Lindsay Varnum, Orono Public Library's youth librarian, leads the Banned Book Club for students in eighth through 12th grade. The club started last September. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

In Orono, a library and a handful of middle- and high-schoolers are quietly contributing to a nationwide movement of students who are fighting for the right to read.

Quietly not because their monthly get-togethers to discuss banned and challenged books are a secret, but because the Banned Book Club is relatively new and small, with only four regular attendees. Lindsay Varnum, the youth services librarian overseeing the club, hopes to gain some traction as more students realize the importance of reading books that some grown-ups say they shouldn’t.

Orono Public Library introduced the club, open to students in eighth through 12th grades, last September. Last month, they finished “Hurricane Child,” a novel by Virgin Islands author Kacen Callender about 12-year-old Caroline Murphy, who develops romantic feelings for another girl.

Across Maine and the rest of the country, schools and public libraries have seen an uptick in challenges to books, typically from conservative parents, residents and policymakers. While Orono’s school district and public library haven’t received requests to review, limit access to or yank books from shelves, neighboring communities Hampden, Hermon and Old Town have. It can happen anywhere, Varnum said.

Whether or not the Banned Book Club participants realize, their reading is a subtle protest. Students throughout America are pushing back against censorship by forming similar banned-book clubs, holding protests and even suing their school district for removing titles from libraries.

Lindsay Varnum, the Orono Public Library’s youth librarian, holds books that have been banned and challenged at libraries across the country. Varnum leads the Banned Book Club, where students have a chance to read and discuss the books. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

The books being banned and challenged around the nation are often about or written by marginalized people, and the students in the club agree that isn’t OK, Varnum said.

“Getting books by people of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community and others into the hands of kids is important,” she said. “It’s how we learn about other people. And it’s how we learn about ourselves sometimes.”

Challenges to books in America last year reached an all-time high, with 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources, according to the American Library Association, which began tracking the issue more than two decades ago. That’s nearly double the 729 challenges reported in 2021, the organization said in March.

Also last year, the association found that 2,571 unique titles were targeted for censorship, a 38 percent increase from the 1,858 unique titles targeted in 2021. Most of the books were written by or about members of the LGBTQ+ community and people of color.

Students involved with the Banned Book Club have read books such as “A Wrinkle in Time,” “Flamer” and “The Giver” as well as picture books “Where the Sidewalk Ends” and “The Family Book.”

commonly challenged books

During meetings over pizza, they talk about the books — what they like and dislike, themes, whether censorship is appropriate, and more. Varnum weaves in talking points and questions about why some consider the books controversial.

A few of the students are passionate about free speech and are against censorship of any kind. Others like reading the challenged books but are alright with a rating system or moving a book from a middle to high school library, for example, Varnum said.

“I try not to sway them,” she said. “We just have a good conversation.”

Students are now reading “Harriet the Spy,” by Louise Fitzhugh, which was first challenged at a school board meeting in Xenia, Ohio, in 1983. Some critics argued the protagonist set a bad example for children and encouraged them to lie, spy and swear.

They select what they’re reading as a group, and Varnum tries to suggest a mix of older and more contemporary options. It shows participants that book censorship is not a new problem, but one that has soared in recent years.

When librarians curate collections, they want children to see themselves in the books they read and also gain exposure to people who are different from them, Varnum said. They also look to various organizations, like School Library Journal, for starred reviews to make sure their collections include quality literature, she said.

Varnum, who has worked for the library since August 2021, is against censorship and banning books in all forms, she said. Children should be exposed to everything that’s appropriate for them, and that includes diversity, because it helps them grow into well-rounded adults, the librarian said.

“We’ve heard from people who are excited that we’re doing this, even older adults without kids,” Varnum said. “I feel fortunate to work in a community where this is supported.”