Jan 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Book bans are back in style

Illustration of a book that has a matchbox insert.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

School districts from Pennsylvania to Wyoming are bowing to pressure from some conservative groups to review — then purge from public school libraries — books about LGBTQ issues and people of color.

Why it matters: A pivotal midterm election year, COVID frustrations and a backlash against efforts to call out systemic racism — driven disproportionately by white, suburban and rural parents — have made public schools ground zero in the culture wars.

What they're saying: "I've worked for this office for 20 years, and we've never had this volume of challenges come in such a short time," Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, told Axios.

  • "In my former district, we might have one big challenge like every two years," Carolyn Foote, a retired Texas librarian of 29 years, told Axios. " I have to say that what we're seeing is really unprecedented."

Details: The Spotsylvania County School Board in Virginia in November ordered staff to remove “sexually explicit” books from libraries after a parent raised concerns about their LGBTQ themes. “I think we should throw those books in a fire,” school board member Rabih Abuismail said during a meeting.

  • That same month, the Goddard School District in Kansas demanded staff remove 29 books from the district’s school libraries. The list included “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood and “The Bluest Eye” by Nobel Prize-winning Toni Morrison.
  • The Washington County School District in Utah voted last month to ban “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and "Out of Darkness" by Ashley Hope Pérez, two novels tackling racism, following parent complaints about profanity. The superintendent cast the deciding vote.
  • Texas school districts are scrambling to review and ban some library books after state Rep. Matt Krause, a former candidate for state attorney general, asked school superintendents to confirm whether any books on his list of 850 titles were on their shelves.

By the numbers: The ALA has not yet released a full accounting of its data for banning attempts in 2021, but Caldwell-Stone said the ALA tracked 330 challenges just from September through November 2021 and hasn't tallied all the titles yet.

  • In 2020, amid the new pandemic and remote schooling, it cited 156 challenges to library, school and university materials and services, and the targeting of 273 books.
  • In 2019, it tracked 377 challenges to materials and services, and the targeting of 566 books.
  • The top target both years was "George," by Alex Gino, a novel about a transgender girl. "Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You," by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi was last year's second-biggest target.
  • ALA classifies a book as "banned" if a school or library removes it from circulation or if a district outlaws it from lessons.

Between the lines: Some progressive activists have sought to pull literary staples from school syllabi under the argument that in today's context they perpetuate racist or sexist constructs.

  • As the nation's public schools become more diverse, conflicts over what books students can access — or must read — are posing new questions about free speech and the purpose of education.

What they're saying: Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, told Axios parents want educators to listen to parents' concerns and not force certain subjects on children.

  • She said parents have the right to challenge books from Black scholars like Ibram X. Kendi if they see it as indoctrination.
  • Justice also said she believes it violates the law for schools to allow access to books like George M. Johnson's "All Boys Aren't Blue" — a memoir about a Black teen facing rape and incest. "Providing pornographic materials to children and then turning around and asking us why we want to ban books is insulting."
  • "Books that promote indecency and immorality... I believe we should have an accounting for those," Alabama conservative activist James Henderson told Axios.
Sample of banned books against a yellow chair.
Sample of books targeted by conservative parent groups. Photo: Russell Contreras/Axios

Yes, but: Erin McCarthy, a social studies teacher in Wisconsin, said it's unfair for a small minority of parents to dictate what's in libraries.

  • "The issue with one parent deciding what should be available to all children is that they're kind of overstepping their boundaries. Books really allow you to dive in and understand another perspective."
  • McCarthy said school districts need to be transparent on how reading lists are created.

The intrigue: Liberal-leaning parents also have called for books to be banned over the use of dated racial epithets and themes of "white saviorism."

  • Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" and John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" regularly appeared on the American Library Association's annual list of banned books.
  • The ALA's Caldwell-Stone says such challenges are sporadic and nothing compared to the current conservative-backed efforts.

Bottom line: John L. Jackson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said the fight over books is a microcosm of our political divisions.

  • "It's almost immaterial what the books are and what's in them," Jackson said. "It's all about the readers. It's all about the folks who are organizing our contemporary political discourse."

What's next: Justice says Moms for Liberty has 70,000 members in 33 states and plans to expand.

Editor's note: This post has been corrected to show state Rep. Matt Krause is a former candidate for state attorney general, not a current candidate.

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