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Austin, Texas Library Celebrates Banned Books

Queer books

Politicians want to ban more books. Austin's library system is promoting them instead.

(CNN) -- At the Austin Public Library in Texas, banned books are hot for the summer.

In partnership with BookPeople, Texas' largest independent bookstore, the library has been hosting a "Banned Camp" to celebrate free speech amid increasing pressure to restrict access to certain content.

All summer long, the institutions have been holding talks and events at library branches, bookstores and even in community parks. The events have featured discussions with authors of banned and challenged books, talks from experts in fields like pediatric mental health and even colorful, silly drag queen story hours.

It isn't unusual for libraries to hold activities for banned or challenged books, especially during the American Library Association's annual Banned Books Week in late September. However, Austin Public Library leaders believe their months-long initiative is a first.

"We try to do programming that is responsive to what is going on in our community, and we were aware of the community's concerns around book banning and library censorship that was happening across the country and especially here in Texas," Baylor Johnson, the library's communications manager, told CNN.

Johnson said many Banned Camp events especially highlight LGBTQ authors and authors of color, whose works are frequently targeted by these challenges. The program was kicked off by a conversation with author and LGBTQ activist George M. Johnson, whose collection of coming-of-age essays titled "All Boys Aren't Blue" was named one of the ALA's Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2021. Classic books that are frequently challenged, like "1984" and "The Color Purple," also got a Banned Camp spotlight.

In an April analysis by PEN America, Texas was found to have leveled 713 book bans across 16 school districts -- the highest number of any state. The American Library Association published similar findings, noting that books about LGBTQ and Black people were among the most challenged in 2021.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has led effortsto remove some LGBTQ-themed books from school libraries, and statewide measures to restrict content are gaining traction in places like Florida, where critical race theory complaints and the so-called "don't say gay" lawhave plunged schools and public institutions into uncertainty over what, exactly, they can and cannot teach. Ongoing Republican ire about critical race theory has led to more crackdowns in curricula and reduced opportunities to interact with books by Black authors.

While many moves to ban or challenge content have centered on schools, library professionals are increasingly worried such initiatives will grow, spreading from municipal to state levels and from classrooms to public libraries and beyond.

It's already happening in Virginia, where two state leaders sought a restraining order against Barnes & Noble in May. State delegate Tim Anderson and former congressional candidate Tommy Altman claimed the books "Gender Queer," a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe named the ALA's most-challenged book of 2021; and the popular fantasy book "A Court of Mist and Fury" by Sarah J. Maas "are obscene to unrestricted viewing by minors."

The people behind Austin's Banned Camp see these ominous developments as an opportunity to remind readers, young and old, that books are an enduring symbol of free speech.

"Books take us on adventures, offer us new perspectives and ideas, and sometimes push us out of our comfort zones," Meghan Goel, children's book buyer & programming director at BookPeople, said in a statement. "They are multifaceted and not easily reduced to soundbites or headlines. That is what makes it so exciting and rewarding to be a reader! "

Johnson, the APL's communications manager, said the community's response to Banned Camp has been overwhelmingly positive.

"We are very glad that the community understands that libraries are places where intellectual freedom and the right to find stories and information must be protected," he said.

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