Preparing for a new fight against book bans

Just over a month after Banned Books Week 2022, the risk to literature has intensified. Depending on the outcome of the US midterms, moves from Republican lawmakers to silence certain books could take a firmer grip.

On library shelves in the USA, certain books have fallen prey to challenges and subsequent localised bannings. There’s a blank space where Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye used to sit in many Florida schools (and beyond), while Juno Dawson’s This Book is Gay has been banned in a septuplet of states. The incredible Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, an interweaving of narratives that crosses generations and continents, has been carted away on the librarian’s trolley in areas of Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas.

Of the banned works, the vast majority centre stories of people of colour or LGBTQ+ characters and authors. A recent report from PEN America found there were over 2,500 book bans across 32 states between July 2021 and June 2022. And where America goes, the rest of the world often follows.

In the autumn issue of Index on Censorship, we explored book bannings in the USA and the growing movement to keep literature free.

George M Johnson, author of one of the most banned books in the USA, wrote about how being banned gave them a hunger to write more, to deal with the racism and sexual identity that they had no resources to tackle as a child. We spoke to Kings Books in Tacoma, Washington State, where a monthly banned books club sets free the literature which has been erased from the shelves of school libraries and classrooms.

“You end up talking about topics that don’t normally come up in conversation because banned books cover those controversial topics [including] the clichéd things you don’t talk about in public,” the club’s co-ordinator David Raff said.

This group puts freedom to read into practice, and it is not alone. There’s the protest against book censorship in classrooms, where students in Texas staged a read-in at the Capitol Rotunda, devouring books on a Republican lawmaker’s list of condemned titles. Students in Pennsylvania stood up against books being removed from their library. Parents in Texas and Florida organised protests. Against the rising tide of book bannings, even calls to burn books which echo the darkest moments in history, people are resisting.

The big question around these book bannings is: why? Why would parents or lawmakers seek to ban The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hate U Give, or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings? Even the stunning children’s picture book by Jessica Love, Julian is a Mermaid, does not escape the censor’s wrath in areas of Florida and Pennsylvania.

Of the banned works, the vast majority centre stories of people of colour or LGBTQ+ characters and authors. As the latest American Library Association (ALA) report puts it, the challenges are often led by conservative groups to shut down materials which “address racism, gender and sexual identity”.

The most-banned books, compiled by PEN America, paint this picture clearly. George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue is banned in multiple areas of 13 states, including New York and Washington. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison racks up bans in 12 states. And Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel Gender Queer: A Memoir, is missing from shelves in multiple school districts in 15 states, landing the unenviable spot as most-banned book.

In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill that allowed parents to search a list of books available in schools and to object, specifically referencing Lawn Boy as containing passages of “paedophilia”. Meanwhile Moms for Liberty was one of the groups that spearheaded the campaign for All Boys Aren’t Blue to be banned, tweeting: “They [school board members] want to rob children of their innocence.”

I spoke to Nick Higgins, the chief librarian at Brooklyn Public Library, where the Books Unbanned project supports young people across the USA facing book challenges or outright bans in their communities. Brooklyn might not be at the sharp end of book bannings, but they’ve extended their relatively censorship-free status to allow young people across the whole country to access their catalogue of half a million eBooks and audiobooks using a free library card – whether the books are banned or not. Higgins says the library wants everyone to have access to a well-maintained, diverse, broad spectrum of ideas.

“This is what it means to live in a pluralistic society,” he said. “You are encountered with ideas that you agree with, and ideas that you don’t agree with, and the diversity of a community is something that makes us richer, stronger, more empathetic to one another, and is really necessary for a healthy democratic society.”

The recent spate of book challenges and bans, he said, is a movement to silence particular voices and lock away those narratives.

“What that says to a young person […] trying to seek out voices that sound like their own, characters that speak to them – and they find adults in their communities taking those stories off the shelves and hiding them away – it says to that young person that they don’t belong in that community, they have no place in that community and their voice doesn’t matter,” he said.

And the library hasn’t stopped with the Books Unbanned project. There’s a virtual banned books club, most recently discussing Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe with teen librarian Jes G. Young adult interns also formed the Teen Intellectual Freedom Council, creating a network of young people. They meet remotely with a group of teens in Austin, Texas – the state that tops the list in number of bans and where in 2021 a bill passed prohibiting lessons where “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex”. One of the bill’s sponsors, Representative Matt Krause, followed up by demanding that libraries tell him if they carried any of the 850 books on his hit list.

“It’s a troubling development in this fight, where lawmakers are getting involved in basically doing the work of professional librarians, are doing the work of professional educators, and making the case that because they in some way, shape or form are allocating funds to support this institution, then they have the say on what is actually presented on the shelves or in the classroom,” Higgins said.

The #FReadom campaign in Texas is another grassroots effort. Sparked in response to Matt Krause’s list of condemned books, #FReadom started life as a Twitter hashtag where people were asked to tweet about diverse books across a day of action. After a huge success, the campaign morphed into a website, alongside behind-the-scenes work to support librarians facing book challenges. The goal is to uplift and support librarians, as well as providing resources for those who want to speak up. I spoke to retired librarian and one of the founders of #FReadom, Carolyn Foote.

“Obviously there’s a hunger for fighting back against censorship and fighting for intellectual freedom,” Foote told me. “So many librarians are scared to speak up. And so I’ve kind of become the spokesperson for our group because I am retired. I don’t have an institution keeping an eye on what I’m saying.”

Book challenges, she said, are extremely isolating for librarians. But the empathy and support the campaign musters is designed to give people hope, and to remind people who librarians are.

When Matt Krause’s list of books came out, she remembers how glaringly obvious it was that the target was books about race, authors of colour and LGBTQ+ topics.

“We felt like it was so important to speak up on [behalf of our] more marginalised kids or more vulnerable kids, because it was their stories being removed from the shelf,” she said.

When America’s bookshelves are emptied of very specific books, everyone loses. The young readers, the librarians, the teachers and the communities that miss out on important and varied conversations. Uncomfortable topics are buried instead of addressed, brilliant books become taboo. As Carolyn Foote said to me, “Libraries are about truth telling.”

But while the book ban figures increase and a new threat looms, the movement to unban books shows no signs of slowing down.

An earlier modified version of this article was originally published on The Bookseller.

Banned Books Week: Whose Voices Are Still Being Censored?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”114632″ img_size=”large”][vc_column_text]Banned Books Week 2020 (27 September–3 October) takes place four months after George Floyd’s murder led to a global resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and three months after the publication of the Rethinking Diversity in Publishing report, which demonstrated the particular challenges writers of colour still encounter.

Taking Banned Books Week’s theme as its starting point – a celebration of the freedom to read – our panel take stock of the commitments to inclusion and representation that have been made in publishing over the last few months. With representatives from the books industry – from editors to heads of writers’ organisations – this webinar will explore how we work together to celebrate marginalised voices in literature.


Adam Freudenheim is the Publisher and Managing Director of Pushkin Press. He has worked in publishing since 1998 and was Publisher of Penguin Classics, Modern Classics and Reference from 2004 to 2012. Adam joined Pushkin in May 2012, where he has launched the Pushkin Children’s Books, Pushkin Vertigo and ONE imprints, and he is particularly proud to have published the first translation of The Letter for the King by Tonke Dragt and Jakob Wegelius’s dazzlingly original The Murderer’s Ape; as well as to have introduced the acclaimed American short story writer Edith Pearlman to British readers (with Binocular Vision) and Israeli writer Ayelet Gundar-Goshen (her most recent novel is Liar).

Sharmaine Lovegrove is the Publisher of Dialogue Books, the UK’s only inclusive imprint, part of Little, Brown Book Group and Hachette UK. Dialogue Books is a home for a variety of stories from illuminating voices often missing from the mainstream. Sharmaine was the recipient of the Future Book Publishing Person of the Year 2018/19 and is inspired by innovative storytelling, and has worked in public relations, bookselling, events management and TV scouting. She was the literary editor of ELLE and set up her own bookshop and creative agency when living in Berlin. Sharmaine serves on the boards of The Black Cultural Archives, The Watershed and is an founding organiser of The Black Writers Guild. Home is London, she lives in Berlin and her roots are Jamaican – Sharmaine is proud to be part of the African diaspora and books make her feel part of the world.

Claire Malcolm is the founding Chief Executive of the literary charity New Writing North where she oversees flagship projects such as the David Cohen Literature Award, Gordon Burn Prize, the Northern Writers’ Awards and Durham Book Festival and award-winning work with young people. She works with partners from across the creative industries and charity and public sectors including Penguin Random House, Hachette, Faber and Faber, Channel 4 and the BBC to develop talent in the North. Claire is a trustee of the reading charity BookTrust, the Community Foundation Tyne and Wear and a board member of the North East Cultural Partnership.

Aki Schilz is the Director of The Literary Consultancy, which runsediting services, mentoring and literary events. At TLC Aki co-ordinates partnerships and programmes, including running the Quality Writing for All campaign which focuses on inclusivity and diversity. In 2018 Aki was named as one of the FutureBook 40, a list of people innovating the publishing industry, and was also nominated for an h100 Award for her work with the #BookJobTransparency campaign. In 2019 she was shortlisted for the Kim Scott Walwyn Prize for women in publishing, and in 2020 was named as one of INvolve’s Top 100 Ethnic Minority Future Leaders.


In partnership with the Royal Society of Literature, English PEN, the British Library and the Black Writers’ Guild.


This event is FREE for all. Please register here.[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”114627″ img_size=”large”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text][/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Banned Books Week: Resisting Self-Censorship

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”114628″ img_size=”large”][vc_column_text]In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resultant global Black Lives Matter protests, it has been clearer than ever before that the voices of some are prioritised to the exclusion of others.

As part of Banned Books Week 2020 – an annual celebration of the freedom to read – Index is partnering with the Royal Society of Literature, the British Library and English PEN, bringing together a panel of writers who have committed to sharing their stories, to creating without compromise, and to inspiring others to do the same. We ask what ‘freedom’ means in the culture of traditional publishing, and how writers today can change the future of literature.


Urvashi Butalia is Director and co-founder of Kali for Women, India’s first feminist publishing house. An active participant in India’s women’s movement for more than two decades, she holds the position of Reader at the College of Vocational Studies at the University of Delhi.

Rachel Long is a poet and founder of Octavia Poetry Collective for Womxn of Colour, based at the Southbank Centre. Her first collection My Darling from the Lions, shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best Collection 2020, explores the intersections of family, love, and sexual politics. She is co-tutor on the Barbican Young Poets programme.

Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist, whose work has been translated into 54 languages. She is the author of eighteen books; her latest, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and the 2020 RSL Ondaatje Prize. She holds a PhD in political science and she has taught at various universities in Turkey, the US and the UK. She was elected an RSL Fellow in 2019.

Jacqueline Woodson is the author of more than two dozen award-winning books. She is a four-time National Book Award finalist, a four-time Newbery Honor winner, a two-time NAACP Image Award winner, a two-time Coretta Scott King Award winner, recipient of the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, the 2018 Children’s Literature Legacy Award and the 2020 Hans Christian Andersen Award.


Public tickets can be booked through the British Library (£5).[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”114627″ img_size=”large”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text][/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Risky business: Bookselling in Libya

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”The dangers of selling “the wrong” kind of book in Libya are many and varied and yet one chain of bookshops is still open for business. Charlotte Bailey speaks to a bookseller in Tripoli”][vc_column_text]

A street in Tripoli. Credit: David Stanley/Flickr

A street in Tripoli. Credit: David Stanley/Flickr


“One of my brothers is still active with the bookshop. The other two, they are kind of scared. They don’t go much anymore,” said Ghassan Fergiani, managing director of the London-based Darf Publishers.

His brothers run Dar Fergiani, a bookselling and publishing business in the Libyan capital Tripoli. The bookshops have remained open despite the brutal civil war that started in 2011, killing thousands and splintering the country into three governments and a vast number of militia groups.

“They got tired of it, the fear,” he continued.

Dar Fergiani is a family firm and what Fergiani calls his legacy. His father, Mohammed Fergiani, started out with three bookshops in Tripoli in 1952 and, a few years later, opened a publishing house. In Libya’s post-independence period, he enjoyed relative freedom to publish and sell the books.

“There was some censorship, but not much,” said Fergiani.

But in 1969 Muammar Gaddafi seized power and four years later launched what he called a cultural revolution, with the aim of removing all traces of imported ideologies and all signs of foreign influence. Books the authorities considered problematic were burned. A few years later Gaddafi published his Green Book, which outlined his governing principles. The chapter on the media banned private ownership of publishing companies.

“In the late 1970s, they confiscated all his shops, all his stock, all his staff, everything,” Fergiani said.

Arrests and assassinations then forced Mohammed Fergiani to London. “My father feared for his life,” Fergiani explained. Not knowing when, or if, he would be able to return, he founded Darf Publishers in the UK.

But after Gaddafi implemented a series of more internationally friendly policies in the 1990s, Mohammed Fergiani decided to go back. He repurchased the stock the government had seized and began cautiously selling books again. “He had to be very careful,” said Fergiani.

A key demand of the protesters who overthrew Gaddafi in the 2011 revolution was freedom of expression. And, in the immediate aftermath, there was more space for different voices. Citizen journalism became more common and there was a proliferation of television, radio and print publications.

“Everybody was excited. We started selling books critical of Gaddafi. We published a book about democracy.”

[/vc_column_text][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-quote-left” color=”custom” align=”right” custom_color=”#dd3333″][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”2/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”We started selling books critical of Gaddafi. We published a book about democracy” google_fonts=”font_family:Libre%20Baskerville%3Aregular%2Citalic%2C700|font_style:400%20italic%3A400%3Aitalic”][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_column_text]

The different types of books available, from niche non-fiction to international bestsellers, and a renewed interest in Libya more generally, led to a spike in demand at the stores. People flocked to the three smart, airy shops with their white stone floors and large windows in the Italian-era streets that lead off from Martyrs’ Square in the north and Hay Al Andalus further west.

The initial excitement did not last long. This area, where once the well-heeled frequented cafes and did their shopping, has become the site of violent clashes. This violence alone has put people off visiting the bookshops.

Today, the legal environment in Libya remains poor for booksellers and publishers. While a constitutional declaration passed in August 2011 provides limited protection for freedom of opinion, communications and the media, it does not fully reflect international standards for freedom of expression and does not abolish censorship. Under Law 5, passed in 2014, any statements that could harm or prejudice the 2011 revolution or insult the executive, judiciary or legislature, are punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

The deteriorating political and security situation has created a chaotic and dangerous media environment. Foreign journalists hardly ever visit.

The Tripoli-based internationally-backed Government of National Accord operates a censorship board, which Fergiani said has a haphazard approach that makes it difficult to predict what will be allowed. After success with Chewing Gum, the debut novel of the Libyan author Mansour Bushnaf with Darf Publishers in London, Fergiani tried to publish it in Arabic with Dar Fergiani in Tripoli. “We submitted it to the censorship board, but they rejected it,” Fergiani said. The board gave no reason for its decision.

Speaking to Index from Benghazi in Libya, Nada Elfeituri, founder of the grassroots group Young Writers of Benghazi, said: “It’s frustrating when I can’t find a popular book written by a Libyan inside my own country. Libya doesn’t have many books, libraries or publishing houses.

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_icon icon_fontawesome=”fa fa-quote-left” color=”custom” align=”right” custom_color=”#dd3333″][/vc_column][vc_column width=”2/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Forces loyal to Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar were accused of burning 6,000 books” google_fonts=”font_family:Libre%20Baskerville%3Aregular%2Citalic%2C700|font_style:400%20italic%3A400%3Aitalic”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]

“There were several initiatives to introduce a wider variety of books, even ones that might be considered taboo, but again that became restricted as different government groups controlled the books that entered the country,” she said.

In January, for example, forces loyal to Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar were accused of burning 6,000 books in the east of the country. These books included works of philosophy by Friedrich Nietzsche. In a video of the book seizure posted online, an officer said the books promoted violence, sorcery, eroticism and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Meanwhile, there is a constant threat from militia groups. Numbers suggest there are up to 2,000 militia groups, all with different ideas about what should and shouldn’t be published.

“Sometimes somebody tells them this is a bad book for one reason. Another time, a different militia takes your book out for a different reason,” said Fergiani, who explained that recently a militant came into one of the shops and demanded that they rearrange the show window to give priority to religious books. Three people who work at Dar Fergiani bookshops have also been arrested in Tripoli on different occasions and were only released after a complex set of negotiations.

“That is the pressure that in Libya we live under. It doesn’t have to be a government or a dictator. It can be anybody.

“You start fearing for your life. You start saying – OK I don’t want to do this. What am I in it for?”

These problems are compounded by the exceptionally difficult economic environment in Libya. The World Bank said in 2016 that the economy was on the verge of collapse. The currency has crashed, making Dar Fergiani books expensive. There are regular city-wide power cuts, an intermittent water supply and very little internet.

Despite this, Dar Fergiani has remained open six days a week throughout the war and Fergiani continues to travel to Tripoli frequently for work.

“Just don’t ask us why we do it,” said Fergiani.

When pushed on the answer to that question he added: “As a publisher and a bookseller you want to promote certain books. You want people to be exposed to different ideas.

“But it’s hard.”


Charlotte Bailey is a freelance journalist writing for newspapers including The Guardian. She used to live in Beirut, Lebanon where she worked for the Daily Star 

[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_custom_heading text=”From the Archives”][vc_row_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”80561″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”″][vc_custom_heading text=”Enemies of the people” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]June 2014

Writer Matthias Biskupek took part in demonstrations in East Germany as the Berlin Wall came down. He looks back at the attempts to censor books and theatre.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”92001″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”″][vc_custom_heading text=”The media under Gadaffi” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]May 1987

An interview with Fadel Al-Messaoudi, who believes the media has been directly controlled by the government since the cultural revolution of 1973.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][vc_column_inner width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”94326″ img_size=”213×289″ alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=”″][vc_custom_heading text=”Censorship and Col Gadaffi” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]October 1981

Libyan journalist exiled in Spain, F. el-Manssoury, reports on soldiers’ accounts of censorship in Libya from first-hand knowledge of the early President Gaddafi’s regime.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][vc_separator][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Free to air” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]Through a range of in-depth reporting, interviews and illustrations, the autumn 2017 issue of Index on Censorship magazine explores how radio has been reborn and is innovating ways to deliver news in war zones, developing countries and online

With: Ismail Einashe, Peter Bazalgette, Wana Udobang[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_single_image image=”95458″ img_size=”medium” alignment=”center” onclick=”custom_link” link=””][/vc_column][vc_column width=”1/3″][vc_custom_heading text=”Subscribe” font_container=”tag:p|font_size:24|text_align:left” link=”|||”][vc_column_text]In print, online. In your mailbox, on your iPad.

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