I’m heartbroken to hear that the Ballet Bunnies series and other incredible books from a Books Saves Lives grant have been blocked from student access in Niles, Michigan. The Ballet Bunnies series is about a girl who is kind and courageous and is everything those who ban books are not.
We Need Diverse Books have urged the school board to reconsider and release the books that were selected by district educators in a letter that was co-signed by me and more than seventy-five authors. You can read more about this on the We Need Diverse Books blog.
The full text of the letter is below:
Dear Superintendent Walker and Brandywine Community Schools Board Members:
We Need Diverse Books established the Books Save Lives Grant to enrich school libraries by providing diverse books to their students, like the ones attending Brandywine Middle/High School, Brandywine Elementary School, and Merritt Elementary School. At WNDB, we recognize that there is power in diverse literature to challenge us, enlighten us, and develop critical thinking skills in all of us—especially for young readers who are the future of our nation.
Further, studies show that reading diverse books can spur literacy rates and build empathy. For example, a Washington & Lee study demonstrated that bias toward the Muslim community decreased after participants read a 3,000-word excerpt of the novel Saffron Dreams by Pakistani-American author Shaila Abdullah, as detailed in the article Changing Race Boundary Perception by Reading Narrative Fiction by psychology researcher Dr. Dan R. Johnson. This is another reason why WNDB strives to diversify school bookshelves nationwide — because we believe that all readers should have access to books that expand the world around them.
Our team selected Brandywine Middle/High School as an inaugural recipient of the Books Save Lives Grant based on the strength of Abilyn Janke’s application and on her commitment to making the bookshelves at her school more diverse and inclusive. Ms. Janke made a clear case for Brandywine to receive the grant, including:
- Showing a deep conviction to help students feel welcome in the library by seeing themselves represented. According to the application, 16% of Niles’ residents identify as Black, Native, Hispanic, Asian, or Multiracial; and 24% of students in Berrien County identify as being a part of the LGBTQ+ community.
- Utilizing diverse books to provide a wider view of the world and to build empathy in all readers, which aligns with the goals of We Need Diverse Books.
- Demonstrating a need for this grant due to the current issues within the school district concerning library books. In February 2023, your board voted to halt the new inventory of books and create an“Explicit Material Book Review Committee” to assess titles currently available to students. And yet the district already has a review process in place, overseen by media specialists who must follow professional protocols.
WNDB shares PEN America’s assessment that school book bans can take varied forms. They may occur when school boards, administrators, or politicians override the book selections made by educators and remove titles from shelves. They may be temporary in nature, and they may include a range of restrictions on what students can and cannot read. There have been restrictions on shelving new books in your libraries since February, and the recent halt in circulation of the Books Save Lives Grant further infringes upon your students’ freedom to read.
On April 20, 2023, WNDB notified Debbie Carew that Brandywine Middle/High School had been selected as a grant recipient. We also agreed with her follow-up request to apportion $3000 of the $5000 grant to provide new titles for the district’s elementary schools. Then in August, we shipped 193 titles, which were selected by district educators, to Michigan. These books have since been inventoried, but haven’t been made available to students due to your board’s decision to halt circulation. We are greatly concerned about this action as it prevents your students from reading inclusive and diverse texts. Students within your own district have distributed flyers at your board meetings, stating:
“We want to see the LGBTQIA+ community supported, we want to not see books banned in the library, and most importantly we want to protect our rights as 21st century learners.”
WNDB stands with your students who are expressing their freedom of speech and fighting against educational censorship. We call upon the board to provide us with:
- Detailing the review process and criteria that are being used to assess the books provided by the Books Save Lives Grant. Include a deadline as to when the book assessments will be completed and when the books will be placed into circulation.
- Explaining why the Books Save Lives Grant is facing additional scrutiny while other grants received within your district are not under such investigations. For instance, Ms. Janke has received another grant from the Daughters of the American Revolution; and two teachers at Brandywine Elementary were recently awarded a grant from Midwest Energy and Communications. Similarly, teachers throughout your district have received funding via DonorsChoose.org to fund STEAM and music projects. We laud your educators who are applying for and utilizing these grants for your students’ enrichment, which is exactly what the Books Save Lives Grant was established to accomplish. Why then is the board investigating the Books Save Lives Grant and not others?
Along with the undersigned authors, illustrators, and publishers, We Need Diverse Books is asking the board to remove the obstruction of the Books Save Lives Grant books and circulate the titles amongst the Brandywine student population. We also ask that you cancel the investigation into Ms. Janke’s grant application, which will divert precious funds from your district’s budget. Instead, the board should direct this money into further enriching your students’ bookshelves.
Reading remains a vital gateway for students to learn about our greater world. Your educators have spent years developing the pedagogy and expertise needed to select books that help school children develop critical thinking skills and a love of reading. Trust and support these trained teachers and librarians who are tireless advocates of your students.
Ellen Oh, WNDB CEO & Founding Member
Dhonielle Clayton, WNDB COO
Caroline Richmond, WNDB Executive Director
Authors & Illustrators
Ashley Herring Blake
Julie C. Dao
Jennifer de Leon
Debbi Michiko Florence
Tiffany D. Jackson
Terry Catasús Jennings
Erin Entrada Kelly
Darcie Little Badger
Kelly Starling Lyons
Daniel José Older
Natalie C. Parker
Caroline Kusin Pritchard
Andrea L. Rogers
A. J. Sass
Charlotte Watson Sherman
Cynthia Leitich Smith
Rosemary Brosnan, VP and Publisher, Quill Tree Books/Heartdrum, Imprints of HarperCollins Children’s Books
Arthur Levine, President and Editor-in-Chief, Levine Querido
Jason Low, Publisher and Co-Owner, Lee & Low Books
Thank you to all the students, teachers, librarians and allies who continue to fight book bans all over the world. Kids deserve a diverse range of books and every child deserves to see themselves in the pages of a book.
Find out what you can do to fight book bans here.