To Fight School Book Banning, Johnston Parent Starts Little Library

Another parent in Johnston is fighting efforts to restrict access to books in schools, and she’s doing it with a box in her front yard.

The box, unveiled Saturday, is a Little Free Library filled with a mix of books that have been challenged or removed from schools, and childhood classics for all grade levels.

Some of the books include “Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank, “The Pronoun Book” by Chris Ayala-Kronos, “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker, and “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas.

“People who are for book banning told me, ‘Well, these books are still available. Kids can go buy them on Amazon,’” said Nicole Smith, who now hosts the library on her property just off NW Beaver Drive in Johnston. “Well, not every parent and family can do that. This is a way to provide it to them for free.”

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Little Free Library, But With a Mission

With the school year starting, lists of books to be removed from school libraries have already made the news. This year, Iowa Republicans passed laws prohibiting types of books allowed in schools and, without official state guidance, school districts have interpreted the law–enforcement of which goes into effect in January–on their own.

Little Free Library is a nonprofit organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota, and the group’s mission is about inspiring readers, expanding access to books and building community around books.

The libraries work like a public library, but there’s no requirement to return the book or return the book to the same library it was taken from. The libraries remain stocked from the community, so they mostly operate on a “take a book, leave a book” model. There’s a map on the website of all the locations, including dozens in the Des Moines metro.

“This is in a spirit of anonymity,” Smith said. “You can go there anytime, and you can put anything you want in there. We’re not going to discriminate on what is put in there or take it out of there.”

The books in her library come with little stickers she designed so people know where the book came from. It also has a QR code to donate to Annie’s Foundation, an anti-book banning organization started by Johnston moms. Annie’s Foundation is also partnering with Smith for the Little Free Library.

Smith said it took about six months to get the library set up, from getting the funding to having the library ready for Saturday. The grant covered the cost of the library and about $200 worth of books.

“We have a really healthy start to our collection,” Smith said. “I’ve been building my own Amazon wish list, so every now and then I’ll randomly get books from friends in the mail that I’ve been keeping on hand for when the library opens.”

Why Open a Little Free Library

Smith’s resolve to open the library solidified in February, when Iowa Republicans allowed five members of Moms for Liberty to speak in support of banning books from schools at a public hearing for the House Government Oversight Committee.

There was no official public hearing set up for students and parents who oppose book bans. Legislative Democrats provided the time and space, but in a different room before the public hearing.

“I’ve never understood why they [Moms For Liberty members] went over already existing processes and went straight to the legislature, especially in districts where they don’t even have children,” Smith said.

“If you don’t want your child to have access to [a book], there are processes in place so that your child doesn’t have access to that book. You do have control. You did have control before this. And now this law has taken books out of the hands of children,” she continued.

Smith said she’s a little worried about vandalism, but she told her neighbors about the library and she said most of them have supported the library and don’t think it will be vandalized. The Little Free Library has a guide for how to handle it if is, but Smith said she thinks vandalism would only strengthen her message about access to information.

Smith also started the library to honor her mother, who was an avid reader and was fighting book banning when she died.

“We knew that this was going to be a perfect way to honor my mom and to combat and break down any access barriers and give people access to any book that they want,” Smith said at the unveiling.

She invited local school board candidates and some local politicians to the opening. Lya Williams and Jason Arnold, who are running for Johnston School Board, attended, as did State Minority Leader Jennifer Konfrst, who grew up in the area and went to school in the Johnston school system.

Konfrst said her former English teacher is “horrified” by books being banned from schools, and said many of the books being added to the library were books she first read in school. She praised Smith and her family for opening their library, and Annie’s Foundation for giving out banned books and raising awareness.

“There are books in there that will help kids, that will help kids recognize themselves, recognize each other. They will help kids build empathy,” Konfrst said. “The books on this stack will help kids understand that they are seen, heard and wanted and loved in their community. And when we ban them, they’re sending the message that those people represented in those books aren’t welcome here.”


Nikoel Hytrek

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