My name is Jordan Busits. I've been working at Firefly Bookstore for close to three years now, with one of those years taking on the role as adult coordinator and co-founder of our store's Teen Banned Book Club.
The club was initially thought-up by local middle schooler Joslyn Diffenbaugh back in late 2021, at the time nothing more than a humble suggestion if she could host her club here and be supplied with the needed books. By then I had a year of book selling experience under my belt yet was growing restless at my status as a fledgling amongst my co-workers. Unlike the others, I had no special in-store projects of my own to do.
When my bosses presented me with the offer of helping Joslyn directly with setting up her little club, I jumped on it! Helping set up a book club was already an interesting proposal, but one focusing entirely on banned and/or challenged books? Now THAT was exciting!
For the next two months I was the one who planned the beginning stages and structure of the club alongside Joslyn. My duties were as follows: deciding a date our first meeting would be held, planning subsequent meetings on a bi-weekly basis, what the club's first book would be, how the both of us would decide on future books to read, creating an eye-catching poster/fliers to advertise the club to students, and accepting donations to the newly made TBBC account so that club members would not need to pay for their books out of pocket.
And boy was Kutztown supportive of this new club! Right away we had dozens upon dozens of people, both local and out of state, coming into the store or calling up to donate money to the teen's account. Admittedly I was worried about the potential for adult resistance towards the club's existence, but in the end the community's kindness won out over a few furious Facebook messages.
By the start of 2022, I, Joslyn, and about nine other middle and high school students from the area were seated on pull-out chairs in the middle of the store, nibbling on chocolate chip cookies I had bought with a Weis gift card designated for supplying snacks. As we introduced ourselves and warmed up to each other via sharing opinions on the recent wave of book bannings I handed out copies of our very first book: Animal Farm by George Orwell. A classic novel that was challenged and occasionally banned by many US schools since its publication in 1945, in some instances due to it being labeled as "anti-government" and in one instance "communist" propaganda.
Not long after, Joslyn and I were interviewed by the Reading Eagle (to which I shared in my bosses' ecstatic excitement when Neil Gaiman gave the news article a like on Twitter) as well as The Guardian. By February we had all decided together on our next book: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, rated the fifth most challenged book in the US due to it containing depictions of racism and police brutality.
On February 12th, Joslyn's mother sent me an email telling me how Nickelodeon News wanted to do a professional, televised interview with the Teen Banned Book Club.
'Awesome! Please let me know what they say.'
I quickly typed up and replied to her message before getting back to helping a line of customers check out their books, my mind exhausted from a busy Saturday and beautifully ignorant of what was in store for me.
Flash forward nearly two weeks later:
My mother and I are driving down main street so that I can join Joslyn and the Nickelodeon film crew for the bookstore portion of the interview, which the crew had rented out for the entire day to set up all the necessary lighting and camera equipment. I wear my usual work outfit of jeans and a brand new Indie Bookstore t-shirt with the added flair of a sleek black blazer. We arrive just as they filmed Joslyn and Vladimir Duthiers, our interviewer, casually walking into Firefly together.
I sat in the darkness behind high tech cameras as they filmed Joslyn and her younger brother, Jakobi, in the children's fiction section of our store. My mother sat beside me, sharing quiet, excited commentary with me on the professional proceedings between the repositioning of camera angles. In the age of instant video-making, I imagine it can be hard for some people to see the grandeur of a standard television shooting. I certainly didn't hatch butterflies in my stomach during those two weeks planning and leading up to the filming, nor even while I watched my young colleague being interviewed. Besides, it's not like this was an off-the-cuff interview. I had plenty of time to prepare!
Then it was my turn.
To put it simply, for that first minute I was on camera my lips were glued shut and my insides were jelly. All those bright lights looming barely a few feet above my head, having to focus on conversing casually with a Peabody award-winning journalist while ignoring the many other human and camera eyes focused entirely on me, knowing that every word I say and subtle movement I make is being filmed professionally... I finally understood just how important this interview was going to be!
I had practiced a rough script of answers to recite for all the expected questions I would be asked, but in the moment it felt more like I was acting on pure instinct. All my concerns on the cruel nature of book banning, all the support I had for these marginalized authors being unfairly censored and pride for my own queerness being seen in these banned and challenged books flowed out of me for a few minutes, and then my time in the spotlight was over.
We all took a break and waited until the rest of the club members arrived for the "group meeting" portion of the interview, and by the time that was being filmed all of my anxieties had shriveled to nothing under the warm glow of the studio lights (and good thing too, didn't want my stomach to feel queasy during the pizza party we had after!). I can still remember the tears of pure pride and joy in my parents' eyes when we watched the Nick News Special once it aired in March, alongside the excited commentary of my friends when I streamed the interview online for them the following night. I was even granted the wonderful experience of attending the First Amendment Awards with Joslyn later that year, though that's another story.
Sure, in the grand scheme of life this was just one moment on television for a children's news network, but I don't subscribe to that brand of cynicism about my own accomplishments. This was a matter of having my voice heard as a queer person angry at the blatant bigotry and lack of respect for the intelligence of teenagers' critical thinking skills that these demands for book bans stood for, and man did I get myself heard across the nation!
As much as I would love to end this retrospective on a purely positive note, unfortunately I would be denying the reality of the state of challenged books in this country.
The uproar around removing certain books from school shelves is still happening at an alarming frequency right now. According to PEN America's Index of School Book Bannings there had been at least 2,532 instances of individual books being banned; with the subject matter of most of them involving either LGBTQA+ themes, protagonists of color, books that reference or have scenes of sexual content, or all of the above. Pennsylvania has the 3rd highest number of book bans by school districts in the entire country, just behind Florida and Texas. Our own Kutztown Middle School has even recently halted its One Book, One School literacy program for Two Degrees by Alan Gratz due to complaints of promoting "political" opinions on climate change that were deemed "inappropriate for middle schoolers."
This wave of censorship for what children and teens should and shouldn't read may seem daunting, but it's the determination of these kids fighting back through book clubs like ours that gives me hope for a better future on the horizon. It's not enough to simply complain about the status quo, but to support these marginalized authors and show that we ARE interested in these stories, and that we will NOT tolerate having our younger generation shielded from the complex realities of the world we live in. I love that our TBBC members have kept this club going for so long as much as I love informing them and hearing their commentary on the subject matters of these great novels we're reading. Honestly, I would have been happy merely spending time with them every other week for our meetings.
...Though I can't lie, that spot on national TV was a hell of a bonus for an in-store project!
Link to the interview: https://www.nick.
List of books read by all of us in the club so far: Animal Farm (George Orwell), The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas), Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury), Melissa (Alex Gino), 1984 (George Orwell), Stamped: Racism Antiracism and You (Ibram X Kendi & Jason Reynolds), Lord of the Flies (William Golding), Fun Home (Alison Bechdel), Anne on my Mind (Nancy Garden), The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Sherman Alexie), Maus (Art Spiegelman), All American Boys (Jason Reynolds & Brenden Kiely), Slaughterhouse-Five (Kurt Vonnegut), They Both Die At The End (Adam Silvera), Of Mice and Men (John Steinbeck), Gender Queer (Maia Kobabe), Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison), This Book Is Gay (Juno Dawson), Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson), Beyond Magenta (Susan Kuklin), I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings (Maia Angelou), Two Degrees (Alan Gratz), Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)