Before the school year began, I noted this would be a fall of book challenges. If you’re seeing a flood of stories about books being pulled from shelves or outright banned from classrooms and libraries, you’re not imagining it. It’s a small handful of the same books over and over, too, as curated by groups who maintain these lists, alongside talking points and language to use in order to bring about the challenges. I won’t be linking to them, but they’re easy to find. Google a few of the book titles and you’ll find them. The screen shots below are one list from one website, but give a sense of why the same titles appear over and over:
These groups are well-organized and continue to flood schools and libraries for a reason. If there’s too much going on at once, the hope is for distraction and for the media to forget (or, even better, for the media to name these folks and bring more attention to their causes). Right now, several of these groups are proudly defining themselves as domestic terrorists, too, further muddying the language we use to talk about actual threats to democracy and the Constitution. It’s used with pride in these instances, as a means of owning a pattern of behavior with both sarcasm and ownership, knowing damn well that this language will scare people off and invite them in, too.
This is FAR from a complete roundup of censorship news this week. But it’s a look at what’s going on insomuch as is possible. Here’s a reminder that whether or not you’re in these communities, your voice and actions matter in your own town. Utilize this tool kit to combatting censorship to ensure access to information for all, and not just those of a specific, harmful, and hateful political ideology. Small actions, including requesting challenged books at your library for their collections, make big differences.
Ghost Boys Controversy in Sparta, New Jersey
Jewel Parker-Rhodes’s Ghost Boys is being examined in Sparta, New Jersey, after a parent complained about it being in the middle school library. This led to the school’s new district superintendent — who’d received complaints about the book only three days into the job this summer — to explore what the policy was for use of supplemental materials for education.
According to Tap Into Sparta:
Beck had said it had “become quite apparent our district does not have a process in place to vet and approve” curricular resources, when he asked for the book to be “paused” and a process to be created.
Beck said because parents had raised a concern and he, in his third day on the job, could not find the process that approved this book, he could not defend it to the parents and he did what he thought was responsible in asking for the pause and the process.
It’s not entirely clear whether the book is back on shelves, and it’s further confusing that a freshman English instructor at the high school was being investigated for copyright infringement in photocopying and distributing the same book.
Students Protest Book Challenge in Fairfax County, Virginia
Parent Stacy Langman, who has, in the past, challenged drag storytimes in Fairfax County, took to the school board late last month to complain about Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison and Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer. The books, which were pulled from shelves for reconsideration, are being defended by over 400 students in the district who sent a letter to the Board demanding they be reinstated.
The letter was spearheaded by Aaryan Rawal and Frankie Sellars, both part of the Pride Liberation Movement, a group of students who are working to combat the mental health crisis among queer young people.
From Fox 5 News (lightly edited for clarity):
Rawal and Sellars say they’ve read both books and feel some have misjudged what’s in the book.
“It’s just homophobia.” Sellars said. “It’s not a simple pornographic book that we just want in the schools for fun, this is actual lives we’re dealing with here.”
“We’re really tired of our rights being attacked for political points,” Rawal said.
“Gender Queer is a beautiful story about someone figuring out their gender identity. Lawn Boy is about an underserved student overcoming an incredible amount of obstacles.”
“We do see some references to a character admitting they had sexual intercourse when they were a minor,” Rawal said. “In Gender Queer we do see a couple pictures of a character who is nude, but […] a lot of other books do the exact same thing in FCPS that are not under criticism and […] that’s only a small portion of what these books are about.”
The school responded by saying the books were still under review by two committees comprised of students, parents, and educators. No decision has yet been made.
Book Banned in for “Sexual Content,” Not Transgender Character in Suburban Houston, Texas
Ardent defense of a book’s removal for sexual content and not for its transgender character is a pretty solid sign that the book was removed for a transgender character.
The Breakaways by Cathy G. Johnson was pulled from elementary school libraries in Spring Branch Independent School District by the district after their reconsideration process deemed the book “not age-appropriate nor was it appropriate for its intended educational use.”
The book’s intended reading level is 3–8th grade, perfectly aligned with the district’s elementary school age children.
From ABC 13:
Lisa Andrews Alpe, a parent at Spring Branch ISD who has researched the controversy at Wilchester Elementary, said the concern of the book is not related to transgender children at all.
“We are concerned about the graphic sexual elements of the book, and the phrase ‘bleed the pigs’ which refers to violence against police,” said Alpe, who is supportive of the ban. Alpe also referred to pages of the book where the teens are seen in the same bed and kissing as inappropriate for elementary school children.
But the book is being defended and championed, too, as it’s not only age-appropriate, but it showcases the realities of people who identify outside the cis male-female binary.
However, Mandy Giles, a parent of two non-binary children and the founder of a support group, said the kids are already aware of issues of gender identity and sexual orientation.
“I think kids get it more than parents,” said Giles.
She believes that banning a book will not stop the discussion at a time when kids need more positive portrayals of children from all ethnic, gender, and identity backgrounds.
“It makes us feel attacked, especially my children feeling attacked. That their existence, their humanity, is being erased,” Giles said.
The book has not been returned to school shelves at the Spring Branch Independent School District.
Bayfield School District Opens Up Doors to Quiet Censorship by Pulling Book from Classroom in Colorado
A new middle school teacher included the popular, award-winning novel Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe in her classroom collection of books and told students that none of the books on that shelf were required and to use their best moral judgments to read what feels right to them from it.
It didn’t take long before a complaint emerged and the school’s principal removed the book from her classroom shelves.
Despite insisting that the book wasn’t removed for it’s LGBTQ content, the principal and district superintendent doubled down and said that it was a personnel and private issue not having to do with the book itself. He noted that its inclusion in the classroom violated district policy on “controversial issues.”
From the Durango Herald:
[C]ontroversial materials, which are not part of a district-approved curriculum, should receive administrative approval before being used as instructional material.
According to the policy, such controversial materials can include depictions of explicit sexual content, profanity, drug use, graphic violence, socially undesirable behaviors or materials that could divide the community along racial, ethnic or religious lines.
“I’m not specifically going to respond as to whether this material was or wasn’t (controversial) because there’s a lot of factors that are dependent on that,” Aten said.
He said the novel was not part of a district-approved curriculum, and there was no consideration of changing its status as of Thursday.
Other teachers in the district believe this was a specific challenge relating to the book’s queer content and that bundling queer content under the banner of “controversial topics” is discriminatory and harmful. The openness of “controversial topics” allows far too much leeway for personal judgment and beliefs to intercede in selecting materials to which students have access.
In enters quiet censorship, and in this case, teachers will avoid including and discussing queer-related topics because of the actions taken in this situation.
Aristotle and Dante has not been returned to the teacher’s bookshelf.
Proud Domestic Terrorists Decry Critical Race Theory and Jesus Land in Carmel, Indiana
Jesus Land, a book about domestic violence and the challenges of growing up in Indiana, is at the center of a censorship in Carmel, Indiana, a wealthy suburb of Indianapolis. The book became the center of controversy thanks to an extremist right-wing group falling under the sarcasm/pride label of “domestic terrorists.”
This piece from The Star Press is a must read, particularly as it gets into what’s happening across the state and country at school board meetings.
From the article:
Unify Carmel is in part using social media to collect complaints from parents about books that don’t meet their approval. The group’s website, under “How to Search for Inappropriate Books,” links to a Facebook page, Mary in the Library. ([Alvin Lui, member of the group and former illusionist] said Unify Carmel is not responsible for the Mary in the Library Facebook page but uses it as a resource.)
The Mary in the Library page — featuring a stern-looking woman, probably meant to be a caricature of a librarian — has posts from fans of Unify Carmel and others citing books they believe are obscene or inappropriate.
Under the Aug. 26 post about “Jesus Land,” the person who posted it included a photo of the cover of the book, which pictures Scheeres and her brother, David, as school-age children. Next to the photo is a sexually explicit passage from the book about Scheeres’ experience as a victim of sexual assault as a teenager and notes that Scheeres supports Planned Parenthood.
In comments, people called Scheeres’ book “trash” and reported schools where they believed it was in the school library. One comment even noted where the book was available in a public, not school, library.
Lui said he was familiar with “Jesus Land.”
“That kind of book is exactly what we as Unify Carmel try to point out,” he said. “You want to buy it for your kids, fine, but these books have no place in schools.”
Hennessey said that’s not the case. Books that offer a diverse point of view reach students who are not moved by stories that have been taught in classrooms for many decades. “We’ve taught books in our district and the memoir and biography precisely because it allows us to open up the conversation,” she said. “You don’t get that teaching the classics these kids can’t relate to. …If I’m sitting there and teaching a book that kids can’t connect to, I’ve lost the room.”
The group seeks to work “with” the school district on curriculum, in hopes of pushing their conservative, white supremacist agenda into the classroom.
Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina Calls for LGBTQ+ Book Removal in Schools
After an unhinged rant against the LGBTQ community, the Lt. Governor of North Carolina, Mark Robinson, called for removal of LGBTQ books from schools across the state. He called LGBTQ people and books including George by Alex Gino, Lawn Boy, and Gender Queer “filth” and “garbage” in a video rant that he shared across social media.
It comes as little surprise that many of his supporters in the state are members of the GOP, while some others are purposefully distancing themselves from him. But much as he is choosing to backtrack on what he said in his video — he meant books, not people — he’s not backing down from insisting queer books be unavailable in North Carolina schools.
From ABC 11:
“These materials do not belong in the classroom, the hallways or the libraries,” Robinson said as he used a large monitor to show everybody watching his press conference images he personally described as “child pornography.” The images were excerpts from “Gender Queer,” a comic-strip style book.
Robinson noted that he opposed all sexually charged material in schools, whether it be homosexual or heterosexual in nature.
However, he has a long history of comments disparaging the LGBTQ community. When asked about the litany of past Facebook posts he has written about the LGBTQ community before he was elected last year, Robinson changed the subject.
Though Robinson continues to push for book removal, many are now instead demanding his removal from office.
More Censorship News This Week
Going in depth on any more of this week’s stories would make this a book-length post. But not including links would do disservice to what’s going on. I’ve noted the books in dispute where appropriate.
- Southlake, Texas, Schools Restrict Classroom Libraries After Backlash (note this is an entire new policy and rubric for determining a book’s appropriateness, and all of the books mentioned in the article are among those in the initial screen shots on this post). This is a dangerous precedent. What is especially chilling here is the idea of “both sides” when it comes to something that doesn’t have “both sides,” like the Holocaust. What needs to be said, too, is that the American Library Association’s own Library Bill of Rights, widely adapted by most libraries, puts in there that “Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues.” By practicing “neutrality,” one of the groups which should be leading efforts against such practices as those here in Southlake are, in fact, contributing to it. This may be a school district, but the doors left open in schools (who, remember, practice in loco parentis) are even wider.
Updates on stories we’ve reported on previously or resolutions to open challenge stories: