Book challenges have always been an issue in American schools, but never have we seen such a sharp rise in challenges quite like now.

In 2021 alone, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom counted 1,597 individual book challenges across schools, libraries, and universities in the United States—the highest number recorded since tracking began in 2000. Some of these challenges are typical; parents might object to their child reading a certain book. Others are politically motivated, with politicians, political groups, and school boards targeting specific books, claiming the titles include content they believe is inappropriate for children.

As an English language arts educator, you’re likely to encounter book challenges at some point in your career—perhaps even more likely given today’s social climate. Maybe you already have. In any case, it’s important to know how to navigate these types of situations, no matter if you agree with the reasons behind the challenge or not.

Below, find four practical tips for handling book challenges, should one affect your school.

Review Your District or School’s Policies

Depending on where you teach, your district or school may already have material selection and/or reconsideration policies in place. These policies are your first line of defense against book challenges.

A selection policy outlines the criteria for selecting and evaluating instructional material, including books, based solely on educational merit. The policy should make it clear that the evaluation process is objective and not driven by bias or opposition to controversial themes, should the book include any.

A reconsideration policy provides actionable steps you can take if you are challenged about a resource. This policy may include a document for the parent or group to complete in order to initiate the reconsideration process. The document should ask if they’ve examined the entire resource and to identify the specific problems they have about it.

If a parent or group comes forward with a book complaint, direct them to these policies so they understand why and how the book was chosen. They can then decide whether they want to move forward with a challenge. If they do, then they have a clear, formal process to follow.

If your school doesn’t currently have a policy or needs to improve its current one, the American Library Association can help. Visit their website to find a free material selection and reconsideration policy toolkit.

Recommend Alternative Choices, If Needed

Often, parents object to books because they believe the content doesn’t align with their family’s values or beliefs. And that’s fine, but you shouldn’t feel pressured to change your entire literature unit based on one parent’s request. Not only is that impractical, but it’s not fair to your other students and their parents.

In this situation, consider offering a different reading option for that student specifically. Before doing so, make sure your school allows alternative assignments.

Encourage Students to Discuss Book Challenges

When it comes to book challenges, especially those that invoke community or media attention, student voices sometimes get lost in the noise. It’s important that students are heard because, at the end of the day, they’re the ones directly impacted by book bans.

Students probably have questions about why a book is being challenged. They might want to learn more about the book and the problems people have with it. Maybe they’ve heard about other book bans on the news or social media. Some students might even want to speak out against the challenge but aren’t sure how.

If your students express interest in the topic, set some time aside for an open discussion. Class conversations give students the opportunity to practice critical thinking, hear different viewpoints, and reflect on their own opinions about these issues. If you’re looking for a starting point, this PBS Newshour Classroom activity on recent book bans includes several focus questions to guide class discussion.

Protect Yourself

We wish we didn’t have to include this tip, but in today’s world, it’s unfortunately necessary. In the past year, members of several conservative groups have targeted educators over book bans, especially in places where book challenges have made national news. Most of this harassment occurs online, with group members publicly sharing personal details, such as home phone numbers and addresses, of educators with whom they disagree.

In the event your school becomes the subject of a high-profile book challenge, it’s important to keep yourself and your family safe from this type of targeted harassment. We recommend setting your social media accounts to private and limiting the amount of personal information you share online. Not sure where to start? PEN America created a manual for dealing with online harassment filled with tips on protecting your online presence and accounts.

Resources for Teachers, Students, and Parents

In response to the unprecedented increase of book challenges across the country, several organizations and educator groups have created resources for teachers, students, parents, and community members to help combat this issue.

The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) offers a free handbook for educators that outlines the specific steps you should take when faced with book challenges and censorship issues.

NCAC also created an action guide for students and parents who want to learn more about book challenges and censorship. Using language kids can understand, the guide explains censorship laws, the importance of the First Amendment in schools, and the reasons why people challenge books.

The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) developed a book rationale database designed to help you quickly source rationales for the titles you’re teaching. Please note that you must be an NCTE member to access the files.

Are your students interested in reading books outside of class but don’t have the means to get them? As part of their Books Unbanned initiative, the Brooklyn Public Library is offering free library eCards for students ages 13-21. This card gives students access to the library’s entire digital catalog. Students may apply for an eCard on the library’s website.

Handling book challenges can be a messy and overwhelming experience. But with knowledge and the right tools in place, you can successfully address these contentious situations.