If school buses function daily across the country as vehicles of education (transporting students to and from school), the solo bus parked on a residential street in Tahoe Vista is no different.
Well, it’s a little different, in that it’s not filled with children but books.
This past August, Summer LaFleur, a senior at Tahoe Expedition Academy, cut the ribbon on her Banned Book Bus — a yellow school bus gutted of benches and filled with books — a mobile reading nook to figuratively fight against a rising movement across the United States to censor library materials.
“It started as a very literal idea with just a spot for kids at our school to read,” said LaFleur, who turns 18 this month. “But now it’s become sort of a symbol and a hub for a ton of other stuff … The core of the project is that book banning is a problem, but also … it’s to give the opportunity to read about an experience that you feel you’ve had or about other people’s experiences or [read] whatever book you want to about people regardless of class or geographical location and other factors like that.”
According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, from Jan. 1 to Aug. 31, 2023, there were documented challenges to censor 1,915 unique book titles — a 20% rise in the number of titles since the same reporting period in 2022. “Most of the challenges were to books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community,” the ALA report stated.
As a sophomore at TEA in 2021/22, LaFleur wanted to see a formal library at her campus, which did not have one. In speaking to staff about possibilities, she ended up engaging with her then-English teacher, Beth Vallarino, about her efforts and learned about book banning across the U.S. Vallarino told her about the literary metaphor of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.
“The theory of reading these stories and being able to see a version of yourself or your experiences reflected in the books, but then also being able to get a sense of what other people go through that you might not have perspectives [on] or you might not have thought about,” Summer explained.
As she learned about different books that she and people close to her loved that were being removed or questioned in other parts of the country, she said she became “fired up about it.”
LaFleur wrote a proposal that year about creating a banned book library on campus and presented it to TEA faculty, who approved the idea. The concept continued to percolate for LaFleur into her junior year, especially when her mother bought her books for her birthday in October 2022. By the end of 11th grade, she’d thought up the bus aspect and began perusing Craigslist for school buses for sale. She found one for sale in North San Jose for $6,000 this past spring. “I gave them $200 extra to drive it out to Sonoma … [Then] my dad drove it up here at 3 in the morning,” LaFleur said.
LaFleur, her family, and friends spent the summer making a reading nook out of the interior. “We had to look on YouTube for what to do and stuff, which was super cool,” she said. “The vinyl flooring was very frustrating, but it was fun.”
Aiden Carpenter is another senior at TEA who’s helped bring the Banned Book Bus project to life. “From a personal standpoint, I’m someone who really cares about the First Amendment and creating awareness about censorship,” she said. “And I believe that we’re going to grow stronger as a country by allowing access for everyone to everyone’s stories. I don’t think anybody should have their story taken off the shelf because it offends somebody else. So that’s brought me a great deal of pride being a part of this journey with Summer.”
Christina Harbridge learned about LaFleur’s project through her son, Sebastian Law, another TEA senior, and donated $1,000 early on to the Banned Book Bus. “What gets me emotional [is] they don’t have to [do this],” she said. “These are kids who know their privilege and have access to books … The fact that they’re opening up minds that they’ve never met, they’re giving what they don’t need … They don’t just sit still when there’s injustice and ridiculousness that could be fixed.”
Just before the current school year started, LaFleur was told she wouldn’t be able to store the bus on TEA campus.
“Tahoe Expedition Academy is 100% for this idea, as it falls in line with our school’s values,” wrote Head of School David Maher in an email. “Unfortunately, the decision to allow the bus to be stored on campus is not ours to make, as we lease the land. Meanwhile, we are working with the students to build bookshelves so there is a permanent place in one of the classrooms here at TEA to house these books. We also regularly incorporate books from this list into our classes, as TEA fundamentally strives to avoid restricting thought and debate in or out of our classrooms.”
Initially discouraged, LaFleur said she now views the setback as “a blessing in disguise because it got me to think about the community involvement more and [the project] as an independent organization instead of just something on one private school campus.”
A neighbor of Carpenter’s hosted a fundraiser for the bus on Aug. 31, which 40 to 50 people attended. “We got over $1,000 and then more books, like tons more books,” LaFleur said. “Mostly what was so beneficial is just seeing how much people cared about it and how much they liked the idea … It was sort of a setback hearing about all of it on the news, all the book banning, and then being told that I couldn’t put it at school. So that [fundraiser] was just super encouraging.”
Moving forward, LaFleur is exploring options to create a formal 501(c)(3) agency for the Banned Book Bus. She’s also working with different charities and nonprofit organizations like the Sierra Community House and the Humane Society of Truckee-Tahoe for its Read Up for Fun program.
“Then I think shipping books to different states, working with book clubs and organizations over in the states where this is a really, really prevalent and impactful problem,” she said.
LaFleur continues to be surprised by the titles being challenged in the country.: “I just found out that Water for Chocolate is banned in a couple counties in Idaho [because it’s considered racy]. That was pretty shocking ’cause that was the first novel that my mom and I read together.” Other banned books she mentioned were The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson for causing distress because of race or sex, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle for opposing Christian beliefs, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker for sexual content and situations of abuse and domestic violence.
“What Summer is doing is inviting people into a dialogue in a way that might open some minds that are closed right now,” Harbridge said, later continuing, “… It’s also bringing a place where people can sit and be surrounded by books … Part of what’s beautiful is when kids have access to things in a place, it creates more curiosity.”
Banned in the Basin?
Moonshine Ink reached out to libraries and schools in its coverage area to understand any efforts made to pull books locally.
• Placer County Library System, including the libraries in Tahoe City and Kings Beach, have had
no requests to remove books.
• Tahoe Truckee Unified School District: no requests
• Truckee Library: no requests
• Washoe County Library System: Two formal book challenge requests over the past nine years: the DVD Dianetics: A Visual Guidebook to the Mind and the book Johnny the Walrus. The DVD was withdrawn in 2017 because of poor condition, not for being challenged. The book remains on library shelves.
“Lately we have noticed an uptick in alternate, less formal methods of challenging books happening at multiple Washoe County library locations. Several books have been intentionally damaged or hidden within our libraries in an effort to prevent patron access,” shared Jamie Hemingway, public information and development officer with the library systems. “Censored titles include books about African Americans, books with LGBTQIA+ characters or subjects, and books about Native Americans, immigrants, politics, sexuality, and the Holocaust.”
She added that to date, “the only title found hidden at the Incline Village Library was Forever by Judy Blume.”
• Washoe County School District: No formal requests district-wide over the past year. However, some parents did not want their child to read specific books and those wishes were respected.
To find the latest national data on books that have been banned or challenged in the U.S., the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom is a good place to start.
Catch the Bus: