddling groomers. My own book was banned in retaliation for my anti-censorship work in 2023. It's mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting.
Conversely, where (if anywhere) do you find the most reason for optimism about this issue?
There are a lot of good people doing good work on the ground, including the Florida Freedom to Read Project, Texas Freedom to Read Project, Right to Read Sumner, and dozens of others. There are individuals doing good work, as well as organizations which are filing lawsuits to push this onto the legal system.
What do you think is the most important thing the average book person can do to support free and diverse literary expression?
Vote in your school and library board elections. If you are in the position, run for those positions. Show up to those meetings, either in person or via letter, and talk about the good things happening in each. Love a book display your library had up for Black History Month? Tell the board. Chances are that the book banners have already complained.
*This attitude is, unfortunately, why it's important to emphasize writing letters in support of your public institutions. At the end of the day, this is about defunding schools and libraries and using public money to fund private institutions that push for a singular white, straight, cishet, right-wing Christian worldview. If you want your institutions to thrive, you need to tell them what they're doing well on the public record.