“Napoleon’s use of the sheep was notable,” says Jordan Daughtry, 14. She’s clutching a copy of Animal Farm, and referring to the authoritarian Berkshire boar who seizes control of an English acreage, before bending his fellow animals to his will.
The sheep, who represent the unwitting masses in George Orwell’s critique of Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian rule, are “ignorant buffoons”, Daughtry says.
Jordan’s sibling, Kiara Daughtry, 16, continues the thought.
“It did kind of remind me of the whole ‘stop the steal’ thing,” Kiara says, referencing the January 6 insurrection, when Donald Trump’s supporters, spurred by a wave of lies by the then president, besieged the US Capitol. “And all that nonsense.”
The Daughtrys are sitting in the back of Firefly bookstore, a gem of new and used literature in the small town of Kutztown, central Pennsylvania. Huddled together on foldout chairs, facing down a table laden with muffins, pretzels and a stuffed toy pig, they’re members of Kutztown’s Banned Book Club, which meets every two weeks to read and discuss literature that conservatives across the country are working to ban from school libraries.
Kiara Daughtry, left, and Lena Cackley.
The book club members, all aged between 13 and 16, are gathered at a time of crisis. In the past year the book-banning movement has already seen works that mostly address race or LGBTQ issues removed from libraries in Texas, Utah, Virginia, Wyoming and Pennsylvania.
Like many young people in the US, the members of the Kutztown Banned Book Club feel the censorship closing in. In December, the Pennridge school district, 30 miles from Kutztown, removed the children’s book Heather Has Two Mommies, a picture book about a lesbian couple and their child, from elementary school libraries.
Last year, Pennsylvania’s Central York school board banned a long list of books, almost entirely titles by, or about, people of color. The ban was overturned in September after students protested.
“I love to read, so it’s kind of frustrating to see the bans, especially because a lot of adults are banning it, but they’re not asking teenagers our opinion on these books,” Joselyn Diffenbaugh says. A softly spoken 14-year-old, sporting bangs and a plaid shirt, she founded the Banned Book Club in response to the sweeping prohibition in the US.
“It’s scary to know that all these people who might need these books for a reason, because maybe they’re just learning about themselves, and they need something to read, they don’t have access to that.”
Joslyn Diffenbaugh. ‘I love to read so it’s kind of frustrating to see the bans.’
Last week the issue gained extra attention, after the Pulitzer-winning Holocaust graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale was banned from classrooms in McMinn county, Tennessee, by the local school board. The board objected to “rough, objectionable language” in the book, which describes the experiences of author Art Spiegelman’s parents in Nazi concentration camps, and his mother’s suicide. Maus has since become a bestseller on Amazon.
At Firefly, the book club is discussing Animal Farm when I join them. The allegorical novel has not been targeted in the recent banning wave, but it was banned in the USSR until the Soviet Union fell, and in the UK during the second world war – when the government felt its publication could anger their Soviet allies. It was later banned in Florida – where it was seen to be “pro-communist”.
Next on the reading list will be The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, an award-winning young adult novel about the shooting of a young unarmed black man by a white police officer, which has been removed from various school libraries. But right now the conversation moves from Napoleon’s hold over Animal Farm’s sheep to why none of the animals simply left the farm.
A copy of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Right, Jesse Hastings.
Bridget Johnson, who at 13 is the youngest in the group, shows no fear in joining in the conversation: “I can kind of see that happening with real people in real life. Not knowing, not risking it, not changing anything.”
There are echoes of Animal Farm’s manipulation, mistruths and – as one book club member put it – “gaslighting” in the movement to outlaw books in the US. The effort has been spearheaded by groups, which claim to be grassroots efforts, petitioning school boards or elected officials to remove certain books. In reality, many of the groups involved in banning books are linked to and backed by influential conservative donors.
Most of the books relate to race or gender equality, at a time when some Republicans are mounting an effort to prevent teaching on race in schools by launching a loud campaign against critical race theory, an academic discipline that examines the ways in which racism operates in US laws and society.
The book Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, which tackles the hardship of coming out and discovering one’s gender identity, is one of the most banned. Since it was published in 2019, it has been challenged by groups in at least 11 states, including Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania.
Clockwise from left: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Handmaid’s Tale, Thirteen Reasons Why and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
Elsewhere, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, a novel which addresses racial and gender oppression, was recently ordered to be removed from school libraries in Florida and Missouri. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez chronicles a love affair between a Mexican American girl and a Black boy in 1930s Texas. Over the past year it has been banned in multiple states.
“I was disappointed that it was being allowed to happen, it just didn’t make sense to me that it could happen like that,” Johnson says of the spate of bans. Johnson, whose mother is waiting in a car outside the bookstore while the group meets, likes reading but says she is a slow reader. “I find it way easier to read with other people, and then talk about it. So I have a whole group of people to talk about it with.”
Her dad, who used to serve on the Kutztown school board, has been particularly animated on the topic.
“I hear him rant about it,” Johnson says.
As for the efforts, which are happening increasingly close to home, Johnson said any attempts to ban books at her school would be misguided.
“It would suck!” she says.
Elijah Sicher, left, and Jillian Rager.
“And usually it’s out of hate from that person, like against a community. A little kid, it’s not going to make them a certain way, it’s going to help them find out they’re a certain way.”
After an hour and a half, the book club draws to a close. The pig, placed on the table to represent the pig elites of Animal Farm, is removed, and relegated to a place on a shelf.
Jesse Hastings, a tall 16-year-old with dark glasses, holds a new copy of The Hate U Give – all the book club’s literature is funded by a wave of donations – as she heads out into the brisk Kutztown night. Hastings, who had offered assured commentary during the Animal Farm discussion, says she was “shocked” by the spate of bannings: “And especially for some of the ridiculous reasons that some books are being banned.”
“A lot of the books were banned just because they had Black representation of LGBTQ representation,” she says.
“Especially for young kids who are queer, or are people of color, it’s really important to see representation if books, and if you aren’t allowed access to that then that can be detrimental.”
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Right, Bridget Johnson, who at 13 is the youngest of the group.
As well as the impact on people who might have found kinship with banned authors, or representation in now-restricted books, Hastings says there is another unsavory aspect to all of this.
“It is a major issue, because already there’s a huge lack of representation of minorities in novels. And you know, there’s banning of books that discuss politics and things.
“I think it leads to a lot of kids being a lot more closed-minded.”