Millions of students went back to school this year facing censorship efforts that restrict their right to learn. Since 2021, dozens of states have moved to introduce and pass classroom censorship bills that restrict students and educators from discussing race, gender, and sexual orientation in K-12 classrooms and universities. At the same time, politicians and school boards across the country have also made moves to ban books — especially books representing Black and LGBTQ experiences — from public schools and libraries.
Students who are directly impacted by these censorship efforts are at the forefront of advocating for their right to receive an inclusive education. We spoke with Ella Scott, a junior at Vandegrift High School who co-founded the Vandegrift Banned Book Club in response to book bans happening in her Texas high school. We hope this conversation inspires you to defend your right to read and learn.
ACLU: What inspired you to start the Vandegrift High School (VHS) Banned Book Club?
ES: The VHS Banned Book Club is run by me and my childhood best friend, Alyssa Hoy. Alyssa’s mom is a teacher at our high school, and she mentioned that there was a list of books our school district, Leander Independent School District, was planning to remove from our classroom shelves and libraries. The books were also being removed as options for reading and discussions in our English classes.
We had no idea this list existed for the longest time because our school struggled to communicate this. We were really shocked that students didn’t know this was happening, especially since it’s something that’s affecting our education and makes a big impact on what we can learn and what materials we can have access to. So we really wanted to create the club as an opportunity for students to become aware of this issue and to make sure students have the materials they need to talk about it.
ACLU: Once you decided you wanted to start a banned book club, what were the initial steps you took to get it going?
ES: We started reaching out to our friends first to spread the word about the club and try to build members. We were a very small group initially, as there were only six of us at first. But now, we’ve tripled in size, which is very exciting! We would meet about every month in the library and start plowing through the list of books that our school was attempting to remove and focusing discussions on them.
I think what really helped us get started initially was talking to other students and reaching out to friends about the club because there’s power in numbers. The more people you get involved, the more awareness you can raise towards the issue. It really helps because it shows just how many people are passionate about their right to read and their right to education.
ACLU: Did you receive any pushback from your school when trying to start up your club?
ES: Like any other school club at our high school, we had to go through an application process to become a club. But overall, we didn’t receive any pushback for the formation of the club from our teachers or librarians. They’ve all been really supportive. The main hurdle though was, at first, we had difficulty getting access to the novels we wanted to read because of our district’s book ban. We asked some of the English teachers who had extra copies of some of the books on their shelves if VHS Banned Book Club students could borrow them for the month, but they were not allowed to do that because of the school district’s ban. So instead, we posted public Amazon wish lists for books that donors contributed to that allowed us to get some of the books on our list for club members.
ACLU: How do you select books to read for the club?
ES: All of the books we have read and propose to read come from the list of books the district removed from our school. We have a Google form that we update every month where we have all those books listed and our members get to vote for which one they want to read next.
ACLU: How many books has the banned book club read so far?
ES: Oh, that’s a good question. We’ve read 7 books.
ACLU: What’s your favorite banned book that you’ve read so far?
ES: The Handmaid’s Tale!
ACLU: How often do you meet?
ES: We meet twice a month.
ACLU: How do you decide what questions to ask to guide those book club meetings?
ES: We have officer positions for our club, and one of the positions is “Discussion Curator.” They are responsible for writing about five questions every meeting to help guide the discussions. Most are normal book club questions like “Which characters do you relate to?” or “What scene in the book stood out to you?”. But there are also questions like “How does this book being banned affect you and make you feel as a student? and How does it affect your learning?”. Those are the types of questions we will dive into as a group.
ACLU: Why do you think starting a banned book club is an effective way to take action and push back against administrators and school boards who are trying to remove books from schools?
ES: In our school district, there are some people who have very intense beliefs about whether books should be allowed or not. And you can definitely see that through our board meetings where a lot of people preach their opinions. But our focus really is making sure that every student has the ability to access and discuss these books. The best way to fight censorship is to get students involved in the conversation that adults say we shouldn’t be having.
ACLU: What advice would you give to other students who might want to take action against book bans and other efforts from adults trying to limit what they can read?
ES: I would say don’t be afraid to break boundaries. I think that was something I really learned from this experience. A lot of adults weren’t asking for student opinions in this book ban debate, but our club is giving it in a place where it wasn’t asked for and I think it has made a huge difference. It’s helping a lot of people understand that students do add value in this conversation, and our opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. As students, we’re in high school learning how to navigate the world around us, and these books really help us with that. If you support this issue, you shouldn’t feel afraid to show that support and fight for it because you are fighting for your rights. And as a student, you deserve that. So there’s no reason to fear standing up for what you believe in.