Star YA Author John Green Never Wanted To Get Caught Up In The Library Culture Wars, But …

For about as long as he’s been a published author, John Green has faced efforts to censor his books. His debut novel, “Looking for Alaska,” a coming-of-age story that includes references to drug use and sex, has been challenged in schools for at least 15 years, and has frequently landed on the American Library Association’s most banned books list. Last year, it received more than 50 challenges in schools across the country.

But a recent dust-up over whether his books are appropriate for teens feels more personal, and like an escalation of a growing movement to ban and restrict access to books, Green said.

A public library in his home state of Indiana implemented a new policy earlier this year requiring library staff to remove any books with sexually explicit content from the children’s and teens section and re-shelve them in the adult collection. The decision at Hamilton East Public Library meant more than 1,800 young adult books were moved, among them classics like “Forever” by Judy Blume and “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson, as well as two of Green’s novels, “Looking for Alaska” and “The Fault in Our Stars.”

“I love Indiana so much, and it breaks my heart to see that kind of radicalism in a public library,” said Green, who lives in Indianapolis.

The mass relocation of Y.A. titles at Hamilton East has drawn intense public scrutiny in part because Green’s beloved books were swept up in the purge. But it’s hardly an isolated incident.

Efforts to ban books have soared across the United States in the last two years, driven by conservative groups and lawmakers who have targeted books they view as inappropriate, most often titles that address race and L.G.B.T.Q. issues. Lately, a growing number of public libraries have responded to complaints by moving books out of the children’s section, or placing them in a restricted area where parental permission is required.

In Montgomery County, Texas, commissioners voted in July for new library policies that bar people under the age of 18 from accessing books with “explicit” content, including many L.G.B.T.Q. themed works. A library board in Campbell County, Wyo., passed a measure this summer requiring librarians to weed out any books with sexual content from the children’s and teens sections, and fired the library director after she refused to move the books.

In Crawford County, Ark., the library system removed children’s books with L.G.B.T.Q. themes and placed them in a separate age-restricted “social section,” a policy that is being challenged in a lawsuit. And after residents in Marion County, Miss., complained about L.G.B.T.Q. content in the popular Y.A. graphic novel series “Heartstopper,” a library board agreed to move it to the adult section, and to conduct a review of all the books in the young adult section.

Librarians and free speech advocates say that such practices, while not new, are rising, and can amount to a form of censorship.

“I see this as censorship, because it is removing access from the intended audience,” said Emily Knox, the board president of the National Coalition Against Censorship. “No one wants to be called a censor, so one of the ways you do that is by impeding access.”

At a moment when conflicts over books have divided communities, the debate over Green’s novels has been especially charged. His blockbuster novel “The Fault in Our Stars,” which follows two teenagers with cancer who fall in love, has sold around 25 million copies, and has particular resonance in Indiana, where most of the novel takes place.

As a literary celebrity with a massive online following, Green has now become a somewhat reluctant conscript in a raging culture war over what books are appropriate for young readers, and who gets to decide.

“This is an escalation on the part of those far right groups that want to control what kind of information teenagers have access to,” Green said. “‘Looking for Alaska’ has been removed from dozens and dozens of school libraries just in the last year, so the public library is the next logical step.”

The controversy over young adult books in the East Hamilton library started in early 2022, after the library had received challenges to 11 books that patrons viewed as inappropriate, including nonfiction titles for teens about sex education. Following a caustic public debate about whether such works belonged in the children’s section, the board instituted a new policy that would restrict all books with explicit references to sex to the adult section. In the spring, they added new restrictions, requiring library staff to review Y.A. titles not only for sexual content but also for certain profanities and criminal acts.

By mid August, library staff had reviewed more than 3,500 young adult titles, and moved more than 1,000 books, drawing widespread complaints from community members who opposed the removals.

Public outcry against the policy intensified last month, after Green posted messages on social media slamming the policy as “ludicrous” and sent an incensed letter to the library board.

Last Thursday, after weeks of pressure, the library board voted to suspend and re-evaluate the policy. The books that have already been moved to the adult section will remain there while the policy is paused, but could be returned to the young adult section pending decisions by the board, the library director and board president said in a statement to The Times.

While many residents who attended last week’s library board meeting criticized the policy, some spoke in favor of moving books with explicit content. One speaker who supports the removals, Julie Boyd, brought a stack of books that she said had explicit content, and read a sex scene from Courtney Summers’ novel “I’m the Girl.” “I don’t want kids reading this,” she said.

Moving books so that they are inaccessible to their intended readers could constitute both a breach of the First Amendment and a lapse in a librarian’s professional duties, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the office of intellectual freedom at the American Library Association.

“If you are re-shelving John Green’s books because you don’t like the content, that could rise to an unconstitutional act,” Caldwell-Stone said.

In the past, courts have ruled that such practices violate the First Amendment. In 2000, a judge ruled that the city of Wichita Falls, Texas, had violated residents’ right to receive information after the city implemented a library policy that led two children’s books about L.G.B.T.Q. characters to be removed and placed in the adult section.

For now, the status of Green’s books and hundreds of other titles that have been moved at the Hamilton East Public Library remains unresolved.

Green said he will never grow used to having his books, some of which feature teen romance and intimacy, labeled as pornography. But it was especially jarring to hear such accusations being lobbed so close to home.

“It’s always pretty tough for me,” he said. “But it’s certainly a little harder when it’s in your hometown, and you’re conscious of the fact that you have to walk around the grocery store with those people.”

Green, who has spoken and written about his struggles with anxiety, said he was reluctant to get involved because the controversy makes him “super extra anxious,” but he felt compelled to do so because the librarians who are bearing the brunt of the criticism were unable to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.

“I believe very strongly in the freedom of expression and in teenagers’ rights to read, and I feel very strongly that other parents shouldn’t have any say in what my kids get to read,” he said. “As long as that fight goes on, I feel obligated to lend my voice to it.”

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