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The day the book banners lost in Pennsylvania’s culture wars

A right-wing move to keep a young-adult climate change novel out of a Kutztown middle school backfired in spectacular fashion.

"Two Degrees" author Alan Gratz chats with 14-year-old reader Calliope Price at the Firefly Bookstore in Kutztown on Saturday. Conservative school board members had successfully blocked the book from a reading program at a middle school in the Berks County community.
"Two Degrees" author Alan Gratz chats with 14-year-old reader Calliope Price at the Firefly Bookstore in Kutztown on Saturday. Conservative school board members had successfully blocked the book from a reading program at a middle school in the Berks County community.Read moreWill Bunch

KUTZTOWN, Pa. — If you ban it, they will come.

For the better part of an hour Saturday, dozens of teenagers and their parents snaked around the towering stacks of tomes inside Kutztown’s Firefly Bookstore and sometimes spilled onto the sidewalks of this quaint Berks County college town — most of them clutching the book that conservatives on the local school board didn’t want them to read.

Calliope Price, 14 and in the eighth grade, came out to meet Alan Gratz — author of the “banned” young-adult novel about climate change, Two Degrees — after hearing about the controversy and realizing that Gratz had also written her favorite book, which is called, ironically, Ban This Book. Holding her now-signed copy, she weighed in on Kutztown Area Middle School canceling a planned “One School, One Book” program amid conservative complaints a climate book would somehow scare or indoctrinate adolescents.

“I think it’s really stupid,” she said.

Price has a good point. Right-wingers who thought they’d scored a victory by canceling the middle school program only ensured that more young folks in Berks County would actually read Two Degrees — a tale of teens dramatically fighting catastrophes brought on by climate change. They were helped by the progressive grassroots organization Red Wine & Blue, which raised money to buy 200 copies to give away to Kutztown youth. Gratz, who’d long planned to come to Kutztown University for its annual conference on children’s literature, arranged to hold both afternoon and evening book signings to meet as many young fans as possible.

Saturday was the day that the book banners lost in Kutztown, a somewhat liberal-leaning borough surrounded by a political red sea of Trump voters where the left and the right are currently duking it out for control of the Kutztown Area school board. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, when it seems that the culture warriors of the extreme right are waging war against not just books but freedom of thought, from coast to coast.

In Missouri, state House members took the radical step of cutting all state dollars for its 160 public libraries in a fit of pique over a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, which is challenging a state law forcing libraries in the Show-Me State to yank some 300 books over allegations they are sexually explicit. In Texas, Llano County officials backed down from their threat to shut down its library system after a judge ordered that 17 books be returned to the shelves, but battles around titles dealing with race, sexuality, and other topics are still raging in many jurisdictions. Especially in politically riven communities like Kutztown.

Now a top author like Tennessee-based Gratz — who has steadily climbed toward the top of the young-adult bestseller lists with his 19 books on hot-button subjects such as refugees, the Holocaust, and terrorism, an approach that he calls “social thrillers” — is finding himself on the front lines of a war that no one expected to see in America.

“The reason I’m writing these books is because kids are asking me to write about these topics,” Gratz told me. “We always want to say we’re trying to protect children by keeping these kind of things from them, but honestly the world is coming at kids faster than before. The kids have been going through active shooter drills since kindergarten” and have also been exposed to debates over tough issues like racism at a young age. The world is coming at them, he said, “and I hope that books like mine can give them a way of seeing what’s happening in the world without having to experience it just yet.”

» READ MORE: In Kutztown schools, the right’s culture warriors block a book on climate change | Will Bunch

That was certainly the thinking behind his latest, Two Degrees, in which everyday teens cope with events such as floods and wildfires in a near future when the world’s temperature has risen 2 degrees due to greenhouse gas pollution. The implied message of a call to action around climate change, and Gratz’s long-planned appearance at the local university, had inspired Kutztown Area Middle School to pick Two Degrees for its annual “One Book, One School” schoolwide reading program.

The books had already arrived when several conservative board members and parents leaned on the school to cancel the program. According to the Reading Eagle, one adult complained at a board meeting that a book about climate change might make kids feel guilty — and turn them against their parents.

The backlash was hardly unique, either nationally or in Pennsylvania — where several suburban districts have seen bitter clashes over what’s in school libraries — or even in Kutztown, where school officials did retain the controversial book Gender Queer, but with a parental consent form, after a lengthy public debate. But the controversies in this college town about 65 miles northwest of Philadelphia have brought pushback in favor of free expression.

The 2022 fight over Gender Queer inspired local teen Joslyn Diffenbaugh, now a ninth grader, to launch the Kutztown Teen Banned Book Club, which garnered her a national free speech award. Diffenbaugh and a couple of her girlfriends were among the first in line Saturday, and club members returned in the evening for a discussion panel with Gratz.

“I think it’s amazing that we have such a well-known author in our tiny town, and I think it’s amazing that we were able to get these books out to all the people who are here because that opportunity was unjustly taken away from kids in the middle school,” Diffenbaugh told me. She said the students weren’t just supposed to get a free book “but to have a conversation, and having conversations about books are so influential and helpful in education.”

But right-wingers who thought they had “banned” a climate change book in Kutztown only made it more popular. Middle schoolers not only were allowed access to Two Degrees from the boxes that school officials had already opened before the “One Book, One School” cancellation, but many enjoyed the 200 free copies doled out by Red Wine & Blue.

What’s more, academic free speech is now the number one issue in a heated May 16 election that will determine the future direction of the Kutztown Area school board. Four of the five candidates from a group called KOFEE (Kutztown Organized for Educational Excellence) running on an “Open Books, Open Minds” platform were at the bookstore Saturday to show their support for Gratz and his teen readers.

“It’s just outrageous,” one of those KOFEE candidates, Charles Brown, told me of the district’s backdown on Two Degrees, one of the reasons he decided to run. “It’s not like a book, ‘How To Make a Bomb’ or anything. ... To think that it’s propaganda — to me, the issue is that kids have to learn the difference between fact and fiction and how to judge something they read. Not ban books!”

Not surprisingly, Brown’s slate is facing spirited opposition from a Republican ticket, the Concerned Citizens of KASD, whose platform calls for banning what it called “critical race theory” as well as diversity programs in the Kutztown schools, and which has been showing up at board meetings with signs like, “We Do Not Co-Parent With the Government.”

The battle is now joined. What happened this weekend in Kutztown shines a bright light on one of the most encouraging political trends of 2023, in which a radical minority of extremist book banners has awakened a sleeping giant: the vast no-longer-silent majority who still believes that absurd restrictions on exposing our young people to ideas are un-American.

In that Llano County, Texas, flap, officials ultimately backed down from their threat to close the library because of public pressure and national publicity. Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, over 150 kids at Perkiomen Valley High School, carrying signs like “Teach Children the Truth,” walked out of school to protest proposed book restrictions that are on hold.

The bad news might be this “it can’t happen here” reality that America is even debating these restrictions on free speech in the 2020s, but the great news is that the book banners are often failing. And more voters need to know that your child’s freedom to read a book, and to learn, is on the ballot in 2023 and especially in 2024.

“Absolutely it’s a victory because it’s the people in the community who stood up and said we’re not going to let a few people speak for them,” Gratz told me after signing dozens of books Saturday. “I think that what’s happening around the country is that a few loud people are making a stink and getting school boards and superintendents to back down because they don’t want the trouble. And I think a lot of people are standing up and making good trouble.”

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