Protecting a Student’s Right to Read: One Group’s Battle Against Book Bans

Contributed photo by Red Wine and Blue; from left: Julie Womack, Lara Bury, and Penny Blue

By Amie Knowles

August 31, 2023

Book banning isn’t a new concept at all. In the US, the practice dates back to 1637 (that’s almost 140 years before the American Revolution). At the time, the Puritan government scrutinized Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan for its “harsh and heretical” critique of the group’s customs and power structures.

Nowadays, a different group appears to be the aim of the book banning target: The LGBTQ+ community. The American Library Association (ALA), an organization that condemns censorship and works to defend each person’s right to read, annually posts a “top 10” list of challenged books. Out of the 13 that made the list in 2022 (some titles tied for a spot), seven contained LGBTQ+ content.

In fact, the top two books on the ALA’s 2022 list were: Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe and All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson. Rather ironically, when we looked up the link for Johnson’s book, it popped up as a “teachers’ pick” on Amazon.

Thankfully, there’s a group of suburban women committed to challenging book bans. They’re Red Wine and Blue (RWB), and you’ve probably heard of their popular podcast. The grassroots group recently expanded to Virginia—though they were on the ground in Loudoun County in 2021, when many of the “parents’ rights” debates first began.

Book Bans in the Commonwealth

Penny Blue, RWB’s Virginia program director, and Lara Bury, RWB’s deputy Virginia program director, are working to address the book banning issue.

Bury expressed that it’s sometimes hard to fathom that talks of book bans are taking place close to home.

“Obviously, the term ‘book ban’ hits everybody because they’re thinking, A) that could never happen here, and B) it just has historical reference that’s so negative,” Bury said.

Between July and December 2022 11 book bans took place in Virginia, according to a recent study by PEN America. The organization dove into the issue across America and found that while 29 states experienced no book bans in that time period, others had a large number. In Texas, there were a whopping 438 book bans, followed by Florida with 357 and Missouri with 315.

Earlier this year in Virginia, the school board in Madison County banned 21 books, pulling from a list of novels that Focus on the Family, a national conservative organization, deemed unacceptable. In November 2021, Spotsylvania County Public Schools came under fire when their school board ordered librarians across the district to remove “sexually explicit” books after one parent raised some concerns about books that were available through Riverbend High School’s digital library app. Two school board members also advocated for actually burning books (which—not even 100 years ago—was a Nazi practice for books declared “dangerous” or “un-German”).

“I mean as a mom, but even as somebody who grew up loving to read books, getting excited to go to the library, it was books and books alone that opened up my view of the world,” Bury said. “And to think that that’s possibly under threat for our kids in the next generation just fills me with the need to get out in the community and either tell people that it’s happening or it’s partially happening.”

The deputy program director further noted that she’s “on the same page” as other parents, as far as wanting kids to read appropriate books.

“But when you’re taking away books, you’re taking away the choices for everyone,” Bury said.

What’s Happening to Help?

With every seat in the Virginia General Assembly up for election in November, RWB is concentrating on bolstering its presence in the commonwealth.

“We already have agreed to work with an organization the first week of October, which of course is Banned Book Week. We are going to be participating [in a] book ban festival,” Blue said. “Once we get our people on board, we are going to participate in that one—and I see us hosting and participating in additional ones going forward.”

RWB has also launched the Banned Bookmobile. It’s part of the group’s initiative, Freedom to Parent 21st Century Kids, which aims to ensure that kids are supported, safe, and have access to accurate public education. The “bookmobile” idea turned RWB members’ cars into little libraries of sorts, handing out children’s banned books to families.

“I’ve seen so many parents also get involved and reread some of these books,” Bury said. “It elicits all the emotions of them, of like, ‘Oh, I remember this book. It changed the way I thought about X, Y, Z.’ So it’s really fun and just really energizing.”

Freedom to Parent also highlights the importance of families deciding what’s best for them.

“The extremists are saying that parents need to be involved in their children’s education, but their involvement is dictating to other parents what they can and cannot do with their children,” Blue said. “For instance: When you ban books, you’re saying that, ‘No one else can read these books,’ vs. Freedom to Parent is, ‘Here are the books. If you want your children to read the books, they can read the books. If you don’t want your children to read the books, then they don’t have to read the books.’”

How to Get Involved

If this sounds like something you’d like to be a part of, you’re in luck. RWB is already half-a-million people strong across the country, but they’re always looking for more folks to join the cause.

Through relational organizing—a personalized approach that fosters one-on-one connections—RWB helps provide communities with the tools they need to effect positive change.

“When I found Red Wine and Blue, their friend-to-friend organizing, it just made sense to me,” Bury said. “It’s what we do naturally. We talked to our friends and we talked to people in our communities, and so it was just the easiest on-ramp for me to find my voice and help get other people around me so we could amplify our voices. You didn’t have to be intimidated by not knowing everything about politics. You were just talking so authentically to your community about your concerns, and then finding out that by and large, we all share the same concerns.”

There are a multitude of resources available on RWB’s website, too, like training sessions and events.

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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