From calls in Virginia to burn “sexually explicit” books in a school library to a spate of challenges to titles from authors ranging from Toni Morrison to Alison Bechdel, the American Library Association charts an unprecedented rise in efforts to ban books in libraries. — many that it believes are fueled by organized conservative campaigns.
“It’s a set of challenges I’ve never seen in my time with the ALA – the past 20 years. We’ve never had a time when we had four or five reports a day for days, sometimes as many as eight a day,” said ALA Director Deborah Caldwell-Stone. “Social media amplifies local challenges and they are going viral, but we have also seen a number of organizations activate local members to attend school board meetings and challenge books. We’re seeing what appears to be a campaign to take down books, especially books on LGBTQIA themes and books on racism.”
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye has been removed from Utah school libraries for its “explicit” content; in Virginia, the Nobel laureate’s lover has been challenged for similar reasons. Bechdel’s Fun Home, the acclaimed graphic memoir about her father’s and her own sexuality, was pulled from shelves in Northern Kansas for its LGBTQ themes, while a district in southern Pennsylvania almost completely banned a long list of titles. by or about people of color, by acclaimed authors including Jacqueline Woodson, Ijeoma Oluo and Ibram X Kendi. (The all-white school board said it was a coincidence that nearly all of the material banned was by or about people of color.)
Maia Kobabe’s award-winning graphic novel memoir Gender Queer has been challenged in several states. “Removing or restricting gay books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for gay youth, who may not even know what terms to ask Google to learn more about their own identities, bodies and health,” he wrote. Kobabe in the Washington Post last month.
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott wrote to the Education Bureau commissioner earlier this month to be notified of any “case of pornography being provided to minors under the age of 18 for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law.” In particular, Abbott cited Gender Queer, which was withdrawn from some Texas classrooms after complaints, and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, which describes the author’s abusive gay relationship.
In Spotsylvania in Fredericksburg, Virginia, meanwhile, parents have protested the availability of LGBTQIA fiction to children. A school board member called for the offending books to be burned. “I think we should throw those books in the fire,” he said. “I think we now live in a world where our public schools would rather have kids read about gay pornography than Christ.” The school board then ordered that “sexually explicit” books be removed from district libraries.
Caldwell-Stone pointed to conservative grassroots organizations such as Heritage Action and the Heritage Foundation, which she says were the drivers of efforts to censor material related to racism and black American history, as well as material “which they deem inappropriate for minors, which seems to encompass the entire canon of books on LGBTQIA themes”.
“We’ve seen some of these parental rights groups that emerged over the past year get involved in these challenges, and their local chapters show up to attend school board meetings and challenge books. It has really led to an increase in challenges,” she said.
“If you have organizations like Heritage Foundation and Family Policy Alliance that publish materials that instruct parents on how to challenge books in the school or public library, right through to a challenge form in the booklet so they can just fill it out, then you see a challenge for our democratic values of freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of belief.”
Caldwell-Stone said she was particularly concerned that elected officials are now pursuing the same agenda: “Officers who are theoretically bound by the First Amendment, who are not allowed to participate in official government censorship of ideas or views, but you have the governors of Texas and South Carolina declaring that they will be scrubbing school libraries of pornography without defining what they mean by that.”
Librarians fight back against challenges. Spotsylvania’s school board voted last week to revoke the order on “sexually explicit” books, and the ban in Pennsylvania’s Central York school district was overturned in September after widespread protests. However, Caldwell-Stone said the number of attacks had a “shivering effect.” Last year, the ALA reported more than 273 attempts to ban or challenge books. This figure is expected to be significantly higher in 2021.
“You might find school boards, library boards, proactively pulling those books to avoid controversy. We see school boards and library boards ignoring their policies because someone shows up and claims a book is obscene,” she said. “It’s easy to argue that a few words, a paragraph, an image in a graphic novel is somehow obscene or pornographic. But if you evaluate the work as a whole, you end up with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, who was such a flashpoint in the Virginia gubernatorial election.”
An ad published last month by the Republican candidate for governor of Virginia featured a mother trying to ban Beloved from her son’s English curriculum. “He’s gone from banning a woman’s right to choose to banning books by a Pulitzer Prize-winning author,” President Joe Biden said at the time of the candidate Glenn Youngkin, who is now Virginia’s governor-elect.
“We are seeing a disregard for policy and a sort of moral panic about some of the novels and graphic novels that are in school libraries that are intended for adolescents to read and read without regard for agency or first amendment rights.” of the young adults involved, or the choices of parents who can make different choices about which books they want students to read and use in libraries,” says Caldwell-Stone. “We see censorship to impose certain agendas, which represent certain political or religious beliefs. It’s really discouraging.”