Then and Now: Battle Over Books in US Heats Up … Again

The latest fury over books available in schools is not new to American society, despite the First Amendment.

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A Florida school board member scrolling Facebook became outraged when learning a book with a “sexually explicit” passage was in her school’s library, and called the police on the district’s superintendent and attorney.

A mayor in Mississippi held the local library hostage by sitting on its funding, demanding the institution remove “homosexual materials.”

A Texas state legislator compiled a list of 850 books he wanted removed from school libraries. Some districts capitulated, others didn’t.

A recent wave of outrage about books containing what some parents and legislators have described as “pornographic” content has roiled school board meetings nationwide. (We placed the term in quotation marks because most of the books in question probably don’t meet the legal definition of pornography.)

But literary advocates and authors fear recent efforts to limit certain books from school library shelves target a newly diverse selection of books by LGBTQ+ authors and could have lasting effects on free speech.

Headlines have referred to book bans, book challenges, or book reviews. But what they are describing is a flurry of post-pandemic parent outrage and activism. Where in the recent past conflicts were over school mask mandates and accusations of critical race theory being taught in grade schools, they more recently have centered on books.

The Current Controversy

Literary advocates have slammed the movement, which gained momentum in late 2021 and early 2022, as an attack on free expression that mostly targets the LGBTQ+ community. Parent activists say they are trying to protect children from accessing what they describe as pornographic content.

The American Library Association in November 2021 condemned the recent surge in library book challenges as targeting a diverse array of authors writing about topics affecting minority groups:

In recent months, a few organizations have advanced the proposition that the voices of the marginalized have no place on library shelves. To this end, they have launched campaigns demanding the censorship of books and resources that mirror the lives of those who are gay, queer, or transgender or that tell the stories of persons who are Black, Indigenous, or persons of color. Falsely claiming that these works are subversive, immoral, or worse, these groups induce elected and non-elected officials to abandon constitutional principles, ignore the rule of law, and disregard individual rights to promote government censorship of library collections. Some of these groups even resort to intimidation and threats to achieve their ends, targeting the safety and livelihoods of library workers, educators, and board members who have dedicated themselves to public service, informing our communities, and educating our youth.

Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and ideas at PEN America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for freedom in literary expression, said in a phone interview that the wave of book challenges and legislation seeking to limit children’s access to certain books “has deep ramifications for expression of ideas, freedom to read, freedom to learn, freedom for young people to go to a library and choose through books what interests them to read.”

Friedman added that he believes part of the current campaign is “being driven from groups or individuals who seem to be upset that LGBTQ individuals have made gains in acceptance, are able to tell their stories, or that young LGBTQ people are able to find out who they are. Some people seem very interested in depriving that right and pushing that whole segment of the population back into the closet.”

In the Florida scenario mentioned above, a Flagler County school board member filed a police report after learning the young adult memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson, was on school library shelves.

The book is about Johnson’s experience growing up Black and queer, and in it they offer their young readers support as members of the LGBTQ+ community. It contains sections in which Johnson describes being the victim of sexual abuse and, later as an adult, having a sexual encounter with a man.

Johnson said in an interview with Time Magazine that to refer to the book as “pornography” by posting screenshots of selected, more graphic passages out of context is to intentionally misrepresent the book:

The part that’s also being left out is that I am talking about sexual education. I am talking about consent. I am talking about agency. And I am using my story to teach kids about the mistakes that I made the first time that I was having sex, so they don’t make those same mistakes. I am teaching kids about not feeling guilty when sexual abuse happens, and how to recognize sexual abuse — most teens don’t even recognize they’ve been abused. And how to fight back against those traumas that you can hold on to for so very long. So they’re leaving very, very important context out, intentionally of course, to try and say my book is pornographic.

In a phone interview with Snopes, Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the activist organization Moms for Liberty, whose members have pushed to remove “All Boys Aren’t Blue” from school libraries, said that she believes allowing children to see such content is a criminal act.

“If you are an adult who wants to show children pornography that’s a crime,” Justice stated. “It’s illegal to show kids pornography. I’m not going to be a part of normalizing pedophilia in America, I’m taking a stand on that.”

Moms for Liberty is a Florida-headquartered national 501(c)(4) organization with chapters across the country. It’s an influential organization of multiple parental groups who coordinate on social media, advocating to get books they object to removed from schools.

The government watchdog group OpenSecrets described 501(c)(4) groups as political non-profits, and a “major force” in federal elections, noting that they don’t have to disclose their donors.

Justice said the group has large and small financial donors but declined to disclose them because she said the group has received a backlash of hateful messages. Washington, D.C.-based conservative think tank Heritage Foundation has helped the group organize events, she said, but stated the two organizations have no formal relationship.

Justice described her reaction as “shocked” upon seeing media portrayals of parental groups like hers as “helicopter parents,” and she rejects the idea that her group is puritanical, anti-LGBTQ, or out to “ban” books. Instead, she said, her group advocates for parents to seek reviews of books they find objectionable to see if they are in line with local laws and school board policies.

Justice emailed Snopes a screenshot showing explicit illustrations in the book “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” written by non-binary author Maia Kobabe. The illustrations depicted graphic discussion and imagery of masturbation and oral sex.

According to NBC News, the images are just a handful in hundreds of other illustrations in the book, which tells Kobabe’s life story from adolescence to adulthood. Kobabe described the book as geared toward high school students, but also stated that a book like that would have been “so, so necessary” for the author growing up as a non-binary youth.

“There are a lot of people who are questioning their gender, questioning their sexuality and having a real hard time finding honest accounts of somebody else on the same journey. There are people for whom this is vital and for whom this could maybe even be lifesaving,” Kobabe told NBC News.

A 2021 survey, the Trevor Project, a mental health advocacy organization for LGBTQ+ youths, reported that 42 percent of that population “seriously considered” attempting suicide in the last year.

But Justice said such imagery is harmful.

“Children are not thinking about sex in elementary school,  and if they are, it’s probably because they have been subjected to some type of abuse,” Justice stated. “When children are sexually abused, their mental development stalls. There are some things that don’t have to be shared, some horrors that no child should be exposed to. We should support children experiencing those things. But I don’t want this normalized in books. I don’t want kids being exposed to incest and rape and pedophilia. That’s my mom stance on that.”

She added that compromise might also work, such as making available some works only to older children. 

“I think it has to be a conversation with your school board,” she said.

Johnson, who described “All Boys Aren’t Blue” as geared toward a teenaged audience, stated in a November 2021 interview with CBS News that, “there is no topic that is too heavy for a child who could experience said topic. If a child can experience sexual abuse at the age of seven, a child should understand what sexual abuse looks like, how to handle it, how to discuss it, and how to talk about it.”

Disputes Over Books Aren’t New

The U.S. famously has an ethos of free speech enshrined in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Additionally, as we previously reported, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1982 ruled that libraries are places of voluntary inquiry and dissemination of ideas, and as such, they “enjoy a special affinity with the rights of free speech and press,” as the online SCOTUS archive blog Oyez.org summarized.

But activism and legislation targeting school officials for offering materials some have found objectionable have a longstanding history, and have been initiated by both conservatives and liberals. What is new, according to experts we consulted, is the diverse offering of books now available in school libraries. 

“This level of backlash is, perversely, a symbol of a good thing,” Richard Price, associate professor of political science at Weber University in Utah, told Snopes in a phone interview. “One of the reasons we’re seeing this fight is because schools are buying these [diverse] books. Ten years ago, these books didn’t exist, and if they did, the schools didn’t purchase them.”

Many of the books in question, Price said, are “own voice” books written by authors who are members of minority groups, and are about the authors’ lived experiences.

“That is an unqualified ‘good’ to me,” Price said. “Now of course the backlash comes with all kinds of negative consequences.”

Those negative consequences, experts say, can include vulnerable youths, like those who are members of the LGBTQ+ community, feeling stigmatized after seeing books written by and about people like them targeted by parental groups and legislators, as well as the chilling effect such bans could have on school staff, some of whom may self-censor out of fear.

Price linked the rage over books to a confluence of issues surfaced by the COVID-19 pandemic — schools going online, mask and vaccine requirements — all coming together to frustrate and outrage parents.

In a phone interview, Robie Harris, the author of the children’s sex-education book, “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health,” described equating literature with crime as “scary.”

Through the years, Harris’ book has been frequently targeted by parents uncomfortable with its content — namely illustrations of nude people and anatomy in different stages of development, as well as sex. The book also has a chapter discussing sexual orientation and gender identity.

The book also educates about sensitive and socially controversial subjects, including various methods of birth control, masturbation, abortion, preventing and reporting sexual abuse, and how to navigate the internet safely.

“I was warned that I shouldn’t write this book, and that no one else would ever publish any book by me if I did,” Harris told Snopes in a phone interview. “I said, ‘I don’t care, this is the book I wanna do, and I have the right to do it.’ I made the editor agree that whatever is in the best interest of the child is going in this book no matter what anyone tells us.”

Harris added, about writing the book, “My question always is, what do teens and preteens need to know to stay healthy?”

Harris worried about effects on broader democracy that campaigning against books will have, like one by a Tennessee school board to ban “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman. She also expressed deep concern about efforts to criminalize books deemed objectionable by parents and politicians.

“This is about three things for me,” Harris said. “Keeping our democracy, resisting misinformation any way we can, and not sanitizing our history. Otherwise we’ll produce a generation of kids who are ignorant and can’t make informed decisions, and our society will suffer. And I am very, very scared of that.”

Of her book, Harris said, it’s about children having vetted information they need to make educated decisions and stay safe and healthy as they grow up — particularly in an era where many kids can access anything and everything on the internet.

“Kids want to see. They want to know. They want to know the names of things,” Harris said, noting that she uses scientific names in the book. “Our values are, you tell kids the truth.”

‘Krause’s List’

In October 2021, Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican, released a list of 850 books he compiled on topics such as the LGBTQ+ experience, sex education, race, and racism. In making public the list, which became known as “Krause’s list,” Krause cited his role as chair of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating, and claimed to be initiating an investigation into school library content.

An analysis by the literary podcast network Book Riot found that the majority of books on the list were about LGBTQ+ topics and experiences.

Krause asked schools to report additional books about the following topics:

[Human] sexuality, sexually transmitted diseases, or human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), sexually explicit images, graphic presentations of sexual behavior that is in violation of the law, or contain material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.

In one high-profile case, Granbury Independent School district officials were photographed carting books out of a school library in boxes labeled “Krause’s list.” The image went viral and sparked outrage amid reports the district pulled 131 titles off library shelves. Most of those books have since been returned after the American Civil Liberties Union and other legal advocacy organizations warned the district the book removal infringed on students’ First Amendment rights.

When This Has Happened Before

In the case of the current controversy, University of Pennsylvania Professor of Education Jonathan Zimmerman directed focus back at the opposing political spectrum. He noted that the left had pushed its own campaign against books or authors whose material contains content that is considered offensive by today’s standards, like Dr. Seuss, the Harper Lee classic, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” In those cases, the books were found objectionable because of racist imagery or language.

“It would be a good time for people on the left to do a little self-reflection, and ask how they set the table by weaponizing censorship in the service of preventing harm,” Zimmerman said.

In a March 2021 Op-Ed for USA Today arguing against a publisher’s decision to stop printing six Dr. Seuss books because of racist imagery, Zimmerman pointed out that the motivation underlying the action is a lack of faith in people to process information for themselves and draw good conclusions.

“No matter its source or its goal,” Zimmerman wrote, “censorship always betrays a lack of faith in human beings. We don’t have to tuck Dr. Seuss away in a corner. We can talk about him, the good and the bad: his light spirit of whimsy, and the dark racism that marred it. We are better than the censors think we are.”

Zimmerman also criticized current book-removal efforts and the stated intent of protecting the children who might read them.

“What could be a better example of ‘cancel culture’ than these lawmakers saying you can’t teach something that will make someone feel bad,” Zimmerman stated. “And they’re brought to you by the same people who kept going on Fox News complaining about cancel culture. It’s ridiculous.”

Adam Laats, professor of education and history at Binghamton University in New York, said that the current rash of book-related legislation harkens back to the 1920s. Even if the focus was different, Laats said, the language used in legislation “was as broad and vague and punitive as it is today.”

Then, the legislation was aimed at curtailing education about evolution, in the interest of promoting and maintaining religiosity among students.

For example, Laats pointed to a 1922 Kentucky law that barred schools from having materials that could weaken or undermine a child’s religious faith. Then as now, campaigns to ban evolution-oriented books in the 1920s also had vigilante aspects to them, namely that parents could report school officials for making such material available to children.

“The 1920s are sometimes spookily similar to what we’re seeing today,” Laats observed. “But in every other decade there are these echoes.”

During the Great Depression, the country saw bans on class-conscious textbooks by Harold Rugg, which were alleged to spread socialist propaganda. In 1974, a clash against efforts to add multicultural books to school curricula in West Virginia’s Kanawha County led to racist violence.

In more recent examples, Laats pointed to the 2021 Virginia gubernatorial race, noting that winner Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, staked his campaign on an effort to ban Toni Morrison’s classic novel “Beloved” from schools, and internet-driven allegations that Virginia schools were indoctrinating children with critical race theory, a discipline that has been taught to law students for decades.

Based on trends from the past, Laats believes this one will fade away, but echoes of it may persist into the future.

“In the end, most parents want the best schools for their kids,” Laats said. “Toni Morrison books might be briefly banned, but they are great literature and on advanced placement reading lists. High quality tends to be more important to more people than these short-lived anxieties about any book or idea.”

Nevertheless, Laats said, even if such moments are ephemeral, their consequences are real, and can be harsh and irreversible. He pointed to the anti-communist “red scare” also known as the McCarthy era, around the 1950s.

“It swept in fast and swept away fast,” Laats said, Nevertheless, “people did lose their jobs. And the Rosenbergs were executed.”

For additional articles about book bans from Snopes, you can follow these links:

How a Small School District Became a Focal Point in the Battle Over Texas Book Censorship

Are These the Most Banned Books in Public Schools and Libraries in the US?


Sources:

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“Debate over Teaching Books by Black Authors Has Roots in Violent 1974 Clash in West Virginia.” Washington Post. www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/10/29/kanawha-county-books-black-race-education/. Accessed 9 Mar. 2022.

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