Two Novels About Librarians Fighting Censorship

Like most librarians, I’m a reader, especially when I need an escape from reality. One of my consistent responses to stress is to lose myself in a good book because the world of fiction is often more pleasant than the real world. So, ever since school librarians became a target in the culture wars, I’ve focused on reading whatever appeals to me in the moment: young adult titles I think my students will enjoy; books recommended by family, friends, and colleagues; award-winners and nominees; and books from my favorite genre, historical fiction.

Ironically, two books I’ve read recently and loved are about librarians fighting censorship during wartime. That’s right, I’ve enjoyed two books about one of the topics I’m trying to escape for a little while every day by reading. After much thought, I’ve concluded these books resonated with me because they remind me that librarians have always defended intellectual freedom. Circumstances may change, and those circumstances are very personal for many of us right now, but the principle is the same and we must continue to uphold it.

So, my post for this month is a review of these two titles, both of which are targeted at an adult audience. If you could use a little inspiration from fictional librarians battling censorship in the midst of world wars, or if you simply enjoy compelling historical fiction, try one of these books. (Thank you to the publishers and to Net Galley for providing me with advanced copies of both books.)

The War Librarian by Addison Armstrong, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2022.

Two young women. Two personal struggles. Two compelling narratives.  One deep, dark secret. 

In 1918, Emmaline leaves her home in Washington, D.C. to serve as a librarian at a U.S. military hospital in France. Though quiet and shy, Emmaline is an avid reader who believes in the power of books and their ability to give wounded soldiers hope. Emmaline also cares deeply about social justice, so she’s shocked to see the discrimination the Black soldiers must endure. She’s also angered when the War Department bans books by German authors as well as books about pacifism. 

In 1976, Kathleen is accepted to the U.S. Naval Academy’s class of 1980 — the first one that includes women. Kathleen has been working towards this goal for a long time. Strong and determined, she’s ready for the challenge, or so she thinks. However, she’s completely taken aback by the discrimination and hostility she and her female classmates face.

Author Addison Armstrong presents two determined young women, each facing issues of discrimination and censorship (though in very different contexts). By seamlessly weaving in historical details of both time periods, Armstrong transports the readers back in time, allowing them to become immersed in both stories. Some readers will figure out the deep, dark secret long before it is revealed, but they will keep turning the pages to find out the events that led to it. A riveting book for adults that will also appeal to older teens who enjoy historical fiction.

The Librarian of Burned Books by Brianna Labuskes, William Morrow, 2023.

Three women who believe in the power of books fight censorship and government tyranny in this novel set in pre-WWII Europe and WWII America.

Althea, an American author with a celebrated debut novel, visits Berlin in 1933 as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the German government. She’s never been interested in politics, so she takes everything her hosts tell her at face value until she befriends some members of the resistance who want to show her the real Berlin. What she discovers about herself in the process will change her forever.

In 1936, Hannah is living in Paris after fleeing her native Germany. Already shattered by her brother’s imprisonment in a concentration camp, Hannah discovers that Paris is not free of anti-Semitism either. She does her part to fight intolerance by dedicating herself to her job at at the German Library of Burned Books. As Europe moves towards war, Hannah discovers that she’s been blaming the wrong person for her family’s tragedy. That knowledge changes everything for her.

In 1944, recently-widowed Vivian lives in New York. She works for the Council of Books in Wartime, which sends paperback books to soldiers overseas. An attempt by a powerful U.S. senator to censor those books infuriates Vivian, causing her to fight back by changing the narrative. To succeed, she will need the help of two women she doesn’t know, two women who value the written word as much as she does.

Author Brianna Labuskes does an excellent job with all three of the narratives, slowly revealing secrets and building suspense. She skillfully addresses the themes of censorship and government tyranny, using the three settings to remind us that we must be vigilant because efforts to suppress ideas can happen anywhere and at any time, with far-reaching ripple effects. A mesmerizing read.


Author: Margaret Sullivan

Margaret Sullivan is a librarian at Rockwood Summit High School and also serves as the Lead Librarian for the Rockwood School District. A past president of the Missouri Association of School Librarians, Margaret’s professional interests include advocacy, teacher collaboration, professional development, equity, and YA literature. You can connect with her on Twitter @mm_sullivan.

Categories: Collection Development, Intellectual Freedom, Literacy

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