874 book titles were banned from schools in the United States in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, PEN America.
“Keep fighting forward but do it with integrity, in a way that your children will be proud of you,” Nicole Smith.
Human life is finite and, after all the time and love we have shared with others, we can only hope that we have left a legacy that will allow us to smile from above once we are gone. Just like the English writer, Mary Ann Evans, also known by the pen name of George Eliot, once said: “Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.” This is one of the reasons why Nicole Smith decided to fight the book banning legislation in Iowa: in memory of her mother.
Book Banning in the United States’ Schools
According to PEN America, the book banning in schools is “any action taken against a book based on its content and as a result of parent or community challenges, administrative decisions, or in response to direct or threatened action by lawmakers or other governmental officials, that leads to a previously accessible book being either completely removed from availability to students, or where access to a book is restricted or diminished.”
In fact, the organization stated that 874 book titles were banned from schools in the United States in the first half of the 2022-2023 school year alone and the contents by which they were banned ranged from being in one or more of these subjects: 44% themes or instances on physical abuse, 38% topics on health and wellbeing for students, 30% themes on grief and death, 30% characters of color or themes of race and racism, 26% LGBTQ+ characters or themes, 24% sexual experiences between characters, 17% mentions of teen pregnancy, abortion or sexual assault.
Furthermore, PEN America has indicated that several states have already adopted legislation allowing books to be banned from schools in places such as Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Utah and Missouri. And in the state of Iowa the Senate File 496 was approved in April 2023, which will require the removal of books that describe or visually represent sex acts and limit instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“My philosophy on book banning is: if you don’t like the book, put it back on the shelf. More and more books are being added to this list of banned books by a group called Moms for Liberty. They have branches in almost every state,” explains Nicole. “There are rules set in place at schools and if a parent doesn’t like a book there is a process to go through, and those processes work.There is a Review Board which includes a teacher, a parent, a student as well as other people who read the book and they decide if it should be removed from the school. That is in place in every school and it works. So if a parent doesn’t like a book that’s fine, they should go to the Board, go through the proper channels. This group is not going through that, they are going over that process and going to legislation directly to try to have a top-down approach. The common phrase we use is: “I don’t co-parent with Moms for Liberty, I don’t want them deciding which books my children are taught or read.”
A Love for Literacy
Nicole inherited her passion for literacy from her mother Stephanie Ann Bakalar. She worked in journalism, communications, education and politics; having studied advertising at Drake University in Iowa, in 1998.
“My mom was really passionate about education, reading and literacy in general,” recalls Nicole. “I didn’t think book banning was something I would have to advocate against. But my mother passed away in February last year and just before that she changed her profile picture to a list of banned books she had read. We mentioned that in her obituary, and it became the theme of her funeral. We even made bookmarks with the list of the banned books to honor her memory.”
Parents could learn new things too
Yet, spreading a list of forbidden books was not the only thing Nicole was willing to do in order to fight for the right to have reading freedom. She took it upon herself to go up to the State Capitol, along with her 8-year-old daughter Riley, to express her opposition to the book banning legislation in Iowa.
“I contacted my representatives in Iowa to address this issue and I was allowed to speak at the State Capitol in opposition,” explains Nicole. “I went with my daughter and, since my speech was not too long, she asked me if she could say a few words. She wrote her own speech and read it. One of her main lines was: “I think parents could learn new things too”. It was awesome. I think that what we teach our children and how we teach our children should not be government mandated; it should be decided by experts in the field and the majority of the credited educators in Iowa have no problem with the education our students are getting and the materials that they are involved with.”
She explains how the books the proposers of this legislation aim to ban are on topics about people from the LGBTQ+ community and from people of color. “So to me it just boils down to discrimination,” says Nicole.
The Little Library That Will Fight the Book Ban
Nicole’s efforts didn’t stop at the State Capitol. She decided to create a little library to harbor the banned books.
“To combat the ban and to raise awareness of those books I will start a library. We have an Amazon wish list of the books that are most commonly banned and that are being questioned in Iowa. I have two little kids and we have friends and family who are in the LGBTQ+ community and I just want them to have access to inclusive books,” explains Nicole.
After doing some research, Nicole reached out to The Pollination Project with the hope that she would receive support to build her dream library and fill it with the one hundred banned books she planned to purchase for it. The little library will be situated on her property in Johnston, Iowa, next to her mailbox which is in a high traffic area so everyone from babies to adults will be able to pull over and select a book. In addition, she will have a Facebook page where she will regularly write a synopsis on a banned book to inspire people to read them.
“I was very happy when I received the news of the funding from The Pollination Project because many students in the Des Moines area don’t have enough money to buy books and once the books get pulled off the school shelves they will be inaccessible for them,” says Nicole. “The banned books even include: The Handmaid’s Tale and The Diary of Anne Frank; books that have been in the English literature canon for decades.”
Nicole hopes that this effort will allow the younger generation, like her children Riley who is 8 and Merritt who is 5, to live in a more compassionate and fair world. This is what she hopes will become part of their heritage and in working to make this happen, she can rest assured that her mother is smiling down from above knowing a piece of her own legacy will live on in that little library.
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