Pennsylvania teen creates banned book club in response to national censorship

Kutztown area teenagers meeting at Firefly Bookstore in Kutztown for the first meeting of the Teen Banned Book Club, created by Joslyn Diffenbaugh. Photo Credit: Reading Eagle

A banned book club, founded by a Pennsylvania eighth-grader, garnered media attention and signaled a potential grassroots counter-movement against the rise of book banning across the United States. 

Key Players

Joslyn Diffenbaugh, who had been an eighth-grader at Kutztown Middle School at the time, founded the Teen Banned Book Club amid the national movement to ban certain books discussing race, gender, and sexuality from school libraries and classrooms.

Firefly Bookstore, a new and used bookseller in downtown Kutztown, in southeastern Pennsylvania, since 2012, serves as the homebase for the Teen Banned Book Club meetings. 

Further Details

In early January 2022, Lisa Diffenbaugh, Joslyn’s mother, told the Reading Eagle that the national movement to censor and suppress controversial books hit close to home, after the board at nearby Central York School District published a list of “frozen” texts to be pulled until administrators could fully vet their content.

In November 2020, that school board had voted unanimously to ban books and other resources. The decision garnered little attention until Ryan Caufman, the principal of Central York High School, sent a list of banned “Diversity Committee Resources” to his teachers on Aug. 11, 2021. Nearly a month later, the York Dispatch reported the four-page list of resources centered around Black and Latinx people, drawing public outcry. Prohibited material included articles, websites, webinars, books, presentations, and documentaries like “I Am Not Your Negro,” an award-winning documentary based on the writings of James Baldwin, a Black activist of the civil rights era. Later that month, the district reversed the ban after a wave of student activism, but the specter of censorship lingered on.

“After seeing the proposed book banning in Texas and the experience in Central York School District, I became concerned about censorship in our own community,” Lisa Diffenbaugh told the Eagle. “Unfortunately, we are seeing a group in our community begin to propose book banning during our school board meetings.”

Some Kutztown community members had expressed more concerns about books that discuss and portray LGBTQ+ people. According to the Eagle, two people complained at a November 2021 Kutztown Area School District (KASD) meeting, claiming queer representation amounted to graphic adult content. District Superintendent Christian Temchatin told the newspaper that although the books community members objected to were purchased by Kutztown, they were not stocked on library shelves.

Jordan Busits, a Firefly Bookstore employee who helped Joslyn organize the club, said the complaints pushed the Diffenbaughs to act. “KASD’s library complaints did play a role in inspiring this club for Joslyn and Lisa,” Busits said. “Our role as a bookstore is to support reading generally, and providing resources and education about challenged books in particular.”

The more book banning became a national trend, the more it worried Joslyn. According to The Washington Post, she knew she had to act when, in October 2021, Texas State Rep. Matt Krause  published a list calling for the censorship of some 850 books.


Book club launches and thrives

In light of book banning throughout the country, Joslyn came up with the idea for a banned book club and reached out to Firefly Bookstore to see if they would host their meetings. 

The store agreed. Busits told The Post that everyone there  was also disturbed by the rise of book banning across the country. “Books are meant to say something about the author themselves, who they are or what their world views are, and by banning those books we are essentially banning their voices,” Busits said.

On Jan. 12, 2022, the first Teen Banned Book Club meeting was held. 

Reportedly, the club is still going strong and has discussed texts like “Animal Farm” by George Orwell, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, and others. 

Besides literature, the group discusses hot topics in the news, especially those pertaining to issues of race, gender, and identity, and continues to meet every two weeks.