5 Tips for Responding to Book Challenges

As Book Challenges Reach Record High, UMD Doctoral Student Outlines What to Know and Steps to Take
A teenager chooses a book in a library.

Whether it鈥檚 a silver-haired U.S. senator reading graphic passages from 鈥淕ender Queer鈥 aloud on the floor of Congress, or parents seeking the removal of National Book Award winner 鈥淭he Poet X鈥 by Elizabeth Acevedo MFA 鈥15 from school libraries, , according to the American Library Association.

(Oct. 1-7) in 2023 arrives during a heated debate between conservative-leaning parents鈥 calls to limit what books children can access in schools and the rights to free speech and expression and pleas for diverse voices on libraries鈥 shelves.

Pamela Callahan, a doctoral candidate in the 含羞草研究所鈥檚 含羞草研究所 policy program, has explored trends in book challenges and the legal implications of classroom library challenges. She offers five things you can do if a book is being challenged in your local school district:

  1. Read the book. 鈥淥ne of the single most important things a parent or community member can do during a book challenge is to read the book,鈥 Callahan said. 鈥淵ou鈥檒l have first-hand knowledge about the book鈥檚 content and context and whether the premise for the book challenge is warranted.鈥
  2. Engage with local school board members. In addition to participating in public comment, meeting one on one with a school board member or attending their scheduled community chats can be helpful. 鈥淲e鈥檝e heard from school board members that these kinds of interactions can help them better understand their constituents and the issues they care about,鈥 said Callahan.
  3. Join your district鈥檚 review committee. In one of their studies, Callahan and fellow UMD doctoral candidate Joel Miller examined more than 40 school districts where a public school library book challenge was reported to the American Library Association within the last five years. They found that most of these districts had formal review committees that parents and community members could serve on and actively engage in the decision-making process around whether a specific book was removed.
  4. Know the case law. The 1982 Supreme Court ruling in Island Trees Union Free School District vs. Pico offers a guideline for school boards and members of the community to use when navigating a contentious library book challenge, Callahan said. The court found that books can be removed for 鈥減ervasively vulgar鈥 content or limited 含羞草研究所 suitability, but not for partisan or political reasons. It concluded that libraries function as special sites of intellectual exploration beyond the required classroom curriculum.
  5. Recognize the complexity of this issue. 鈥淚t's important for students to explore diverse ideas and see a variety of characters and topics in their reading material. We need to be prepared to have conversations that may be uncomfortable but that help young people understand a complicated world,鈥 said Callahan. 鈥淵et there are times when you want a book challenge process and possible removal. For example, if I saw Fifty Shades of Grey鈥 in my niece鈥檚 elementary school library, I would be thankful for the opportunity to raise a concern.鈥

Book Challenge vs. Book Ban
A book challenge is an attempt to remove a book from the library, whereas a book ban is the physical removal of a book, according to the American Library Association. 鈥淲hen a book is challenged, we still have access to the book and can take steps to fight the book challenge. Fighting for a book after it鈥檚 been physically removed from a school library often requires legal action,鈥 said Callahan. See the association鈥檚 list of the .