Maia Kobabe’s 2019 memoir Gender Queer is an after-dinner favorite in Jen Cousins’ house. The family lives in Orange county, Florida, and all four children read the book when their mother first brought it home two years ago. She had to; she couldn’t stop crying when she read the last page.
For Saffy, her second oldest, who is now 14, Kobabe’s memoir is more than an after-school read. It has become a lifeline. Saffy came out as non-binary two years ago and finished the book in just an afternoon. Looking up at their mom, they said they finally felt seen.
The changes in her child, Jen described, were palpable. Small forms of expression, once so painstaking – like what to wear into sixth grade – become exciting decisions pulled off with effortless ease. One day it was a pink dress patterned with strawberries: another, a two-piece suit and tie.
At home, the book helped Saffy feel comfortable and confident with gender expression.
But at school, Gender Queer was banned.
For the past two years, book banning has been on the rise in schools and libraries across the US, mainly due to far-right pressure. The bans are pushed either by local actors, like anxious parents and parent-led groups or by politicians through broader state-level laws. A recent PEN America study found that the bans were most prevalent this year in Florida, Texas, Utah, Missouri and South Carolina.
Consistently, these bans target materials written by and about people of color or LGBTQ+ individuals, and even though a 2022 poll found that 70% of parents oppose them, they are continuing at a rapid rate.
Now the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is trying to fight back. It recently launched the Banned Book Program, granting free nationwide access to books restricted in schools or libraries.
It functions through GPS-based geo-targeting; by typing in your zip code, you are shown the complete list of titles prohibited in your area. Once you download the Palace e-reader app, these books are available to download.
“Saying ‘Just to go to the library’ is no longer a stable alternative to having these books in schools,” Jen said. “Some kids don’t have supportive parents or live near public transport. The DPLA has created a resource that will benefit so many.”
“These books aren’t just for kids who are queer,” Jen added, “there as much for those who aren’t, to teach them empathy. It’s insidious that the state is telling children who they should or shouldn’t be.”
The nationwide fight over what is appropriate for children to read is happening in tandem with a broader legislative push to restrict the teaching of topics such as racism and sexuality in schools. Bills like “Don’t say gay”, which rightwing governor Ron DeSantis signed into effect in Florida last year, scaled back what could be taught in the state’s curriculums. Alabama and Arkansas have since enacted similar laws, undermining the resources that children can use to think, read and learn.
Even for Steven Roiphe, a father living near Bar Harbor in coastal Maine – an area with fewer restrictions – these bans feel like they’re closing in on his family.
Steven’s son Lincoln is 10 years old and about to start the fifth grade. He loves podcasts, audiobooks and recently just finished Property of the Rebel Librarian.
If the family’s nearest public library doesn’t have a book, though, it can be challenging to get; they don’t have a bookstore in their local town, and the closest one by car has a limited selection.
“I told my son, any books he needs that are restricted, I’ll download the Banned Book app,” Steven said. “People are coming to blows even at small school-board meetings like ours, so it’s great to have this e-library at our fingertips.”
The DPLA’s Banned Book Program is not the first online resource of its kind in the US. In April 2022, the Brooklyn Public Library in New York launched Books Unbanned, giving anyone between the ages of 13 and 21 a free library card to download ebooks from their collection. The venture was successful; over 6,000 teens from all 50 states signed up, checking out roughly 100,000 online books.
Seattle Public Library followed suit earlier this year, vowing to “stand with Brooklyn” and “fight censorship” by replicating their scheme. Having a west coast operation, they believed, might extend the reach of audiences, also helping those in rural areas with less access to resources.
“Every individual has the right to decide what materials they choose to read and to explore new viewpoints,” said Andrew Harbison, the Seattle Public Library’s director of library programs and services.
For Nicole Miltonberger, a high school student in Austin, Texas, resources like this could be crucial to her and her friends going into the future.
Nicole is a founder of the Vandegrift Banned Book Club, an all-female group that meets after school to discuss a different banned book. A recent favorite was Nowhere Girls, Amy Reed’s 2017 novel that fights against the pervasiveness of rape culture and school misogyny.
Every week, if not month, the students gather around the wooden-lined library and pick a new title banned in their state. They have a range of choices, too; Texas districts had the most instances of book bans last year, totalling 438.
It’s a routine these girls love, that they feel empowers them and, most importantly, helps them fight back.
“Knowledge is power,” Nicole said.
For Jen and her family, it’s a different story. Their situation in Florida, especially with queer children, has become unimaginable.
“If I had the money, I would absolutely relocate us to another state in a heartbeat,” she said. “We don’t have the financial stability to do that now, but it is part of our five-year plan.”