Serenity Moore stood patiently off the side of the stage in the Galloway Church reception hall one afternoon late last month, waiting for a turn to ask her favorite author a question.
The energy in the room had become serious after a local teacher stood up to ask the panel of Black female authors what they thought about districts in Mississippi restricting access or banning their books completely from school libraries.
Angie Thomas answered first.
“We’re being made into the big bad wolves that are coming in,” Thomas said. “Half the people who banned my book haven’t even read it.”
While Thomas spoke, the 12-year-old paced in her white Nike tennis shoes, clutching her copy of “The Hate U Give.” When it was finally her turn, Moore shared with the panelists — all in attendance for an event at the Mississippi Book Festival — that she’d actually discovered Thomas’ book through her own classroom library. Since she picked it up, she’d not been able to put it down: not at volleyball practice, not at the grocery store; she brought it with her everywhere. Her question was simple: Would Thomas please sign her copy?
“I was so surprised because, like, my mom was telling me this book was getting banned almost everywhere,” Moore later told Mississippi Today. “I was like, I have to read this. I literally have to get this.”
Moore is a student in the Jackson Public School District, which has not banned books to date. She got her book signed and intends to return it to her classroom for her peers to read. But in recent months, school districts and libraries across Mississippi have begun restricting access to books deemed to have “mature content.” This means students like her in other districts no longer have easy access to a world of literature filled with characters and situations that mirror their own lives.
Nationally, attempts to ban books hit a record high in 2021 since the American Library Association started tracking the challenges 20 years ago. The organization announced last week that 2022 is on track to surpass last year, and the majority of challenged books were by or about Black or LGBTQ+ individuals.
In Mississippi, public libraries in Ridgeland and Biloxi have debated pulling books off shelves, with the Ridgeland mayor holding back funding from the library over LGBTQ+ books. After several months of negotiations, the library had to reduce its operating hours before an agreement was reached to restore funding.
In the Madison County School District, the school board placed 10 books in restricted circulation, meaning they require parental permission to check out. Nearly all the authors are people of color or LGBTQ+.
Adam Maatallah, a senior at Madison Central High School and president of the high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) Club, said he was disheartened, but not surprised, when he learned about the efforts to ban books in his school district. He’s encountered a lot of prejudice as a kid, he said, and “ … after coming out and being comfortable with my sexuality, I’ve seen the true Mississippi, and it’s not a pretty place for queer people, especially queer youth.”
“We never really expected that (the restrictions) would come from people who are trying to educate us,” Maatallah said. “We were very shocked and sad that apparently, that’s what our educators in charge think is best for us. In reality, it only shows us that we’re not welcome here or that we should be excluded and isolated and not exposed to other people.”
He said he and his peers were grateful it wasn’t a complete ban of books and they could still be accessed with parental consent, but pointed out this poses a challenge for students with less accepting parents.
“To put that book on parental restriction is really banning the book altogether,” he said. “The presence of the book in the library is what matters to us. The availability and having the choice to read that book is what makes us feel safe and secure and like we’re people at our school.”
Students have also felt the impact of these efforts to ban books in communities where books are not restricted.
Alex Palmiter, a 10th grade student in Meridian, said they’ve witnessed classmates and teachers having disagreements about the issue.
“I feel kinda disappointed when it happens because usually, I’m not part of the conversation, I’m just an observer,” Palmiter said. “Hearing them talk about me like I’m not there makes me feel like I don’t exist and I don’t matter.”
Palmiter emphasized the impact diverse representation has had on them personally.
“There was a moment when I realized that I don’t feel love the same way others do, and it was weird for me, but I have come to terms with it and I accept myself,” they said. “But seeing those characters and that representation in other media really did help me. It showed me that I’m not the only one in the situation and there are others who feel the same way.”
Raymond Walker, a trans 10th grade student at Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, echoed Palmiter.
“I have a giant shelf of books in my room all by trans authors or about trans people,” Walker said. “I travel a lot, and sometimes when my dad and I go up to St. Louis, he’ll take me to the gayborhoods and gay bookstores and buy me queer books, and I really find a lot of strength in having those.”
Walker, who switched districts from Madison County to Rankin County Schools to give him a fresh start when transitioning, said he has found his new district more accepting.
Though the bans come at no surprise, he wishes there was more pushback from the community.
“They can’t erase queer history,” he said. “It’s impossible. The only thing they’re going to succeed in doing is confusing young queer kids, pushing the denial that some queer kids have even deeper by erasing the part of themselves they can see in literature.”
Walker’s mother, Katie Rives, said she believes people advocating for book bans are just scared that their children will end up identifying as LGBTQ+.
“I just always think, I wish they could meet Ray, and just see what he is, there’s nothing to be scared of,” she said.
Jerome Moore, Serenity’s father, told Mississippi Today he thinks it’s a good thing his daughter has access to books like “The Hate U Give” and that she enjoys reading.
“Information is always a good thing,” he said. “She’s being exposed to things and learning as she grows, and that’s great.”
Thomas, the author who spoke at the panel, is a Jackson native whose books have been put on restricted lists. This is a travesty, she said, not just for the kids who won’t have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in her work, but for children to learn about people and experiences unlike themselves.
“Kids that see themselves in my books need those mirrors,” she said. “But there are other kids that need those sliding glass doors and those windows because when you have young people who don’t see lives unlike their own, who don’t understand people unlike themselves, they grow up to be narrow minded leaders who don’t care about nobody beyond themselves.”