A parent in Owasso, Oklahoma is “pretty happy” with his daughter’s school district's decision to recall upwards of 3,000 graphic novels from its library system after taking issue with one title his daughter checked out from the school library over the summer.
It led to the Owasso School Board recently approving a new policy which requires every page of every graphic novel in the library to be screened for “potential material involving sexually explicit content and extreme vulgarity.”
All graphic novels in the school library’s collection were recalled after parent Tim Reiland took issue with the school letting his teenage daughter borrow Blankets, an autobiographical coming-of-age story by Craig Thompson about questioning blind faith in a fundamentalist Christian household.
This prompted the district to undergo a self-audit of graphic novels this fall to ensure their imagery comply with its policies. The district said that Reiland isn’t the only parent who has voiced concerns over library policies and books in the library’s collection.
However, Reiland is apparently the only parent who has sued the district, claiming a violation of his First Amendment rights. The night that a federal court sided with Reiland and prevented the Owasso school district from banning the man from the school’s campus, the changes he wanted made to the district’s policy draft were approved. A previous draft of the policy did not include mention of pornography, which Reiland took issue with.
"I actually feel great, it's almost verbatim what I told them that I wanted them to add into the policy in the first place," Reiland told KTUL after the meeting.
Reliand did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment at the time of publication.
While the district says the majority of graphic novels have returned to shelves and the district’s goal is to complete the audit before Winter Break, it’s been months since students like Elizabeth Donnelly, a senior at Owasso High School, have been able to check out this type of book. During public comment at Owasso Board of Education’s November 14 meeting, Donelly said she typically reads about five manga books per week to relax, and that overhaul of the school library’s graphic novel section has deeply affected her.
“Two months have now passed and only a portion of the books have been returned,” Donnelly said during public comment. “This is two months that I, along with many other students, could have been checking out and reading these books. Instead they sat in tubs and waited for approval that would take months to be granted.”
Mass book challenges and bans have created a climate of fear in school and public libraries. Parents who object to books on LGBTQ and racial justice topics have organized with right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty and shown up to complain at school board meetings, with some parents threatening school districts with lawsuits. School administrators in some states are also facing new laws restricting library books, causing them to suspend and vet books whenever anyone files any kind of complaint about them.
"The sudden, mass removal of so many graphic novels in Owasso to me reflects both the trend we are seeing all over the country to remove about which anyone complains—or about which anyone could complain–coupled with the longstanding stigma that graphic novels are a less important or less effective reading material for students,” Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America told Motherboard. “It's those trends together that explain the apparent indifference with which this district suspended access to so many books"
Friedman calls the restriction of graphic novels in school libraries a potential infringement on students’ constitutional rights, citing concerns over equity of access.
“Many students do not have the means to purchase books or even in some cases the opportunity to go to public libraries,” he added. “That's why school libraries are so vital, as are their collections—they put literature where students of all backgrounds can easily access it."
As Motherboard has previously reported, teens are leading many anti-censorship efforts to protect their right to read. Donnelly says that allowing students the intellectual freedom to be able to choose what literary material to consume allows the practice of self-censorship is a necessary behavior for adults to have.
“Library materials come from a wide range of authors from different backgrounds and therefore allow students to seriously think about and discuss situations, cultures and worldviews that are not their own. If books are censored, the view of what reality is like becomes distorted,” she said during public comment at the meeting last week. “This will affect impressionable students negatively as they will never fully understand how people different from them think and behave and these students will become adults with an extremely narrow view of the world.”