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

by Will Bunch

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

For the better part of an hour last Saturday, dozens of teenagers and their parents snaked around the towering stacks of tomes inside Kutztown’s Firefly Books 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, weighed in on Kutztown Area Middle School canceling a planned “One School, One Book” program: “I think it’s really stupid,” she said. 

Right-wingers who thought they’d scored a victory by canceling the Kutztown Area Middle School “One School, One Book” program only ensured that more young folks in Berks County would actually read “Two Degrees” by Alan Gratz — a tale of teens dramatically fighting catastrophes brought on by climate change. 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.  

Last 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. 

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.”  

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 have brought pushback in favor of free expression. 

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. 

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 unAmerican. 

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. “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.”  

Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.