Georgia librarian: Banning books helps politicians but hurts students

Cicely Lewis believes bans would target books about Holocaust, slavery and racism
A librarian at Meadowcreek High School in Gwinnett, Cicely Lewis is the 2020 National School Librarian of the Year. She says efforts by lawmakers to limit books in school libraries help their reelection campaigns, not students. (Courtesy photo)

A librarian at Meadowcreek High School in Gwinnett, Cicely Lewis is the 2020 National School Librarian of the Year. She says efforts by lawmakers to limit books in school libraries help their reelection campaigns, not students. (Courtesy photo)

Cicely Lewis is a librarian at Meadowcreek High School in Norcross. She is also the 2020 National School Librarian of the Year, founder of Read Woke Inc. and a national voice for greater diversity in school libraries.

In this guest column, Lewis decries a national movement targeting what students can read in schools, including books about transgender teens. The movement has won support in Georgia. House Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, a Republican from Milton, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in November that “children should be shielded from age inappropriate materials” and that she is writing legislation to accomplish that in schools.

Lewis writes a bimonthly column in the School Library Journal. She is also the author of “Mass Incarceration, Black Men, and the Fight for Justice” and “Resistance to Slavery: From Escape to Everyday Rebellion.”

By Cicely Lewis

When I read the recent headline in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution entitled “Movement would ban LGBTQ books, online materials from school libraries,” I felt like I was in an episode of “The Twilight Zone.” I felt like I had been blasted to the past.

But, no, it is not the 1950s or 1960s. It is 2022, and our “leaders” are trying to ban books. Where is the uproar from those people who were so alarmed when they thought Dr. Seuss’ books were being banned? In reality, they only stopped the reprinting of six of his books, a decision made by the publishing company.

Where is the disdain for cancel culture now when LGBTQ books are now being targeted? Georgia students like James Liming, featured in the AJC story, are making connections in books and finding the windows and mirrors that Rudine Sims Bishop, an early champion of multicultural children’s literature, talks about in her essay “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.”

Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University, in that famous essay describes books that reflect the reader’s experience as “mirrors” and books that provide a view into someone else’s experience as “windows.” “Sliding doors” offer the reader a chance to enter another world and become a part of the story. These books are saving lives. Librarians are saving lives and now this is all being threatened by people who are trying to guarantee their reelection.

These same people don’t want us to teach Black history in school. They are using words like “critical race theory,” “woke,” and “banning books” to incite their base. As a school librarian, I always ask my students, “Did you read the book?” I have to ask these people the same thing. Have you read the books?

Cicely Lewis, school librarian at Gwinnett County’s Meadowcreek High School in Norcross, created Read Woke, a program in which students explore literature that challenges social norms. Her program has received worldwide acclaim and is now used in many schools. (Courtesy of Cicely Lewis)

Credit: Cicely Lewis

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Credit: Cicely Lewis

I guarantee the answer is no. Just like I tell my students, if you haven’t read the book, then how can you be a part of the discussion? Do legislators really think banning books will stop our young people who are searching and looking for information? Well, they must not have heard of the internet.

As a mother and an educator, I know that the quickest way to get a kid to do something is to tell them they cannot do something. As the 2020 School Librarian of the Year, I know I have a responsibility to say something because I have made a commitment to make sure that students have access and that their intellectual freedom is ensured. I will not remain silent during this time. As Zora Neale Hurston said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

I will not live in fear. I will continue to fight for the intellectual freedom of my students and my children. I will continue to distribute and donate books at every opportunity I get. I will continue funding grants for teachers using my nonprofit so that they can continue to educate our children so they can be compassionate citizens and informed citizens.

I will provide scholarships to students who read books and make change in their community. Our young people are watching and what we do now matters. In the AJC story, former State School Superintendent John Barge said schools are not the place for “talking to children about, you know, they can be whatever gender they want to be.”

Do you think books are the reason a child is transgender or gay? Do you think banning these books will stop us from having transgender kids? If you do, then you need to go back to school.

These books are needed to help students understand the plight of others and learn more about themselves in the process. Schools are NOT the place for gun violence, but too many people would rather focus their energy on banning library books than pass laws to help stop school shootings.

I encourage everyone to write to your local leaders and let your voice be heard. We need more voices advocating for our children. Teachers have been targeted during the pandemic and now leaders want to be able to prosecute school librarians. This must stop and we have to do something now before it is too late. For those of you who don’t think this issue applies to you, then just wait. Because they will use this to ban books about the Holocaust, books about slavery, and books about racism.

So, please:

• Write your local leaders about the importance of intellectual freedom

• Donate to organizations who provide access to books

• Join the PTA

• Vote

• Buy books and gift books to the young people in your life

Unless we speak out and let our voices be heard, this is the beginning of a story that will not have a good ending.