At the end of September, the emerging movement to ban books in our schools wasn’t exactly on my mind. Sure, I’d seen the headlines about the conservative crusade against books that often covered basic historical and scientific facts. But like many parents in America, I have a long list of reasons to fear for our democracy and the world our children will inherit; what books they usually read doesn’t crack my top 10.
That all changed on Saturday morning, September 24, when I saw this while scrolling through the Google Alerts I had set up for the organization I founded, Girls Who Code news week Headline: ‘Handmaid’s Tale’, ‘Girls Who Code’ and other books just banned in the US’
I couldn’t breathe for a moment. As I scanned the article for more information, that shock turned to confusion: there had to be a mistake. Why would anyone ban books about girls learning to code?
In disbelief I went to the source, PEN America’s recently updated 2021-2022 banned books list. There they were: on a list of more than 2,000 other banned titles, all four books in my Girls Who Code book series: The Friendship Code, Team BFF: Race to the Finish!, Lights, Music, Code! and Spotlight on Coding Club! I went through every storyline, every character in the books in my head, waiting for it to make sense.
And slowly that confusion gave way to an all-encompassing anger.
We launched these books for the same reasons I founded Girls Who Code a decade ago: to inspire and empower girls to pursue careers in technology – high-paying jobs that offer a path to economic independence. It quickly became apparent that the girls who needed these opportunities most – girls without access to computers or reliable WiFi – would be the hardest to reach. And so, eager to meet them where they are, we created the Girls Who Code book series to ensure no girl is left out of the movement we are building.
Banning the show from classrooms is an affront to this mission. In addition, it sends a strong message to our girls: you don’t belong. Coding, technology, opportunity – these are not for you. And girls who look like you and acquire hard skills – black girls, brown girls, gay girls, Muslim girls – are not celebrated in our society, they are banned.
These are the thoughts running through my mind as I took to Twitter that same day and called out the organization known for imposing similar hateful bans across the country: Moms for Liberty. They currently have 24 chapters in Pennsylvania, including York County. Teachers at Central York High School in the district have claimed the organization was one of several behind a recent letter-writing campaign to ban certain books.
This group, along with similar so-called “parental rights” groups, were linked to half of all book bans in the US last year – in fact, they recently made headlines for trying to shield young students from a book about seahorses, allegedly believing it’s ” too sexy”.
The same thoughts ran through my mind as I sat down for an interview with Business Insider and described this ban for what it was: an attack on our girls.
And they went through my mind as I pressed the phones. I reached out to the Girls Who Code leadership team to see what they knew. As did I: it was practically nothing. I have emailed the Central York School District Board of Education. Grilling. I found teachers in the district on LinkedIn and got in touch with them. At one point, I Google mapped the distance from my home in New York City to York, Pennsylvania and considered the possibility of showing up there on Monday morning with a box of Girls Who Code books to personally distribute to every single girl that they raised hand.
As I dug deeper, I discovered the happy news that the ban — which encompassed hundreds of materials on a “Diversity Resource List,” including the Girls Who Code series — had already been lifted, thanks to brave teachers, students, and the community who organized against it.
I went to bed that Sunday night with a small sense of completion — and a huge sense of gratitude that I didn’t have to search for childcare while Mommy was hours from home yelling at fanatics. Little did I know that the most surreal and terrifying parts of the whole episode were yet to come.
The next morning, I woke up to an overflowing inbox and hundreds of unread messages. The same news alert that informed me of the ban now provided dozens of stories about it. All the while my posts from the weekend were exploding; My niece Maya told me the story even made it onto TikTok.
Apparently, this movement did not slow down. Even when the ban was lifted, people were outraged: they wanted to know how something so egregious, so un-American, could happen in any school in our country for any period of time.
Instead of a statement, we received a strongly worded statement from Central York School District, which denied the ban ever took place. They called national news reports of the ban “categorically false”. Hiding behind formalities and half-truths, they found that the books could still be found on library shelves, unaware that teachers had been instructed not to use them in the classroom.
I didn’t fall for her ridiculous cover-up — and neither did thousands of angry parents who continued to press for the truth. But there was a group of parents who saw things very differently.
That afternoon, on social media and through a statement to the press such as Fox News, the organization Moms for Liberty called me a liar and said my “claims” that they worked to ban my books were false. On Steve Bannons war room, Tiffany Justice of Moms for Liberty said I was just an author who was dying to sell more books. Their explanation was that they weren’t behind the ban on those books – and by their logic, how could they be when the district had just come out and said there had never been a ban at all?
But the truth always comes out. After four days of dodging, the Central York School District emailed parents on the morning of September 29, eventually admitting what had happened: that the Girls Who code books – according to an email from the school itself – were not approved for use in classrooms in the Central York School District at any given time. So, let’s put it together, they were banned.
And then there’s that other part of the argument — that Moms for Liberty didn’t affect the ban. Moms for Liberty may say they’ve never heard of the Girls Who Code books, but in the Pennsylvania Moms for Liberty Facebook chapter, the Business Insider article was posted—and later deleted—along with my picture and quote I attribute to myself clearly never said, “We use pornography to teach kids to code.”
It’s unclear if Moms for Liberty plans to formally update its position from “we didn’t do it” to “the Girls Who code books are pornography and now we’re going to ban them everywhere.” Last week I found out that my books to teach girls to program were banned; I’ve been framed as a liar and my books have been labeled pornography by Moms for Liberty; and I watched a Pennsylvania school district refute claims that books had been banned to lead them into revisionist history by, well, rewriting history itself.
Where is that for me? angry, yes But also: activated.
This experience opened my eyes to the fact that book bans aren’t just about books and groups like Moms for Liberty aren’t just fringe players. I have watched conservatives, under the guise of “parental rights,” use our schools to advance a right-wing agenda that aims, among other things, to oppress women and prevent us from ever achieving justice.
I see these issues as interrelated: whether it’s about our bodies by taking our right to reproductive freedom, or about our minds by banning books that give our girls a path to economic opportunity, it’s about to keep our girls “in their place” — and actually send us back.
Now those parents have to contend with me and the army of moms I’m calling to action through my organization, the Marshall Plan for Moms. Mothers who believe in freedom of speech. Mothers who support parenting rights that parents really need, like affordable childcare and guaranteed paid holidays. Perhaps even mothers who once identified with Moms for Liberty — and who have now distanced themselves from a group whose actions undermine our children’s right to think for themselves.
If this experience has taught me anything, it is that we are more than they are. Let’s use our collective power and get to work. The future of our children – the future of our country – depends on it.
Reshma Saujani is the founder of Girls Who Code and Marshall Plan For Moms. You can follow her on Twitter @reshmasaujani.
All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.