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Teens fight back against book bans by starting forbidden book club in small Pennsylvania town

'These books are great works of literature and I really just didn't understand why so many people wanted to ban them,' said one 14-year-old.

Teens fight back against book bans by starting forbidden book club in small Pennsylvania town
Representative Cover Image Source: Getty Images/LeoPatrizi

As the number of school districts across the country voting to ban books continues to rise, some students are taking matters into their own hands. "It's really problematic because books are the only way that you can be in another person's shoes," 14-year-old Joslyn Diffenbaugh, a self-proclaimed "book nerd," told The Washington Post. The eighth grader, who lives in the small town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, has read several books that have been banned by school districts across the country, including "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas and "All American Boys" by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds. 


"They were really eye-opening," said Joslyn, a student at Kutztown Middle School. "They are books that make you think." The teen explained that she felt the need to take action when attempts to forbid books increased both in Pennsylvania and in other school districts nationwide. The tipping point came in late October when a Texas Republican lawmaker launched an investigation into school libraries in the state and compiled a list of 850 titles—mostly about race and sexuality—demanding that schools reveal whether they carry the books. Attempts at restricting books had been on the rise in Pennsylvania too, with the Kutztown School Board in January narrowly voting to keep "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe in the high school library, despite protests from some parents and community members.


Such attempts to ban books "compelled me to start something where we could talk about banned things," Joslyn said. Like many youngsters across the country, the teen decided to start a banned book club where members could read books that have been outlawed in schools and then meet to discuss them. "These books are great works of literature, and I really just didn't understand why so many people wanted to ban them," Joslyn explained. "It's important that people read these books because it helps them grow."


With her mother's encouragement, Joslyn formed her own "Teen Banned Book Club," a name agreed on by the entire group. "Reading a book about racism doesn't make you racist and reading a book about gender identity isn't going to make you transgender," said Lisa Diffenbaugh, Joslyn's mom. "Reading a book only benefits you." Fortunately, when Joslyn reached out to Firefly Bookstore to ask if it would be willing to help facilitate a banned book club for teens, the staff members were immediately on board.


"All of us here at Firefly Bookstore are in agreement that book banning is wrong," said Jordan Busits, a sales associate who offered to help run the Teen Banned Book Club. "Books are meant to say something about the author themselves, who they are or what their world views are, and by banning those books we are essentially banning their voices." Josyln explained that they decided against starting a book club at school as "we wanted it to be open to kids from other districts, and we wanted the freedom where everyone could express their opinions without someone saying those opinions are wrong."


The Teen Banned Book Club held its first meeting at the Firefly Bookstore in January and since then, the group of 12 teens has read six novels, including George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and "1984," Alex Gino's "Melissa" and "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You" by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. The club's youngest member is in seventh grade and the oldest is in 10th grade. "We made a list of historically banned and recently banned books," said Joslyn, who consults with Busits and book club members to select titles. "One of my biggest fears early on was that no one would show up, but it's really cool to see that people are willing to talk about these hard topics."


"I never thought that so many people would be interested in this tiny little book club in this tiny little town," she added. One of the book club members, 13-year-old Bridget Johnson, said she was eager to join when she heard about the group. "I love the book club. It's connecting through reading and learning, and it's a really special experience," she said, adding that having read some of the banned books, it doesn't make sense to her why many of them are blacklisted. "A lot of the time, after I've read the book, I'm just like, 'Why was this even banned?'" she said.

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