Credit: Ash H.G.

On June 12, Governor JB Pritzker signed historic legislation declaring Illinois the first state in the country to remove state funding from public libraries if they were to ban books. The bill is to be enacted on January 1, 2024.

This decision comes after a record-breaking increase in book challenges in 2022—amounting to over 1,200 challenged books, nearly double what it was in 2021, reports the American Library Association (ALA). 

Alex Gough, the press secretary for Governor Pritzker, told South Side Weekly in an exclusive statement, “Across the nation, extremists are targeting literature, libraries, and books in a despicable effort to censor the material students need to thrive in the classroom. Governor Pritzker’s purported goal is to preserve Illinois libraries as bastions of knowledge, creativity, and truth. In Illinois, we embrace facts, and we trust librarians to continue maintaining a standard for what books students have access to at school.”

On July 6, the governor tweeted: “Here in Illinois, we don’t hide from the truth, we embrace it. By outlawing book bans, we’re showing the nation what it really looks like to stand up for liberty.” 

Even so, not everyone in the state of Illinois can feel included in Pritzker’s stance.

While punchy national headlines announce that Illinois has outlawed book bans, Chicago Books to Women in Prison board president, Vicki White, can’t help but point out that this bill applies only to public libraries, not Illinois jail and prison libraries, or books sent by mail that are regulated by the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC).

In response to the governor’s tweet, White, who has been involved with the volunteer-run nonprofit organization for over a decade, urges the state to incorporate incarcerated folks in Pritzker’s declaration to “stand up for liberty.”

“I would just ask Pritzker to spearhead the same type of action in prisons, and not just prison libraries but prisons in general,” White said. “Because there are the books in the prison libraries, but books from organizations like ours go through the mail room. Another thing that would be excellent would be for an [assessment] to happen from the top; fold in the prison library system into the Illinois library system and [take it] out of the Illinois Department of Corrections…JB Pritzker, I love what you’re saying. Maybe just think a little more broadly.”

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Last year was a monumental year for challenged books. In 2022, some of the most attempted bans included books about gender or LGBTQ+ issues—such as Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, which the ALA ranked as most challenged—or books written by Black and Brown authors. Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, despite being a classic, was ranked at third most challenged for “sexually explicit content.” The 1970 novel depicts incestuous abuse. The young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie, was ranked number eight for “profanity” and being “sexually explicit;” the novel details the experiences of a young Native teenager growing up on a reservation. 

Moms for Liberty is a conservative organization that advocates against LGBTQ+ and social justice-related content in school and classroom libraries. Although they mainly have found adherents in more conservative states like Florida, Indiana, and South Dakota (not far from Chicago), some Illinois parents perpetuate these extremist ideals. 

Just this past November, parents showed up to a polarizing library board meeting in north-suburban Lincolnwood to debate the inclusion of children’s books discussing LGBTQ+ themes—specifically the picture book The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish.

Kelly Jensen, an editor at Book Riot, North America’s largest independent book website, has worked at the outlet for nearly a decade. Previously, Jensen worked as a public librarian in Illinois and Wisconsin and has since been reporting on book censorship, especially in recent years. While the idea of book bans has become a popular conservative talking point, Jensen says this kind of work has been happening for decades and that right-wing organizers and lawmakers are in it for the “long game.” 

“I always like to really emphasize that I don’t give a shit about the books,” Jensen says. “I give a shit about the people that are represented by those books, the people that are seeing themselves in those books, the people who can share themselves in those books, and at the end of the day, it’s the people.”

Chicago Public Library Commissioner Chris Brown also spoke to the Weekly about the importance of representation and telling the stories of young Black and Indigenous people and other people of color. 

In 2022, CPL declared all of its eighty-one library branches “book sanctuaries,” meaning those who enter any given CPL space have the “freedom to read” anything, including endangered books.

While Brown cites states like Florida and Texas as being two of the most vigilant about attempting to ban books and enact censorship across libraries and schools, he reiterates that this shouldn’t be the norm.

“I think this representation issue is incredibly important, and the danger, I think, is in creating norms in other parts of our country that others start to look at and think that that’s appropriate,” Brown said. 

“It’s hard to say, what gets normalized in one state down the road, does that get normalized even more? Do we start to see a critical mass of people saying that this is the route we want to go as a country? […] Norms can be rolled back. And I think that’s really disconcerting for our diverse communities, especially in Chicago.”

It’s fair to want to celebrate this legislative win in Illinois—after all, Jensen just reported that both Pennsylvania and Massachusetts are proposing antibook-ban bills in the wake of Pritzker’s decision.

But as Illinois Public Media reported in 2018, in the year 2017 alone, the IDOC spent less than three hundred dollars on new relevant educational materials throughout its twenty-eight state prisons. In the early 2000s, that cost was exponentially larger, stacking up to $750,000 spent on books each year, but by 2005 the cost shrank to $264,000.

According to a 2023-updated article by The Marshall Project about banned books in prisons by state, while most of the titles are pornographic, the list also includes books on Asian martial arts, the fundamentals of tattooing, how to write believable fight scenes, and Prison Ramen, which details prison recipes and personal narratives from incarcerated inmates. In contrast, Mein Kampf is banned in Illinois, but inmates are free to read it in Texas, according to a 2019 Illinois Library Association article.

Jensen, whose book ban reporting has also covered prisons, says that prison censorship doesn’t get nearly as much media attention as public schools and libraries because “there’s still this ongoing stigma.” 

“People are far more invested in their public libraries and in their public schools than they are in the prison system,” Jensen said. 

“There’s this ongoing belief that folks who are experiencing incarceration don’t deserve the chance to be people or that they can’t be rehabilitated or that they don’t deserve that. We know and can cite that prison censorship is the worst censorship in the country.”

WBEZ reported on this in 2018 as well, citing that research showed books have an immense chance to impact an inmate’s release and can help them become more civic-minded. 

“So yes, this [Illinois] legislation is awesome and important, but there’s also this huge missing component,” Jensen said. 

“That all said, there’s really interesting legislation at the national level that is looking at prison censorship. I think if we continue to talk about that and continue to advocate for it, if we have folks on the ground who are in the ears of the legislators at the state level, maybe we can get something going for the next term as well.”

While Chicago Books to Women in Prison is based in Illinois, the organization sends books to women and trans women across state lines to correctional facilities in places like Indiana, Mississippi, and Florida, where book bans can be more restrictive. 

White says a popular book that is often requested and that is often sent back is the 2014 comprehensive resource guide Trans Bodies, Trans Selves, which covers health and wellness for trans and gender nonconforming people. And like Jensen, White said she believes that when people are incentivized or held accountable for a shift in cultural norms, that is how palpable change, for all people, especially vulnerable groups, can occur.

“If the prison libraries in Illinois could be run by Illinois prison library systems and be eligible for funding and have the same standards in terms of access to books, as people out here have, that would be excellent,” White said.

“For example, [in] Trans Bodies, Trans Selves [there are] perfectly clinical illustrations that serve an important educational purpose. People change when they’re rewarded to change or when there are penalties to not changing. Sometimes that can come through public attention and protests and that kind of action. But, it has to do with the Illinois Department of Corrections.”

While Pritzker’s legislation is monumental for not just our state but as a leader of the nation, in the words of Mariame Kaba (whose book is banned in states like Louisiana), “We do this ’til we free us.” Until we are all afforded the same rights and regulations under state legislation, we cannot celebrate Illinois being a champion for all. 

“We’re showing everyone what it looks like to stand up for liberty. As simple as that,” read Pritzker’s tweet. But White reminds us to challenge our leaders and policymakers to include incarcerated people in that same victory.

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Gretchen Sterba is a freelance journalist based in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. She’s written for the Chicago Reader, HuffPost, BUST Magazine, and more. She last wrote for the Weekly about musician Shawnee Dez.

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  1. Excellent article! For readers who are interested in learning more about Chicago Books to Women in Prison, our website is All our books are donated and our website includes information about books we need and links to independent bookstores if you’d like to help send us send people books!

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