Cicely Lewis loves being a school librarian. Lewis has spent nearly two decades in education. For the past seven years, she’s worked as a librarian at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross. The job encompasses everything she’s drawn to, including the teaching component, and an opportunity to train other educators. Getting to buy books is just the cherry on top.
Outside of the school halls, Lewis runs the program Read Woke, where books that shed light on issues left out of the curriculum and feature voices of marginalized individuals are highlighted. Through Read Woke, young readers are challenged to expand their literary diet. Since 2017, the initiative has reached schools in 29 states and three countries. It’s flourished, but it’s also been reviled.
It’s no secret that education in the country has been a target of a number of hot-button issues over the past two years. Parents, educators, and officials remain at a crossroads on the topic of what kids learn in schools and who gets to make those decisions. Much to the dismay of librarians, books lie in the wreckage.
In Georgia, SB 226 recently went into effect. Signed by Gov. Brian Kemp earlier this year, the law requires school systems to develop policies to resolve complaints about materials that are “harmful to minors.” This includes text that depict “nudity, sexual content, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse,” but Black librarians and educators in the state are worried this will affect materials written by Black authors, especially ones that tackle aspects of American history.
Lewis’ program is not allowed in some schools. She’s often contacted by librarians asking for advice on how to deal with opposition to their programming. One instance in particular has stuck with her. In 2020, a librarian at a metro Atlanta public elementary school was gearing up to implement Read Woke, and the day of the kickoff, Lewis was set to make an appearance. Upon her arrival, she was told by the school’s principal that the program wouldn’t proceed because a parent took issue with the word “woke,” and didn’t want the books associated with the program to be read to their children. Lewis said she remembers the principal of that school crying in disbelief over what happened.
The American Library Association tracks challenges to library, school, and university materials. In 2021, over 1,500 books were challenged — the most in the 20 years since the organization began recording. The most challenged books were ones that deal with LGBTQ+ issues and race.
In addition to SB 226, other recent state laws that have gone into effect, include the “Parents’ Bill of Rights” and HB 1084 — which bans teaching “divisive concepts” — could have “devastating ramifications” on students of color’s learning, according to Aireane Montgomery, a high school teacher in Gwinnett County.
“It’s as if we don’t want our students to embrace the reality of the American fabric,” Montgomery said. “We know that America was founded on … hopeful principles, but it’s very inequitable, and so for us to not be able to teach our students properly, doesn’t make any sense.”
Montgomery is president and CEO of the nonprofit Georgia Educators for Equity and Justice, which focuses on safeguarding Black educators and advocating for Black students. She said educators are “very scared” and yet “very divided.” She teaches at a diverse school, but still feels vulnerable.
“Being very pro-Black in this instance, it’s very difficult for me,” she said.
It’s that difficulty in navigating the current social landscape that worries Lewis. She’s concerned librarians are going to pre-emptively censor themselves to avoid the chance of retribution. “That is the most dangerous thing we can do,” she said.
The very notion of book challenges is nothing new, but SB 226 changes the process for removing a book. Now, the decision falls on school principals. Lewis calls the legislation “demeaning” as it takes the power away from the people who have trained for the job. She thinks this change and uptick in book challenges is not for the benefit of the people directly affected by the removals.
“They care nothing about the school. They care nothing about the kids,” she said. “They could care less what they were reading. The kids have been reading these books. These books have been in the library.”
Eight books were banned — including “The Bluest Eye” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue” — in Georgia before SB 226 was signed. All of those removals were in Forsyth County, a county with a Black population of just under 5%. Now, over a dozen books have been banned in the state, which ranks 12th nationally.
Stephen Thomas is a public library advocate and indie bookshop owner. He grew up in the library and considers it his “passport” to exploring new places and cultures that he otherwise wouldn’t have experienced. Thomas believes access to books, especially ones that children of color see themselves in, is invaluable.
Thomas has heard about the book challenges in schools, and through friends at public libraries, feels there is a concern that increased attention on the books offered could go beyond the schools as well. “People fear what they don’t know,” he said.
In other states, public libraries have been criticized for their programming and displays involving Black history and LGBTQ+ issues — and have been restructured with new laws. As libraries continue to struggle with budget cuts, the pressure to more tightly monitor their circulation stands to impact operations moving forward.
The future isn’t entirely grim. Lewis admits current circumstances have made for a “sad day for librarianship,” but there are also glimmers of hope. Her students, for one, aren’t standing for any bans. A conversation between her and the president of the school’s LGBTQ+-focused group prompted the creation of a book club that will feature challenged books.
Lewis says she doesn’t doubt that the nature of these book challenges will especially affect Black students by making them feel like “there’s something about them that does not deserve to be discussed or to be heard.” But educators, including school librarians, are in a unique position to comfort and tend to these feelings.
“If they’re smart, they’re using this opportunity to really get these kids to thinking about, ‘Hey, if they’re trying to take something away from you, then maybe there’s something powerful in it,’” Lewis said.