MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — When the Banned Books Tour arrived at the Ilsley Public Library here on a sunny afternoon last week, the crowd filled the reference room, the corridors, and part of the adjacent room.
The people had not come to ban books. They were joining the efforts of Vermont Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman, who has made a statewide roadshow out of his opposition to banning books in public schools and libraries.
“Everyone should be able to have their own opinion about what’s right for their kid, and their household,” Zuckerman said. “But banning takes away access to books for every other family. Historically, that is a predictor of greater discrimination and more authoritarian government.”
In a series of 10 events from June to September, the Progressive/Democrat Zuckerman has driven to different corners of Vermont to declare his support for keeping books available to the public. Middlebury’s library is a brick building on Main Street. Inside, the crowd of adults sat on folding chairs. Up front stood a display of books banned elsewhere, surrounded by yellow caution tape.
“We know about the high rate of teen depression and suicide,” Zuckerman said. “Having these books in libraries means a young person trying to understand themselves can go to a librarian and ask, ‘Is there anything about me?’ And an adult can find the book that suits their age and development.”
At each venue in the tour, either library officials or a Vermont author reads part of a banned book before Zuckerman speaks. Tanya Lee Stone of South Burlington, whose novel “A Bad Boy Can Be Good for a Girl” ranks 44th on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books in the last 10 years, has read at two tour events. The novel contains sexual themes, but is a cautionary tale for teenagers considering becoming sexually active.
Stone says she receives mail from teen readers thanking her for helping them through hard situations, and from parents who say her books helped them talk about difficult issues with their child. “You can tell your kids what to read, but nobody has the right to tell somebody else what they can’t read.”
Increasingly, however, national trends contradict that point of view. The American Library Association reports that book challenges have risen tenfold in two years, from 223 in 2020 to 2,571 in 2022. A report from PEN America, a freedom-to-write organization, says 3,362 book banning incidents occurred in the 2022-23 school year. Nearly all of the banned books pertained either to issues of race or to sexual and gender identity topics.
PEN also reports that the bans occur primarily in a few places, with 40 percent happening in Florida alone, and 87 percent taking place in states that have chapters of a national book censoring advocacy group.
“We are lucky that they are not here yet,” said Kathryn Laliberte, who has been a librarian in Middlebury for 18 years. “But Moms for Liberty has 200 chapters now, in every state but Vermont.”
Moms for Liberty, a national organization headquartered in Florida, says its mission is to fight “for the survival of America by unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”
That includes Vermont. On Aug. 17 the group held a meeting at the Elks Club in Barre, Vt., with Zuckerman’s tour in their sights. Organizers did not respond to requests for comment, but one of them provided a statement to Vermont Daily Chronicle, a conservative blog. Ellie Martin of Underhill, Vt., accused the Banned Books Tour of “promoting unbridled access to pornography and critical race theory material.”
The tour, Martin continued, was “building support to keep ‘radical’ parents desiring age-appropriate restrictions on educational materials away from Vermont school boards, since government knows best for our children, not parents.”
Rob Roper, a former chairman of the Vermont Republican Party, also wrote an opinion piece for the Chronicle, which called Zuckerman’s book events “his own weirdly conceived political version of a drag queen story hour. … Prepare to be ‘woked.’”
Zuckerman dismissed the criticism. “I didn’t strategize this issue for me politically. I would not be doing this tour if not for the politics in other states. We need a counter-narrative to the right-wing wave.”
First and foremost, he said, communities should be prepared. “There has not been a successful book challenge in Vermont. … But positions on many local boards and commissions are hard to fill. We need to push back on the national narrative, and prepare people.”
The preparation strategy has a recent local precedent: In June, residents of the small city of Vergennes, about 15 miles north of Middlebury, hosted a controversial event at the high school. They were members of Parents’ Rights in Education, a national organization that opposes teaching about gender identity and trans issues.
“We reject controversial sexualization and racist doctrine,” the organization’s website declares. “We reject current practice by public school staff facilitating mental health counseling, medical treatment and procedures without parental knowledge, circumventing the relationship between parent and children.”
The community rallied. On the day of the event, local media counted about 60 participants in the school auditorium, and more than five times as many Vermonters protesting outside.
“What’s been amazing to me is the outpouring,” Zuckerman said, “the sheer number of people coming to these events.”
Although the tour has drawn dissenting voices in some towns, he welcomed that discussion. “It becomes a real community conversation.” People in the crowd speak to one another, he said, rather than simply back and forth with him.
In Middlebury, the crowd was enthusiastic. Laliberte described a banned book challenge for high school students’ summer reading requirements. Some local residents criticized the practice of challenging books at all, which could lead to what Zuckerman called “shadow banning,” where books are removed, or not purchased, to avoid controversy.
But Irina Makoveeva, who grew up in the Soviet Union, disagreed. “It is very important to preserve the power to challenge anything,” she said. Now a visiting Russian professor at nearby Middlebury College, Makoveeva added, “Democracy allows people to speak their minds.”
When it was Zuckerman’s turn, he read from his wife’s worn copy of “Beloved” by Toni Morrison — winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the 45th most banned book in the country.
Zuckerman said he has been invited to other libraries and bookstores that want to stand together against censorship. As a result, he said the tour is likely to continue.
“As long as there’s interest, I’ll keep doing it.”
Stephen Kiernan is a journalist and novelist in Vermont.