Book ban efforts spread across the US
By Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter
In Wyoming, a county prosecutor’s office considered charges against library employees for stocking books like “Sex Is a Funny Word” and “This Book Is Gay.”
In Oklahoma, a bill was introduced in the state Senate that would prohibit public school libraries from keeping books on hand that focus on sexual activity, sexual identity or gender identity.
In Tennessee, the McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from an eighth-grade module on the Holocaust because of nudity and curse words.
Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades. The American Library Association said in a preliminary report that it received an “unprecedented” 330 reports of book challenges, each of which can include multiple books, in the fall.
“It’s a pretty startling phenomenon here in the United States to see book bans back in style, to see efforts to press criminal charges against school librarians,” said Suzanne Nossel, chief executive of free-speech organization PEN America, even if efforts to press charges have so far failed.
Such challenges have long been a staple of school board meetings, but it isn’t just their frequency that has changed, according to educators, librarians and free-speech advocates — it is also the tactics behind them and the venues where they play out. Conservative groups in particular, fueled by social media, are now pushing the challenges into statehouses, law enforcement and political races.
“The politicalization of the topic is what’s different than what I’ve seen in the past,” said Britten Follett, chief executive of content at Follett School Solutions, one of the country’s largest providers of books to K-12 schools. “It’s being driven by legislation; it’s being driven by politicians aligning with one side or the other. And in the end, the librarian, teacher or educator is getting caught in the middle.”
Among the most frequent targets are books about race, gender and sexuality, like George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy,” Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”
Advocacy group No Left Turn in Education maintains lists of books it says are “used to spread radical and racist ideologies to students,” including Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Those who are demanding certain books be removed insist this is an issue of parental rights and choice, and that all parents should be free to direct the upbringing of their own children.
Others say prohibiting these titles altogether violates the rights of other parents and the rights of children who believe access to these books is important. Many school libraries already have mechanisms in place to stop individual students from checking out books of which their parents disapprove.
Author Laurie Halse Anderson, whose young adult books have frequently been challenged, said that pulling titles that deal with difficult subjects can make it harder for students to discuss issues like racism and sexual assault.
“By attacking these books, by attacking the authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation,” she said. “You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence and attacks.”
Tiffany Justice, a former school board member in Indian River County, Florida, and a founder of Moms for Liberty, said that parents should not be vilified for asking if a book is appropriate. Some of the books being challenged involve sexual activity, including oral sex and anal sex, she said, and children are not ready for that kind of material.
“There are different stages of development of sexuality in our lives, and when that’s disrupted, it can have horrible long-term effects,” she said.
Book challenges aren’t just coming from the right: “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example, have been challenged over the years for how they address race, and both were among the library association’s 10 most-challenged books in 2020.
In the Mukilteo School District in Washington state, the school board voted this week to remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” — voted the best book of the past 125 years in a survey of readers conducted by The New York Times Book Review — from the ninth-grade curriculum at the request of staff members. Their objections included arguments that the novel marginalized characters of color, celebrated “white saviorhood” and used racial slurs dozens of times without addressing their derogatory nature.
Political leaders on the right have seized on the controversies over books. The newly elected governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, rallied his supporters by framing book bans as an issue of parental control and highlighted the issue in a campaign ad featuring a mother who wanted Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” to be removed from her son’s high school curriculum.
In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott demanded that the state’s education agency “investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography,” a move that librarians in the state fear could make them targets of criminal complaints. The governor of South Carolina asked the state’s superintendent of education and its law enforcement division to investigate the presence of “obscene and pornographic” materials in its public schools, offering “Gender Queer” as an example.
The mayor of Ridgeland, Mississippi, recently withheld funding from the Madison County Library System, saying he would not release the money until books with LGBTQ themes were removed, according to the library system’s executive director.
George M. Johnson, author of “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about growing up Black and queer, was stunned in November to learn that a school board member in Flagler County, Florida, had filed a complaint with the sheriff’s department against the book. Written for readers aged 14 and older, it includes scenes that depict oral and anal sex and sexual assault.
“I didn’t know that was something you could do, file a criminal complaint against a book,” Johnson said in an interview. The complaint was dismissed by the sheriff’s office, but the book was subsequently removed from school libraries while it was reviewed by a committee.
At a school board meeting where the book was debated, a group of students protested the ban and distributed free copies, while counterprotesters assailed it as pornography and occasionally screamed obscenities and anti-gay slurs, according to a student who organized the protest and posted video footage of the event.
Johnson made a video appearance at the meeting and argued that the memoir contained valuable lessons about consent and that it highlighted difficult issues that teenagers are likely to encounter in their lives.
A district committee reviewed the book and determined it was “appropriate for use” in high school libraries, but the decision was overruled by the county superintendent, who told the school board that “All Boys Aren’t Blue” would be kept out of libraries, while new policies are created to allow parents to have more control over which books their children can access. Several other young adult titles that had been challenged and removed were restored.
So far, efforts to bring criminal charges against librarians and educators have largely faltered, as law enforcement officials in Florida, Wyoming and elsewhere have found no basis for criminal investigations. And courts have generally taken the position that libraries should not remove books from circulation.
Nonetheless, librarians say that just the threat of having to defend against charges is enough to get many educators to censor themselves by not stocking the books to begin with. Even just the public spectacle of an accusation can be enough.
“It will certainly have a chilling effect,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom. “You live in a community where you’ve been for 28 years, and all of a sudden you might be charged with the crime of pandering obscenity. And you’d hoped to stay in that community forever.”
She said that aggressively policing books for inappropriate content and banning titles could limit students’ exposure to great literature, including towering canonical works.
“If you focus on five passages, you’ve got obscenity,” Caldwell-Stone said. “If you broaden your view and read the work as a whole, you’ve got Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’ ”