Parents are fervently advocating for schoolchildren to read less about race, gender, and sexuality by trying to force certain books out of student libraries altogether—the latest salvo in America’s culture war for young minds.
“Forget Tide Pods and cinnamon swallowing,” the American Library Association wrote in a post on its “Intellectual Freedom Blog” last month. “The latest dangerous fad sweeping the nation is book challenges.”
In recent weeks, parents have complained to school boards in Missouri, Virginia, Texas, Florida, and other states about novels they consider to be obscene or inappropriate—most often, books that illuminate stories of marginalized identities. As a result, some districts have pulled books for review, while a handful of conservative politicians have seized upon the movement as a rallying cry to their side. In a few instances, parents or school board members have also tried to elevate their concerns to law enforcement.
Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, who is also a Republican candidate for state attorney general, even sent a letter in October to the Texas Education Agency, to seek information about the existence of some 850 books in schools, including The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and Boy Erased: A Memoir of Identity, Faith, and Family. Krause’s letter, which asked to know how many copies of each book any one district possessed and seemingly targeted titles addressing structural racism, sexuality, and sexually transmitted diseases, noted some districts had already “removed books from libraries and/or classrooms after receiving objections from students, parents, and taxpayers.”
The anxiety over books extends well beyond Texas. One parent at a DuBois, Pennsylvania, school board meeting in October fretted over Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel The Hate U Give, which centers on a teen whose childhood best friend was killed by the police. It was available at a middle school library, the parent said, according to the local Courier Express.
“Did you know that this book appears on 2020's Most Challenged Book List (i.e. 'banned books list’) from the American Library Association? This book also appears on an 'approved list' created by an organization called 'Social Justice Books,’” the parent said, according to the Courier Express.
The groundswell of angst appears to largely mirror the partisan rancor from earlier protests against “critical race theory,” which grew to include outrage over the general acknowledgment of racism and white privilege in the nation’s schools.
“The goal of this organization is to compile a list of approved books that educators should use to help promote ‘social justice’ in the classroom,” the parent at the DuBois school board meeting continued, according to the Courier Express. “In case you haven't decoded yet ... we're talking about books that promote and encourage critical race theory.”
To be sure, the titles now under review in districts across the country also include works that have long courted controversy, including The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison, which tells the story of a Black child who believes white features would make her beautiful; the girl is raped and impregnated by her father in the novel. Lolita, also no stranger to banned-book lists, additionally cropped up among the literature that one parent in Utah’s Canyons School District flagged as concerning, according to the Deseret News.
But some books are newer to the banned-title scene: Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, a book described on Amazon as being “an important, entertaining, and completely winning novel about social class distinctions, about overcoming cultural discrimination, and about standing up for oneself,” appears to be one of the novels parents are suddenly worried about.
One Waukee, Iowa, resident, after reading an excerpt from Lawn Boy that mentioned oral sex between fourth-graders during a school board meeting in late October, said, “Can you tell me: Does equity and inclusion also include incestuous relationships, child-adult sex, and books that promote pedophilia?” The comments were met with scattered applause.
Lawn Boy and other titles—including Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, another target of parents—were later pulled from a local high school library for review, according to Axios.
Meanwhile, parent complaints about Lawn Boy were the subject of an actual police investigation in Leander, Texas, thanks to the controversy surrounding its availability at a library for some older students.
Evison, the book’s author, told the Washington Post he’s received death threats.
“If I had a statement, it would be ‘Read the book or sit down,’” he told the Post. “I feel like these people are frightened because they’re losing the culture wars.”
Students aren’t always thrilled with these complaints either. Last week, teens showed up at a Downers Grove, Illinois, school board meeting to argue that Gender Queer wasn’t required reading in their classrooms, and that its graphic images weren’t exactly revelatory, anyway, according to CNN.
“Nothing in this book was new to me,” one junior told the school board, according to CNN. “We have already been stripped of our innocence completely and one copy of the book in our library makes no difference to that.”
Gender Queer’s author, Kobabe, noted in a Washington Post op-ed in late October that “themes of queer sexuality” are regularly accused of being pornographic by detractors. Kobabe added that a student from the Fairfax County, Virginia, district where the book was recently banned had written the author to say: “You probably won’t ever see this but I am a queer FCPS student! My mom and I read your book. I loved it! I related to almost everything you said. I felt so understood and not alone. I think my mom understands me better and I’m more confident in confiding in her since she read your book. Thank you so much for creating your memoir!”
“Queer youth are often forced to look outside their own homes, and outside the education system, to find information on who they are,” Kobabe said in the Washington Post op-ed. “Removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth, who might not yet even know what terms to ask Google to find out more about their own identities, bodies, and health.”
Students also recently protested a Spotsylvania County, Virginia school district’s since-reversed decision to pull certain “sexually explicit” titles after a parent was offended by books like Call Me by Your Name. One student said the move was “evocative of fascism,” according to the Free Lance-Star; some board members had said they wanted the books burned.
Even if some students say the books don’t actually harm them, the fight against certain titles has seemingly ballooned past a point where their voices matter. South Carolina’s governor, Henry McMaster, even requested via letter Nov. 10 that the state’s superintendent of education investigate how certain books—including Gender Queer—were ever introduced to public school students in the first place.
“I trust you agree that pornography and obscenity have no place in our state’s public schools, much less in their libraries,” McMaster wrote. “Aside from being deeply disturbing and manifestly inappropriate, it is likely illegal under South Carolina law.”
One parent in Washington state went so far as to suggest that school officials be criminally prosecuted for making Gender Queer available, even though the book had already been removed from a high school library, according to the Kitsap Sun. The county prosecutor declined to file charges, however.
“This book is not risque,” the parent wrote in an email to the local prosecutor, according to the Kitsap Sun. “It is not inappropriate. It is pure pornography that minors should not have access to, especially through any school district or public library.”
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told the Kitsap Sun that national efforts to ban books like Gender Queer—as well as attack the librarians who offer them—could have a chilling effect by restricting certain perspectives. Nonetheless, she said, historically marginalized groups “should be able to find materials in their libraries that answer questions and reflect their experiences and help them grapple with their struggles with identity as much as anybody else.”