The colorful truck parked on Elysian Fields in front of the bookstore Baldwin & Co. Thursday morning (Oct. 6) could have been mistaken for a food truck, with a large menu spanning one side. But it wasn’t a normal menu, and the truck didn’t offer paper-wrapped snacks — only paperback books.
The truck was a central feature of Baldwin & Co.’s (Un)ban Book Festival, where students, teachers and community members could take home free copies of books that have faced public censorship. The free books from “the banned wagon” are part of an initiative by Penguin Random House to combat the rise of nationwide book censorship and celebrate “Banned Books Week,” an annual event started by the American Library Association more than 40 years ago.
“The books that they don’t want us to read, that they don’t want the public to read, let’s give them to the people for free,” said DJ Johnson, the owner of Baldwin & Co., of Thursday’s festival.
Hundreds of students from schools across the city attended the festival. The wagon’s arrival at Baldwin & Co. marked its third of four stops to independent bookstores in southern cities, and the largest stop yet on the wagon tour, according to Carly Gorga, the director of brand marketing at Penguin Random House. The wagon’s first two stops were in Atlanta and Nashville, and it will end its tour in Houston on Saturday (Oct. 7).
“We really wanted to do something on the ground, where book bans are happening more frequently, so we had the idea to get an old school book mobile and pull up to some of these cities, and engage folks around the issue,” Gorga said.
The Banned Wagon Tour is part of Penguin Random House’s broader resistance to book censorship. In May, the publishing house and free expression nonprofit PEN America sued a school board in Pensacola, Fla., over the board’s book restrictions and bans.
Last year, the American Library Association documented 1,269 demands for book censorship covering 2,571 different titles, nearly double the attempted restrictions from 2021. From January to August of this year, there were 695 attempted bans or restrictions on libraries, targeting more than 1,900 titles. According to PEN America, many of the targeted books center people of color or LGBTQ characters; likewise, many of these books were written by authors of color and queer authors.
In Louisiana, neighboring St. Tammany Parish has been a hotbed of attempted book bans. According to reports from the Louisiana Illuminator, the parish’s library board received 16 percent of nationwide book challenges in 2022.
Titles on the truck’s “book menu” included classics like Toni Morrison’s first novel “The Bluest Eye,” Margaret Atwood’s TV-adapted “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and the non-fiction history of science text “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” The menu also included books for younger audiences, including the graphic novel “The Magic Fish,” about a young boy who struggles to tell his mother about his sexuality. Readers could also pick up the young adult novel “Too Bright to See,” about a transgender boy living in a haunted house.
In addition to selecting a free book of their choice, students at the festival listened to panel discussions between educators, authors and online book influencers on the importance of reading and expanding literature access.
Speaking to a crowd of predominantly Black students, the panelists connected the onslaught of book bans to the importance of education. Jerid Woods, an educator who moderated the panels, pointed to the urgency of a George Orwell quote: “If you don’t read well, then you can’t write well, and if you can’t write well, then you can’t think well, and if you don’t think well, then someone else is going to do the thinking for you.”
“I think that no books should be banned or censored,” said Tyron Slack, a senior at Warren Easton High School. “Every book has its own knowledge and its own lesson to be learned from.”
Ra’Mya Silvan, a sophomore at Warren, agreed. An avid poetry reader, she turns to literature to find stories that are relatable, that connect her to other people. She said she doesn’t understand why books are being banned, especially when topics like race and sexuality should be discussed more, not less. “It’s wrong,” Silvan said.
Johnson was moved to see such a large crowd of Black kids “out here excited about books,” he said.
“The attack on education right now, particularly in terms of LGBTQ+ and Black history, it’s appalling,” Johnson said. “It’s a cancer that’s spreading through a nation that prides itself on freedom.”
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