Words Have Power: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Banned Books Week

Have you planned activities for Banned Books Week (BBW)? In 2017, BBW occurs from September 24-30 with the theme “Words Have Power.” To learn what the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) is planning for this year (and to glimpse what happens behind the scenes), I interviewed Ellie Diaz, OIF program officer who provides support for BBW.

How is the theme for Banned Books Week selected?

Diaz: “The planning process for Banned Books Week starts in late October, just a few weeks after the previous Banned Books Week. Choosing the theme for BBW is a collaborative process. First, Office for Intellectual Freedom staff get together to review trends in book challenges. From there, we brainstorm themes we think could draw attention to what’s happening on libraries’ shelves and in the literary community. Then we work with an artist on incorporating these ideas into a striking graphic.”

Is there any new activity planned for Banned Books Week in 2017?

Diaz: “This year, ALA is harnessing the power of social media to host a Rebel Reader Twitter Tournament. It’s a bit different than the Triwizard Tournament in the banned and challenged Harry Potter series. The purpose of the tournament is to spotlight library resources, First Amendment rights, and the harms of censorship by tweeting ‘action items.’ Twitter users who complete an action item are then entered into a drawing for amazing banned book swag bags, given away each day of Banned Books Week. Only those who are 13 and older can participate in the Rebel Reader Twitter Tournament.” The complete list of eight action items includes “take a selfie with a banned or challenged book” or “posting a quote from a banned or challenged book” (ALA, How to Enter). Use the hashtag #RebelReader.

Another social media activity is returning. According to Ellie, ALA is again promoting a thunderclap to challenge censorship and promote the freedom to read. Thunderclap is a platform that releases one powerful message on social media accounts that “supported it” at a certain day and time. This year, ALA’s goal is to have 500 supporters, which means 500 people “register” their social media accounts. If we reach that goal, then on Monday of Banned Books Week, one message will be published on the social media accounts of supporters: “Your words have the power to challenge censorship. Support the freedom to read & express ideas. #bannedbooksweek” Last year we reached 1.6 million people with the Banned Books Week message.”

Some schools do not allow students to use social media or frown on observing Banned Books Week. Where can school librarians find alternative ideas to celebrate students’ First Amendment right to read?

Diaz: “Half of the challenges reported in 2016 occurred in schools and school libraries, so it’s important that intellectual freedom and First Amendment issues are highlighted in schools. One of the most attractive aspects about Banned Books Week is its versatility. The ALA ‘Banned Books Week Q&A’ has advice for school librarians on how to introduce Banned Books Week concepts to students and colleagues. Places to find First Amendment and censorship programming ideas include the Banned Books Week Pinterest page, the ‘50 Shades of Banned Books Week’ webinar, and ProgrammingLibrarian.org.”

Who creates the images for BBW? Are there new graphics that school librarians can download for 2017?

Diaz: “The artist for Banned Books Week graphics varies. Some years, a local design agency creates the graphics, and other years, a freelance designer is chosen. Tom Deja of Bossman Graphics created the thought-provoking graphics for the upcoming Banned Books Week. School librarians can find cover photos, images, GIFs, infographics, coloring sheets, and videos on the ALA Banned Books Week Free Downloads page. Nick Bruel, who created the Bad Kitty series, has designed one of the new coloring sheets.”

Will there be a free webinar during BBW?

OIF’s Kristin Pekoll and New Caanan High School Library Department Chair Michelle Luhtala will team up for the free ‘Intellectual Freedom Is Not Just about Censorship’ webinar on September 13 from 5-6 pm EDT. Webinar description and registration are found here.

Annually in April the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom announces the 10 most challenged books for the previous year. How are the top challenged books determined?

Diaz: “Throughout the year, OIF documents public media articles about challenges and censorship reports submitted through the office’s reporting form. Around February of each year, OIF takes a look at all the challenges that were reported for the previous year, and calculates which books received the most challenges. The number 1 most challenged book of 2016 was This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.”

Do you have any final advice for school librarians about fighting censorship?

Diaz: “If you receive a challenge, the Office for Intellectual Freedom is ready to help. Support from our office can come in a variety of ways – it can include writing a letter, gathering book reviews, or visiting the community. Sometimes librarians just need someone to talk to; challenges can be frustrating and scary, so we’re here to help you through the process.”

Note: For confidential library resource challenge support, contact Kristin Pekoll, OIF assistant director, (312) 280-4221, kepkoll@ala.org

Last Thoughts & One More Resource

Thanks to OIF’s Ellie Diaz you know what happens behind the scenes to create the annual Banned Books Week observance. Although we use the name Banned Books Week, there are censorship attempts in libraries that involve resources other than books such as overly restrictive Internet filtering, and more recently, content in subscription databases has been targeted. To highlight these nonbook censorship attempts, OIF is creating a “Beyond the Books” webpage that will feature AASL’s Banned Websites Awareness Day (September 27, 2017) and other resources. The webpage will go live closer to Banned Books Week.


ALA. Rebel Reader Twitter Tournament. How to Enter the Drawing.” http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/bannedbooksweek/rebelreader/ (accessed August 19, 2017).

Diaz, Ellie. Email message to author, August 14, 2017 and August 21, 2017.


All images are freely available for download from the ALA Banned Books Website http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/ and the AASL Banned Websites Awareness Day website http://www.ala.org/aasl/sites/ala.org.aasl/files/content/aaslissues/bwad/BWAD-2017_webbadge.jpg/.



Author: Helen Adams

A former school librarian in Wisconsin, Helen Adams is an online senior lecturer for Antioch University-Seattle in the areas of intellectual freedom, privacy, library ethics, and copyright. A member of the AASL Knowledge Quest Advisory Board, the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee, and a KQ blogger, she is the author of Protecting Intellectual Freedom and Privacy in Your School Library (Libraries Unlimited, 2013) and contributor to The Many Faces of School Library Leadership (2nd edition, Libraries Unlimited, 2017). Email: hadams1@centurytel.net.

Categories: Blog Topics, Intellectual Freedom

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