‘This Book Won’t Burn’: Celebrating Young People’s Bravery in the Face of Book Bans

‘How can I be brave?’ Too often, it’s our young people who need to ask that question, who need to stand up to terrible decisions adults impose upon them.

A student holds a placard at a Walkout 2 Learn rally to protest Florida education policies outside Orlando City Hall on April 21, 2023. (Paul Hennessy / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

“How can I be brave?” That’s the question that planted the seed for my novel, This Book Won’t Burn. 

Three years ago a teacher shared a story with me about my book, Internment, being soft-banned in her high school. She wanted to teach it in her English class but two other faculty members objected to it being in the curriculum at their small, rural virtually all-white school because there were no Muslim or South Asian students, because a book about bigotry might make the students uncomfortable. The teacher was startled and scared by their reaction, even afraid she might lose her job.

As a single mom, she couldn’t risk it. But she wanted to push back against the objections, she just didn’t know how. “How can I be brave?” she wondered. 

Too often it’s our young people who need to ask that question, who need to stand up to terrible decisions adults impose upon them. I wanted to write about those teens—the kids who are finding their voices and learning the power of collective action and protest who are acting more responsibly than the actual adults in the room. Like so many young people, my main character Noor must struggle to find her courage so she can speak out against the rampant book bans in her community and the adults who are trying to repress the choices and the voices of young people because of thinly veiled hate.

Over the last few years, thousands of books—mostly by queer and BIPOC writers—have been challenged and banned in America’s schools and public libraries, often under the insidious guise of “parental rights” and “liberty” and for the “protection’ of children. This is censorship … no matter how hard book banners try and package their challenges as freedom.

Banning books is deeply harmful to children. Censorship not only removes books from library shelves; it erases identities. Bans suggest that the very existence of some human beings is controversial. Make no mistake, book banning is an anathema to liberty. It is a tool of oppression, and if we really want to protect our children, if we want to ensure our democracy, we all need to be raising our voices to stop it. So show up at your school board meetings and library board meetings. Raise your voices at the ballot boxes and in your communities. Every child deserves to see themselves as a hero on the page. Let’s work together to make that possible. 

The following is an excerpt from New York Times bestselling author Samira Ahmed’s latest book, This Book Won’t Burn, published this month by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers of Hachette Book Group.

“I’m 18,” I say, my voice soft and low at first. The crowd settles, some take their seats again, others stay standing, but it’s quieter now. “I shouldn’t have to be here begging you to let me read. None of us should.” I gesture toward some of the other students. Faiz raises a fist. “We shouldn’t have to fight for the right to read. We shouldn’t have to convince adults who are supposed to know better that banning books isn’t about protection. It’s fascism.” Heads nod, some people applaud.

“We’ve heard enough of this woke nonsense,” Hawley’s voice booms from behind me. I don’t turn around.

“Shut up, Steve,” a woman in the row next to me yells, and then winks at me. “Let her speak. We’ve all heard more than enough from you.”

I ignore Mr. Hawley and continue. “You are actively hurting kids by banning books. You’re telling queer kids and trans kids and Black kids and brown kids that our stories don’t belong in school. That we don’t belong. But that’s so wrong. ‘When you see it, you can be it,’ my seventh-grade literature teacher used to say, and you’re denying us the right to see ourselves. To imagine all we could be.

“My parents have been taking me and my sister to the public library ever since we were little kids. We did the summer reading club and story hours. That library had a sign that read, ‘All are welcome.’ That’s what a library should be— a welcoming place, a place where every kid can feel at home. That library is where I first learned how you could get lost in a good book, how a book could be a portal to different worlds, a time machine, a rocket ship, a source of comfort.”

My voice cracks with emotion. It’s sadness and anger, too, but also more than that. Looking around as the group of Liberty Moms and Dads stand up and walk out en masse, hearing the gavel banging behind me, hearing so many students and adults cheer, there’s a kind of lightness that spreads through my body, something in the core of my being that feels unleashed. A feeling of rightness. Of pride. Of belonging.

I turn back toward the school board members. There’s a huge smile on Ms. Jensen’s face. Mr. Russo is nodding, and even Ms. Roberts, the vote we need, is paying attention. “Books help us see ourselves but they’re supposed to challenge us, too, show us worlds and experiences that are different from our own. Books help us open doors. We’re here asking you not to slam those doors in our faces. Let us read.”

The moment around me slows and blurs. Ms. Jensen stands and claps. Others join her. A few people shout, “Let them read!” Hawley’s face turns bright red. Ms. Jensen reiterates her motion. There’s a second. Then a cacophony of angry, overlapping voices. Some people are calling my name, but I can’t see who. All I see is my mom moving toward me, holding her arms out and pulling me into her. I breathe into her shoulder, the softness of her sweater soaking up some of my tears. It feels so good to be held this way. I’ve missed her so much.

My mom pulls away with a sniffle and then takes my sister and me by our hands and moves us toward the exit through the chaos around us. People nod at us, others glare in anger. I get some pats on the back. Andrew catches my eye and gives me a small smile and a nod. I turn away from him.

We step outside into the cool night air. Other students pile out after us, and the front yard of the school board building takes on the air of a party.

“You were amazing, beta,” my mom says, squeezing my hand. “I’m so proud of this fierce warrior you’ve become.” Her eyes glisten with unshed tears. “I’m sorry I wasn’t hearing what you were trying to say to me. I haven’t been there for you or your sister. That changes now.”

I bite my lip. My heart clenches. “Mom, I’m sorry I blamed you—” I choke back a sob.

“Shhhh, I know, beta.” My mom puts one arm around me and another around Amal. “It’s going to be okay. We’re going to be okay.”

I close my eyes, and for the first time in forever, I believe her.

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Samira Ahmed is the best-selling author of Love, Hate & Other Filters, Internment, Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know and Hollow Fires, as well as a Ms. Marvel comic book mini-series and most recently, This Book Won’t Burn. She was born in Bombay, India, and has lived in New York, Chicago and Kauai, where she spent a year searching for the perfect mango. She invites you to visit her online at samiraahmed.com and on Twitter and Instagram @sam_aye_ahm.