The Challenge

Season 7, Episode 7

Student activists in York, Pennsylvania organized a silent protest when hundreds of books were banned from their classrooms, paving the way for lasting change in their community. In this final episode of the series, we tackle the challenge head-on: from encouraging open dialogue about the books on our shelves to the ongoing work of protecting the freedom to read. 

Our call to action for this episode:

How will you use the stories you’ve heard over the course of this series to protect the freedom to read? Send a voice message to podcasts [at] bklynlibrary [dot] org and tell us what you’re seeing in your community, or what you want to see. We might play your voice on an upcoming bonus episode, so be sure to introduce yourself with your name, your age, and your location. 

More resources:

Check out every book mentioned on our Borrowed and Banned series!

Episode Transcript

[Promotion for Grapevine

Edha Gupta I was a fantasy lover when I was young, so I would read like Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Land of Stories, and I always wanted the silky hair that was described and the beautiful blue eyes that you just look into and fall in love with or the skin. And there was always like such extreme detail about, like the specifics of these women's appearances. And it was just like, it just made me feel like unworthy, or incapable to be loved. 


Adwoa Adusei This is Edha Gupta. She’s Indian-American, and she grew up in York, Pennsylvania, where she spent her entire educational life. And, though Central York School District is a fairly diverse one, with about one third of students identifying as non-white, Edha didn’t feel that her education was inclusive at all.  

Edha Gupta Nowhere in the books in read-aloud in any of the libraries did I ever see a young Indian-American girl with curly hair or with brown skin. If I wore cultural clothing, I was told that, "oh, that's weird." And there was like annual diversity celebrations that I would dance at, and like students would take videos of me and like, ridicule me about this type of stuff. So, it was like, for 13 years of my life, I assimilated without realizing how much pain or internal suffering it caused. 

Adwoa Adusei In response to the racial reckoning we all saw sweep the nation in 2020, a diversity committee at Central York released a list of books to help teachers include a variety of experiences in the classroom. 

Virginia Marshall That list included some of the titles we’ve talked about over the course of this series: The Hate U Give, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, and All Boys Aren’t Blue. There were also books by other great contemporary writers and thinkers: Ibram X. Kendi, Jason Reynolds, Sonia Sotomayor, and Jaqueline Woodson to name a few, as well as over 50 books for kids, including books about Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai. When Edha saw the books on the list, she felt seen. 

Edha Gupta One of the books, it was about a Black girl’s journey with her hair called Hair Love. And I think it was so beautiful to see that type of representation in a book about different hair textures, was just like, healing in a way. Because it was like my inner child's validation that like, no, like you are beautiful and there are different hair textures that exist and yours is also valid.  


Adwoa Adusei But, Edha wouldn’t get to see the positive impacts of that book list. Several months after the list was created, school board members voted to ban the entire diversity book list from all classrooms in the district. That amounted to dozens of websites, documentaries, and toolkits in addition to hundreds of books. Most teachers and students in the district, including Edha, then a senior in high school, didn’t even find out about the ban until the start of the 2021 school year, when a local paper published an article about the ban. The article mentioned an email that the Central York High School principal sent to all teachers.  

Edha Gupta It literally said like, these are the list of resources that are not permitted for you to use in your classroom. There wasn't much explanation behind it. It was just basically saying, "Oh, this is the decision of the board has made. You can’t use these resources in your classroom." And in that moment I was like, this is just inherently, morally wrong. And I started to see the cracks in the foundation of what I had put on a pedestal for 13 years of my education. I grew up being the model minority in the school district. And even my parents have always had that American dream like, keep your head down, do what you're told to do, you know, get a salary, have a good life for your kids, but then don't speak up about anything. And I think I just had that mindset where I just wanted to get through and not speak up. 

Virginia Marshall Everything changed when Edha heard about the book ban. She started talking to her classmates about it. 

Christina Ellis When Edha had sent me the link to the article and I read it, I was very angry.

Adwoa Adusei This is Christina Ellis, another senior at Central York High School. At the time, she and Edha were both members of PARU, the Panther Anti-Racist Union. Panthers are the school mascot at Central York. PARU members were fired up about the ban, so they called a meeting with teacher advisors and a handful of students. They decided on a silent protest of the ban. 

Christina Ellis My sister and I spent some time in our garage inhaling, you know, paint fumes of us making these posters all weekend long. They were posters saying, "Diversity Matters." "Education is Diversity." You know, "Black Lives Matter." Signs along those lines. 

Adwoa Adusei PARU members posted on social media so other students could join, too. Meet us outside school before class, they said. 

Christina Ellis We told everyone where to meet, what to do, and the expectations, that this will not turn into a riot. It would not be a chanting. It was going to be a peaceful, silent protest and we going to let the signs speak for themselves. So we met every day outside of school with the posters and we just sat there. So parents saw what was going on, the kids coming off the busses saw. 

Edha Gupta There was a lot of like, stares that are like, what is going on? Like, what are these people doing? Throughout the whole process, people thought we were crazy.

Christina Ellis But as the days went on, we gained more and more students joining us. 

Newscaster 1 Christina Ellis was surrounded by her peers again Friday morning. They say Central York School District needs to lift its block on a list of Black and Latinx-focused books. 

Adwoa Adusei For two weeks, students kept up the silent protest. Every morning. By the time the next school board meeting rolled around, students convened a community-wide protest. Over a hundred people showed up outside the district offices. 

Newscaster 2 Tons of parents, students, teachers, community members all here to protest against the Central York School District’s book ban. 

Virginia Marshall That night, the school board voted unanimously to reverse the ban. 

Christina Ellis It felt good to know that we were heard and supported by community members. So, like that night was like the first restful sleep I had in like two weeks ever since that ban started. 

Virginia Marshall It was a victory for sure. The New York Times ran a story on Christina and Edha, and the pair gave a TED talk about their activism. But I think the remarkable thing about this story is not what you can read in the news. It’s what happened after the protest ended and the media attention died down. The students kept going. They knew their fight wasn’t over. 

Adwoa Adusei Sure enough, the following school year, more books were banned. 

Edha Gupta Two books were taken out of the library, and that was under the claim that they contained adult content and pornography. And one of them was A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J Maas, and the other one was Push by Sapphire.  

Adwoa Adusei By that time, Edha and Christina had graduated and moved on to college. But because of the groundwork they’d laid, the students they’d left behind knew exactly what to do. 

Edha Gupta So, yeah, there was protest this year as well, and those protests went on for way longer. From March to the end of the school year in June. 

Adwoa Adusei One of the student protesters was Christina’s little sister, the one in the garage painting protest signs with Christina the year before. In Spring of 2023, those signs came out again.  

Virginia Marshall After months of continued effort, the bans were reversed. And, thanks to the momentum the students started in 2021, when seats on the school board came up for re-election in 2023, four candidates from different political backgrounds ran on a platform of opposing book bans … and they won. 

[Theme music] 

Adwoa Adusei Over the course of this series, we’ve brought you many stories of activism just like this one. We’ve talked about contentious school and library board meetings, and flash points over books.   

Virginia Marshall On this episode, though, we want to move beyond those dramatic stories. We want to talk about everything that comes before and after a challenge. Because the work of making sure everyone has access to all kinds of books and information is not glamorous. It’s a constant and evolving challenge. The student activists in York, PA knew this. Their continued efforts led to change. So we’re calling this episode—our final one of the series—“The Challenge.” I’m Virginia Marshall. 

Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to Borrowed and Banned: a podcast series about America’s ideological war with its bookshelves. 

[Theme music out] 

[Promotion for Listeners' Advisory]

Virginia Marshall In order to set the groundwork for this episode, we want to take a step back and define what a “challenge” actually is.

Sabrina Baêta A book challenge usually refers to a formal request or sometimes informal request to review that material. 

Virginia Marshall This is Sabrina Baêta, a researcher on the Freedom to Read team at PEN America. Sabrina is responsible for sifting through reports of book challenges and book bans from local news outlets, from school board minutes, and from individuals … and inputting all of that data into an index. So, their definition of the difference between a challenge and a ban is important. In order for a book to be banned, there has to be diminished access. So, taking the book off the shelf, removing it from curriculum, or covering entire shelves with butcher paper – those are all bans. Whereas a challenge just means that someone wants the school or the library to reconsider the book, but the book is still accessible. 

Adwoa Adusei PEN America has one of the most comprehensive national index of challenges and bans out there. So, we figured that Sabrina was the perfect person to walk us through what usually happens when someone challenges a book.  

Sabrina Baêta So there's usually a form that you can use called a request for reconsideration. A lot of times, the challenger will put their reasoning for why they want it to be reconsidered, they'll state that they've read the full material. 

Adwoa Adusei And a note that PEN American focuses on challenges and bans to books in schools rather than at public libraries. But a lot of what we talked about with Sabrina applies to public library challenges, too. 

Virginia Marshall After the formal complaint, the material in question usually goes to a review committee. 

Sabrina Baêta … which is usually made up of expert educators, librarians, principals, sometimes different admin and different district level officials, sometimes parents and students as well. They will read the full materal. They'll vote and come to a decision on whether to keep or not keep the material.  

Adwoa Adusei If a library is following standard protocol, after the review committee makes a recommendation … most often, that recommendation is followed.  

Sabrina Baêta But more and more, we are actually seeing examples of that review committee saying, okay, actually these are the reasons why this is pedagogically appropriate to be in this collection—and a school board saying, actually, no, we're still going to vote for the removal of the material. 


Adwoa Adusei That’s what happened in Keller, Texas—if you remember that story from episode three. The school board reversed a decision made by the community to keep over 40 challenged titles on school shelves.  

Virginia Marshall Sabrina said they’re seeing this happen more and more, nationwide. Schools have policies in place, but increasingly, those policies are being ignored. PEN America found that of the 2,532 bans they cataloged last school year, 96 percent were enacted without following the best practices outlined by the ALA and the National Coalition Against Censorship.  

Sabrina Baêta So instead of going through an official form that's fully filled out, there's a review committee that's put together ... versus an individual informally going to a school board meeting saying, "I don't like X, Y, Z books, please pull them." And the school having a knee-jerk reaction to that informal complaint that did not follow procedure and pulling the books out of fear and intimidation.  

Virginia Marshall A knee-jerk reaction, like what happened in York, Pennsylvania, when the school board banned an entire diversity book list in one fell swoop.  

Adwoa Adusei Another thing that PEN America has identified over the past couple of years is this idea that there is now a culture of fear and intimidation that is contributing to more bans than ever before. 

Virginia Marshall That fear comes from many places: from right-wing, grassroots organizations packing school and library boards and accusing educators of indoctrination; and it comes from legislation that threatens punitive action against libraries and library workers if they take a stand against censorship. All of those things contribute to not only an unprecedented rise in book bans to individual titles—the ones that have been labeled “obscene” or singled out as making a student feel "uncomfortable" about their race or gender expression—but that culture of fear and intimidation is also leading to bans of entire collections, rather than risk violating vague policies and laws. 

Adwoa Adusei As an example, Sabrina brought up Florida’s House Bill 1557, also known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill or officially, the “Parental Rights in Education Act," which “prohibits classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity.” In many districts, it’s up to educators to interpret what books fall under that broad description. 

Sabrina Baêta And they're being vaguely given this description of "no gender ideology." Well, what does that mean? Sometimes it just says nothing that's inappropriate. What does that mean? It’s purposely vague so teachers feel like they just have to pull materials. If you think about a classroom library for a teacher ... can have anything from dozens to a thousand books. There would be viral TikTok videos of teachers papering over their library collections. And that's … how can you count that? How can you count these books that never needed to be cataloged before? How do you ... ? We couldn't catalog that but we wanted to make sure that that story still got told. What we're seeing now is a more coordinated attack that is purposefully being done to break the systems. Some school libraries have been fully shut down.


Virginia Marshall Coordinated, sustained attacks like this—on books, and on libraries and educators … they're taking a toll. 

Colleen Norman We are feeling ... defeated right now.  

Adwoa Adusei This is Colleen Norman. She’s the Intellectual Freedom Committee Chair for the Missouri Library Association. And, she’s a librarian at a public library in the state. With the national conversation around book bans heating up over the past couple of years, Missouri library workers have felt the pressure in a big way. 

Virginia Marshall In August of 2022, the Missouri legislature passed Senate Bill 775, which banned explicit sexual material in classrooms and school libraries. And, if any librarian or school official violated that new law, they could face a $2,000 fine or up to a year in jail.  


Colleen Norman The issue with this is that there's really not a definition for what "explicit sexual material" is. Can I show pictures of the statue of David in my art history classroom? I don't know. So, there's a lot of questions about what that means. So much so that the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state for a violation of students constitutional rights. That lawsuit is still pending. 

Virginia Marshall In response to the lawsuit, Representative Cody Smith proposed the removal of all state funding to libraries in Missouri in March of 2023. 

Adwoa Adusei Threatening to remove of all state funding to public libraries is really serious. While a large library system—like the library system in Kansas City, Missouri, for example—can absorb the cost of losing state funding, smaller, rural libraries that rely almost entirely on state funding … 

Colleen Norman ... are going to struggle to keep their doors open, if they don't have state funding. 

Adwoa Adusei As soon as the news came out about library funding being in jeopardy, Missouri librarians rallied their communities. Thousands of people signed a petition to restore state funding for public libraries. And in April of 2023, that funding was restored. 


Virginia Marshall And then, the Missouri Secretary of State changed the rules, and unless libraries are in compliance with new standards … they won’t receive state funding. The new rules cover a couple of things that libraries are already doing, like having a collection development policy, and not providing pornography to children. To be absolutely clear: that’s already illegal. Libraries do not distribute pornography. But there’s one part of the rules change that has made it challenging for Missouri libraries to be in compliance. 

Adwoa Adusei According to the new rules, public libraries must make sure that minors—so, anyone under 18—can only access library materials approved by their parents. 

Colleen Norman If a parent says hey, this isn’t for our family and they’re standing there—great, don’t check it out. I’ll put it back on the shelf for you. No big deal. But if the parent’s not there, how am I the librarian supposed to know that their child's not allowed to check out something from the teen room or an adult nonfiction book about gardening? I don't know. I have no idea what is or is not permissible in that individual child's home. We've had some library systems who have basically deleted all library cards for children under 18 and are requiring their parents to come back into the library to sign their child up for a library card if they want their kid to have one. I don't love this reaction to it because it temporarily removes access to a wide variety of users within our communities. They are minors, but they shouldn't have less of an ability to access the library than an adult should. But it's a safety measure that libraries have had to put in place so that they can try and avoid a lawsuit, or at the very least, avoid people showing up to board meetings and being angry. Your hands are tied on this one. You have to comply to keep your doors open. So there's not really a way around it right now. 

Adwoa Adusei This is the culture of fear and intimidation that Sabrina was talking about. Libraries around the country are facing impossible choices like the one in Missouri: they must either restrict access to certain books and materials … or risk losing state funding, risk potential lawsuits, and even closing the library for good.

Virginia Marshall And, library workers in Missouri know which books are more likely to set off alarm bells and potentially trigger an angry parent or backlash against the library. It’s no secret. Just look at the most frequently banned books lists over the past couple of years: the majority are books by and about people of color and queer people.  

Adwoa Adusei So, rather than preemptively ban those books from the library … sometimes, library workers decide to hide those titles that could be considered controversial. 

Colleen Norman That's kind of what I'm hearing more of. We're still going to purchase, we're still going to collect, but we're just not going to tell anybody we have them. We're not going to showcase them or put them out on a display. If people don't know we have it, then what's the point? It's like we never got it in the first place. It is an access issue. It's a censorship issue. 

Virginia Marshall This is one of the hardest kinds of censorship to combat. Because it's a result of this culture of fear and intimidation, when there is a constant and amorphous threat out there. And, this raises the question: how can we create an environment where people can read freely, and librarians can display the books they want to highlight?  

Adwoa Adusei We do the opposite of what these restrictive laws are doing. We make policies and laws in support of libraries and intellectual freedom. There are already examples of this. In June, Illinois became the first state in the nation to pass an "anti-book-ban bill," which discourages bans by tying state funding to a library bill of rights—remember, that’s the commitment to intellectual freedom and access for all that we talked about last episode. 

Virginia Marshall California passed a law in September that prohibits public schools from banning textbooks and library books because those books have diverse perspectives on race, gender and sexuality. 

Nick Higgins That is pretty radical ... listen, I mean, it's pretty boss. I mean, it's sort of like going up to, you know, the scratch mark with the same kind of energy that's coming at you and fighting, you know, a ban with another ban. 

Virginia Marshall This is Nick Higgins. He’s our chief librarian at Brooklyn Public Library, and one of the founding members of Books Unbanned. He was also honored as a TIME person of the year for his work with Books Unbanned. When I asked Nick about those anti-book ban bills and other changes to the censorship landscape over the past year, his answer brought us back to the importance of challenges. 


Nick Higgins The idea of all of this is to engage in, you know, civil dialog about what the needs of a community are. So any library should have a process by which people can challenge a book on the shelves in their library and have a deliberate process in place where those things are discussed by community members and library staff. If we don't understand why there are people out there with a match in hand saying we want to burn this thing to the ground, then we're not going to get anywhere. We have to really understand why that's the case and continue to have conversations ... not in shouting down each other at a school board meeting, but in a very deliberate kind of messy, slow, democratic way. And a library can provide that.

Adwoa Adusei Challenges are important. They lead to a greater understanding of each others’ values. Challenges can, in fact, foster open dialogue ... if we approach them with care and rigor.  

Virginia Marshall Outside of anti-book ban bills, there are other ways to make positive statements for the freedom to read. Just last week, a Democratic congressional representative from Florida named Maxwell Frost, introduced a bill that would provide Federal grants to reimburse school districts that have to spend resources on book challenges and review processes. So, instead of banning book bans, this legislation seeks to ensure that schools have all the tools and resources they need to fully evaluate every challenge that comes across their desks. The bill is co-sponsored by many other Congressional Reps, and endorsed by PEN America, the ALA, the ACLU, the Trevor Project, the Florida Freedom to Read Project, Students Engaged in Advancing Texas—which includes teen activists featured in our second episode, Cameron Samuels and Da’Taeveyon Daniels. 

Adwoa Adusei On a more local level, some schools and libraries are revisiting their book challenge procedures and “tightening them up” so that they can make time to review challenges, or in some cases to ensure that the challenger lives in the district, or has actually read the material they’re objecting to.  

Virginia Marshall And, another encouraging change: of the hundreds of school board races across the country just this past month, only 30 percent of the candidates backed by Moms for Liberty and the 1776 Project won. Those are two organizations that have been behind a lion’s share of the book bans. As happened in York, Pennsylvania, communities are voting for candidates who will protect public institutions and intellectual freedom. 


Virginia Marshall We wanted to round out this episode—and our series—by reflecting on a year and a half of BPL’s Books Unbanned program and looking ahead to what’s next.  

Adwoa Adusei … and who better to ask about the past and the future of Books Unbanned than our chief librarian Nick Higgins? 

Nick Higgins We didn't know that this was going to be such a big thing. We thought that perhaps we were going to like do this for, you know, at most a month. And we realized that there was a tremendous amount of hurt, a lot of pain out there, a lot of people who are really struggling with ostensibly responsible adults, telling especially teens what they could or could not read. And in translation is really not what kids should or should not read. It's really what, you know, young people or people in general should or should not exist. Where Books Ubanned goes from here? I mean, we've always had sort of like goals of the program. One is the direct intervention, you know, providing access to our collections by distributing e-cards to anyone in the country age 13 to 21. And that's more of like an emergency room visit. You want to have those numbers go down. You want to zoom out and try to understand sort of like how you change the structures for people. Like, you want to address their underlying conditions, you want to make sure you're addressing systems of inequity and trying to dismantle those and build new ones that are more fair. So I think that for Books Unbanned and sort of like libraries in general, like we really need to focus in on educating our public about the freedom to read and sort of how important it is, and how it's perpetually at risk of being eroded. And really putting power into the hands of people who are most impacted by it, and namely young people. 

Virginia Marshall That's what motivated us to make this podcast series: Educating our public and empowering young people. We wanted to help you, our listeners, understand how and why books are being banned across the country, and what you can do about it. Hopefully, we’ve done a little bit of that. 

Adwoa Adusei But we don’t have all the answers. So we’ll end this series with a challenge of our own, for you. How will you use the stories you’ve heard over the course of this series to protect the freedom to read?  

[Theme music] 

Virginia Marshall Send us a voice message and tell us what you’re seeing in your community, or what you want to see. We might play your voice on an upcoming bonus episode, so be sure to introduce yourself with your name, your age, and your location. Email your story to us at podcasts [at] bklynlibrary [dot] org. If you don’t know how to make a voice recording but you still have something to say, let us know, and we’ll figure it out together. And if you want to be anonymous on the episode, you can tell us that in the recording or in the email. 

Adwoa Adusei Edha Gupta and Christina Ellis founded an organization with other student activists from Central York to help youth like themselves fight back against book bans. It’s called EmpowerED, and you can follow them on Instagram at empower [dot] ED [underscore].

Virginia Marshall Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant. This episode was produced and written by me and hosted by me and Adwoa. Our Borrowed team includes Ali Post, Fritzi Bodenheimer, Robin Lester Kenton and Damaris Olivo. Ashley Gill and Jennifer Proffit run our social media. Lauren Rochford and Erica Moroz help with the emails. John Snowden designed our logo.   

Adwoa Adusei The Books Unbanned team at BPL includes Summer Boismier, Jackson Gomes, Nick Higgins, Leigh Hurwitz, Karen Keys, and Amy Mikel.   

Borrowed and Banned is a production of Brooklyn Public Library and receives support from the Metropolitan New York Library Council’s Equity in Action Grant.