VHS Banned Book Club: Fighting Censorship One Book at a Time
Ella Scott of the VHS Banned Book Club on creating a space where students can read and have conversations about the books banned in their school district.
What was the inspiration behind creating the Banned Book Club?
Almost a year and a half ago, my friend Alyssa and I had our first conversation about book banning. We were doing online school at the time, so we weren't even aware that this was an issue on our campus. Our district had failed to communicate with students about the issue. Alyssa and I actually found out about the censorship through a teacher at our school. Once we were able to get our hands on the list of books that were being banned, we recognized that many of them were ones we had already read and enjoyed like The Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel and Kiss Number 8. Immediately, we were confused as to why the district had pulled these titles and wanted to understand why certain adults believed that these books, which we had loved, were harmful or inappropriate. So from there, we decided to start our club as an opportunity for students in our school to have conversations about these novels that certain adults had deemed "inappropriate". Our motivation was twofold: first, to allow students an opportunity to discuss these beautiful and complex stories, which Alyssa and I had loved and learned from, and second, to protest against censorship. We believe that every student should have the opportunity to read the books that they want, because books help to widen our perspective on the world.
How exactly did it come about? And what has the response from your school community been?
After Alyssa and I first brought up the issue, we decided to reach out to a few of our friends and asked them if they'd be interested in discussing these books with us. At our first few meetings, we had a small group, only about six of us, but our members were passionate and invested in the issue. With our small but mighty group, we started working our way through the banned books list and had conversations about how these novels benefited our education as students, and why we needed them back on the shelves. As we worked throughout the year, our club almost tripled in size and media recognition helped spread the word about our cause. Since our club has grown, we've seen tons of positive support: many new members joined, our teachers supported us and encouraged us to keep fighting, and librarians across our district presented the views we shared with them at committees that were set up to reconsider the books that had been banned.
There’s a lot of debate about what these book bans are really about, or rather what’s behind them: are they born out of a sense of fear – that by reading diverse perspectives certain beliefs might be debunked – or is it just a knee-jerk reaction to difference. What do you think?
From our experience, we've definitely seen many adults challenge these books out of fear of what is different. Many of the common themes in banned books – LGBTQ relationships, racial inequality, and abusive relationships, to name just a few – are all things that have been around for centuries. However, banned novels break a barrier and open up conversations around these themes that many have tried to silence. Through these books, these themes and messages are starting to enter mainstream conversations and I do believe that a large part of why they are banned is that people are uncomfortable addressing these realities that have been underrepresented for so long.
At their best, books – like all good art – inspire thought. Of all the books you’ve read and reviewed, is there any one, in particular, that resonates with you?
One of my favorite books is The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Especially after Roe v. Wade was overturned this summer, I found it odd that this book could be banned. I mean the idea that a book that talked about women losing their reproductive rights was deemed inappropriate is unbelievable: a case of reality mirroring art. When Margaret Atwood wrote The Handmaid's Tale, she claimed in an Atlantic article that at times the idea seemed "too far-fetched." This novel was created with the intent to be dystopian, but recently the novel seems to be more of a cautionary tale as to what may be possible if America continues on the trail it's headed. This is why the novel is one of my favorites, as it got me asking so many questions about my identity and rights as a woman, and how I deserve to be equal to any man.
Finally, how can those reading support your mission?
The best thing you can do to fight book censorship is to pick up a banned book and talk about it. When these books are being pulled off classroom shelves, people are attempting to silence these unfamiliar conversations. But the best way to fight against this censorship is to just talk about them anyway. Once we break that boundary and begin to talk about these unfamiliar topics, they suddenly become a lot less scary. Suddenly themes like sexual assault or racism aren’t something that is silenced, but instead are things we are all aware of and educated on. By letting these conversations enter the mainstream we allow these stories to be heard and, hopefully, allow others to realize that difference is nothing to fear.