Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, September 24, 2022

Banned Book Week 2022

We're at the tail end of Banned Books Week, which celebrates banned and challenged books. My archive in this category is here. This year witnesses some familiar trends and some troubling new escalations. The familiar are bans and challenges to books that deal with sexuality or race. What's newer is a more coordinated effort to ban books from conservative groups and politicians, and the level of harassment of librarians, teachers and students.

The American Library Association keeps a list of frequently challenged books and updates the top 10 most challenged books every year. In 2021:

The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials and services in 2021. Of the 1597 books that were targeted, here are the most challenged, along with the reasons cited for censoring the books:

1. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted for LGBTQIA+ content, and because it was considered to have sexually explicit images

2. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit

3. All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson
Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content, profanity, and because it was considered to be sexually explicit

4. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
Reasons: Banned, challenged, and restricted for depictions of abuse and because it was considered to be sexually explicit

5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, violence, and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: Banned and challenged for profanity, sexual references and use of a derogatory term

7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Reasons: Banned and challenged because it was considered sexually explicit and degrading to women

8. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Reasons: Banned and challenged because it depicts child sexual abuse and was considered sexually explicit

9. This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
Reasons: Banned, challenged, relocated, and restricted for providing sexual education and LGBTQIA+ content.

10. Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin
Reasons: Banned and challenged for LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to be sexually explicit.

It's not surprising to see that many books were challenged for LGBTQIA+ issues; that's been a trend for many years. Meanwhile, nationally in the past few years, conservatives have been coordinating more in their opposition to LGBTQ rights and acceptance. This year, Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, heavily pushed what's been dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" law, which:

. . . bans lessons on sexual orientation and gender identity in kindergarten through third grade as well as material that is not deemed age-appropriate.

Most educators do not expect a major change in lesson plans — one of the key reasons critics cited in saying the law was unnecessary was that teachers do not cover such subjects in early grades anyway.

But some worry it sets a tone that will leave LGBTQ teachers and kids feeling ostracized.

"The messaging of this law is horrible. It's toxic, it's discriminatory," said Gretchen Robinson, a lesbian high school teacher in Orange County. "It targets, very obviously, LGBTQ students, it 'others' them, and that is not OK."

These threats aren't theoretical. A recent PBS NewsHour segment interviewed two Florida student LGBTQ activists. One of them, Will Larkins, related that since the law passed:

I have noticed an uptick in anti-LGBTQ hate crimes and general attitude toward people.

I have always dealt with homophobia at high school. I have always been called slurs and stuff, but it has gotten worse since the school year started. A lot of things have happened. Most recently, my sister and I were followed home after a football game by 15 guys, who called us slurs, told us to kill ourselves.

It was really scary. They said they were going to beat us up. They chased us. We got lost in the trees.

The other thing I have noticed really — really that I know for a fact came from this is more of the rhetoric that's coming from the state legislature and our governor, such as the grooming rhetoric, calling queer people pedophiles, has now trickled down to the high school level, and high school bullies are using the same language as our politicians, who are pushing for this bill and other anti-LGBTQ laws.

Larkins also identifies the backlash factor:

I think it's interesting, because, most recently, for the first time ever, queer people have become mainstream. This is a new thing. This is 2010s onward.

And we have gotten to a point where we're being generally accepted by society. So now homophobic and anti-queer legislators and lawmakers are put pushing back against it. And when they're pushing back against it, it is dignifying and it is backing up these bullies. It is telling them that you are right in being homophobic, when, before, we were at a point where these people knew that they were wrong.

But now they're being backed up by Ron DeSantis.

This harassment and bullying has real consequences. As Larkins also points out:

Queer teens are four times more likely to die by suicide than their straight counterparts, and 52 percent of trans youth last year said they seriously considered suicide.

So where's that coming from? That is coming from these laws. That is coming from this rhetoric, and that is coming from the bullies who see it on TV, see it on FOX News and, pick it up, and use it to harm people like us.

On the book-banning and challenging front, Florida is hardly alone. As The Texas Tribune covers:

Texas banned more books from school libraries this past year than any other state in the nation, targeting titles centering on race, racism, abortion and LGBTQ representation and issues, according to a new analysis by PEN America, a nonprofit organization advocating for free speech.

The report released on Monday found that school administrators in Texas have banned 801 books across 22 school districts, and 174 titles were banned at least twice between July 2021 through June 2022. PEN America defines a ban as any action taken against a book based on its content after challenges from parents or lawmakers.

The most frequent books removed included "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe, which depicts Kobabe's journey of gender identity and sexual orientation; "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison; "Roe v. Wade: A Woman's Choice?" by Susan Dudley Gold; "Out of Darkness" by Ashley Hope Pérez, which follows a love story between a Mexican American teenage girl and a Black teen boy in 1930s East Texas; and "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson, a personal account of growing up black and queer in Plainfield, New Jersey.

"This censorious movement is turning our public schools into political battlegrounds, driving wedges within communities, forcing teachers and librarians from their jobs, and casting a chill over the spirit of open inquiry and intellectual freedom that underpin a flourishing democracy," Suzanne Nossel, PEN America's chief executive officer, said in a statement.

Across the country, PEN America found that 1,648 unique titles had been banned by schools. Of these titles, 41% address LGBTQ themes or have protagonists or prominent secondary characters who are LGBTQ. Another 40% of these books contains protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.

Summer Lopez, the chief program officer of free expression at PEN America, said what's notable about these book bans is that most are on books that families and children can elect to read, not any required reading.

Florida and Pennsylvania followed Texas as the states with the most bans, respectively. Florida banned 566 books, and 457 titles were banned in Pennsylvania, where a majority of books were removed from one school district in York County, which is known as being more conservative.

Lopez said her organization could not recall a previous year with as many reported book bans.

These bans and challenges often aren't due to individual parents. As NPR highlights, citing the same PEN report and also the ALA:

According to the report, the surge in book bans is a result of a network of local political and advocacy groups targeting books with LGBTQ+ characters and storylines, and books involving characters of color.

"While we think of book bans as the work of individual concerned citizens, our report demonstrates that today's wave of bans represents a coordinated campaign to banish books being waged by sophisticated, ideological and well-resourced advocacy organizations," said Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America. . . .

PEN America has identified at least 50 groups working at local, state and national levels advocating for books to be removed from school curriculums and school library shelves. According to the report, this is a relatively recent occurrence. Many of the groups, such as Moms for Liberty, began in 2021.

The American Library Association also put out a report late last week that indicates challenges to books continue to rise. Based on their records, 1,651 unique titles were targeted between January and August this year — in 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources. The ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom counted 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials in all of 2021 — which rose four fold from the prior year.

The ALA also points to more conservative political groups pushing to ban books in schools and libraries across the country. According to the ALA report, the actions from these groups are mostly focused on YA books involving race, gender, and sexual identity — echoing the findings from the PEN America study.

It's also important to point out that these conservative groups almost always argue in bad faith. In August, the PBS NewsHour had a good segment about parental rights and censorship, which featured an interview with Tina Descovich, the founder of the aforementioned Moms for Liberty, who claimed:

We do not stand by or believe that we are banning books. We want to make sure books are age-appropriate for our children.

And we're looking for solutions together, like I mentioned. There's options to put books in a place where you need parental permission or a practical opt-out or parental opt-in, whatever each local district decides, but there is no hard ban. . . .

Even educators aren't necessarily checking what's, what's in every one of these books. A lot of times, I have talked to school librarians that order books through lists that they have depended on historically.

And so they haven't read every single book that they have allowed into the library. It takes kind of all hands on deck. And when it comes to what our children, especially our youngest children, are being exposed to, parents need to have a voice in that conversation.

This is disingenuous. The NewsHour also interviewed Kelly Jensen, a former librarian and editor at the website Book Riot, which makes book recommendations. As Jensen points out:

Parents have always had a say in their education. They have always had the right to opt their children out of lessons, out of readings that they don't feel appropriate for the students. It's always been a right that they have had.

What the argument that they're trying to make now is that professionals who use professional tools to determine materials that are appropriate for students are not useful tools for determining what should or should not be in a library or a classroom.

And the argument is that librarians and educators can't rely on these tools that are created and sustained by professionals in education, in librarianship, in child develop development, and should instead listen to parents who are trying to undermine the professionals and the professional institutions of education and librarianship.

Jensen also points out that these book-banning groups are more extreme than most conservative and Republican parents:

So they have been successful in getting a number of books pulled from school libraries. And they have had a lot of pull in the legislation that we have seen come out of Florida in particular.

In Florida, here's a good example. To showcase just how small a group this is speaking on behalf of parents more broadly, in Polk County, which is the seventh largest district in Florida, reliably Republican, there are about 110,000 students. And Polk County just implemented a system where parents could opt their students out of a number of books that have come under fire.

And of all of those students, less than 160 kids have had their parents opt them out of access to these books. So, really, truly, it's a very small number. And so what they're trying to do is revoke access to this material for all students, and not just their students.

This is far from the first time we've seen a conservative minority try to impose its will on the majority when it comes to book access or otherwise. My 2011 post for Banned Books Week covered a Georgia school board that banned well-regarded books Brave New World, Of Mice and Men and Native Son due to objections from a local church minister, ignoring the recommendations of twenty educators but also ignoring that school parents gave permission to read the books. My 2015 post on Banned Books Week covered an Iowa school district that banned Sherman Alexie's book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, due to objections by a single parent, "in blatant violation of the district's own policies regarding challenged materials." These conservative groups and individuals reject the expertise of educators and librarians, and despite their claims to be fighting for parents, ignore parents' actual input in any sort of fair, democratic process.

We've explored these dynamics many times for Banned Books Week, but parents already have the right to opt-out their children from reading particular books on the school curriculum. For public libraries, parents can prevent their children from checking out certain books if they object. What book banning is really about is preventing anyone else from reading those books. To quote from my 2010 post:

These are important distinctions. There's nothing wrong with criticizing a book on aesthetic or other grounds, but it's quite another thing to try to deny other people the right to read it. Parents can choose that their child can't check out a book from the library, but they don't get to decide that for every other child, and certainly not for every other adult. For school curriculums, it can get a bit trickier, but such things as age-appropriateness are typically discussed at length. Parents (the most common objectors) have a voice, and while the specific laws and guidelines vary by state, county or school system, parental opt-outs are commonly available.

Perhaps more importantly, when a book is taught in the curriculum, it is discussed in class with students. Parents can also discuss it with their kids. The same goes for books checked out of the library - parents can discuss it with their kids, or not let their kids check a book out. Art is capable of saying more than one thing at a time, and stories often contain ambiguity and room for interpretation. These factors make literal or authoritarian-minded people uncomfortable, but they're pretty unavoidable if you study literature and poetry. It's common for English curriculums in secondary education to try to foster critical thinking skills and a tolerance for ambiguity. Parents who think of education as indoctrination - or who favor indoctrination, only the type they want – tend not to understand or like that.

I'm not dismissive of parental anxieties, but as with questions brought up by students in class, normally they can be addressed. Racial slurs in Huck Finn, The Elephant Man and Invisible Man can and are discussed in the classroom, and that's usually a better, safer place to do so. The reality is that parental discomfort generally emerges when a parent doesn't want to discuss something with their kid. Age and maturity are legitimate issues, of course, but teenagers are often more mature or informed than their parents admit. It's that same maturity, not the lack of it, that can further unnerve an anxious parent. Navigating all this is an important part of growing up for students, and a crucial part of good parenting for the parents. Challenging a book is often just a proxy for deeper issues . . .

We've also seen conservative attempts to fire librarians before (a 2008 post, which links a follow-up piece, covers Sarah Palin's book-banning efforts as Wasilla mayor). But I don't remember seeing the degree of harassment librarians have been facing, as reported in an August Washington Post article, "A Mich. library refused to remove an LGBTQ book. The town defunded it."

Two librarians had quit since the trouble began, and Kaitlin McLaughlin didn't want to be the third.

But the same term kept coming up in board meetings and on yard signs, making her feel awkward and wrongly accused: grooming.

People in this western Michigan farming town said the Patmos Library was "grooming" children and, according to fliers that one group printed, promoting an "LGBTQ ideology." They said bookshelves meant for young readers featured same-sex pornography. They called the staff pedophiles, McLaughlin said. Then one August morning, they voted to defund Jamestown's only public library, jeopardizing the institution's future as neighbors clashed over who gets to decide free speech in this deep-red corner of America. . . .

Jamestown, with a population of nearly 10,000, has Christian conservative roots. Dutch last names are common — a legacy of the Calvinists who split from the Netherlands in the mid-1800s to settle here and practice a stricter form of Christianity. The county celebrates this heritage each spring with a tulip festival.

The 22-year-old library hosts birthday parties, bridal showers, HOA meetings and blood drives. Residents praised it as a haven for all ages until controversy ignited with an award for the best teen books.

The problems started when the library director at the time, Amber McLain, ordered copies of all 10 young adult books named winners by the National Library Association, which included:

. . . a memoir about growing up nonbinary called "Gender Queer."

Pink-haired and openly queer, the 30-year-old [Amber McLain] stood out in a county that hadn't backed a Democrat for president since 1864. Yet people embraced McLain, her former colleagues and patrons said.

"She helped bring my son out of his shell," said one mother, Sara Crockett, checking out a STEM toy kit on a recent afternoon. "He'd light up when he saw her."

"I miss Miss Amber," 5-year-old Cecil said, clutching her hand.

Nobody complained about McLain until last November, after video of a Virginia mother condemning "Gender Queer" as "pornographic" took off on social media and protests against the memoir spread nationwide.

The 239-page graphic novel contains illustrations of masturbation, a sex toy and oral sex, as well as depictions of menstrual blood. Fans saw the scenes as part of the author's coming-of-age experience, while critics blasted them as sabotage to developing minds. "Gender Queer" became the most banned book of 2021.

Some parents found a copy in the Patmos Library and created a Facebook group called "Jamestown Conservatives" pushing for its removal. One of the organizers, Lauren Nykamp, declined to be interviewed but responded to some of The Washington Post's questions over text. "This is not about LGBTQ material," she said. "It is about sexualized material."

Nothing would dissuade the conservative activists, some of whom got pretty aggressive:

McLain countered that 90 out of their roughly 67,000 books had an LGBTQ keyword. She said they spent the most money on Christian fiction. . . .

A lawyer had reviewed the book and determined it wasn't pornographic, McLain replied. Still, given the mature content, she'd initially placed it in the adult section — near novels with heterosexual sex scenes. As the objections mounted, though, she moved "Gender Queer" behind the counter, making it available only upon request.

"We have to represent every segment of the population," McLain said, "not just the vast majority."

The backlash grew from there. One March day, staffers said, a woman showed up at the library, recording a video and yelling: "Where is she? Where is the pink-haired freak? Where is the pedophile librarian?"

McLain hadn't been there. The library board president told her about the incident, saying she could work remotely if she'd like. (McLain declined to be interviewed for this story but confirmed the sequence of events to The Post.) Citing harassment, she opted to quit.

So did her replacement, Matthew Lawrence, 25, who transferred to a library in another town — he doesn't feel comfortable saying where — after a tense encounter in June. A patron had demanded to know if he was gay, he said, and insisted he remove a rainbow-hued sign that said: "Please use the other door."

The environment had grown hostile, Lawrence said, but seeing the local official join the protest against "Gender Queer" ultimately motivated him to leave.

"The complaint is that kids are going to pick it up and see things they can't unsee," he said. "The easiest way to avoid that is to parent your children."

Lawrence is absolutely correct, but parenting their own children never seems to be a popular solution for conservative activists. Instead, "On Election Day in August, about a third of the town's voters turned out. A slim majority chose to defund the library." (The library has since received enough donations to stay open, but the vote doesn't speak well for the community.)

The problem isn't limited to rural Michigan. Amanda Jones, an award-winning librarian in Louisiana, has faced similar harassment and is fighting back, but she's far from alone in dealing with such attacks:

Nationwide, school districts have been bombarded by conservative activists and parents over the past year demanding that books with sexual references or that discuss racial conflict, often by authors of color or those who are LGBTQ, be purged from campuses. Those demands have slowly moved toward public libraries in recent months.

Many conservative activists have referred to people who defend the books as “groomers,” comparing them to child molesters. The Proud Boys, an extremist hate group, has barged into LGBTQ-themed reading events in several libraries, insisting they need to protect children. Some librarians have said they no longer feel safe serving in their roles.

Jones, the 2021 Louisiana Association of Computer Using Educators Middle School Teacher of the Year and the 2021 School Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year, said more than 200 librarians have reached out to her as the insults on Facebook spread. Many claimed they had been victims of similar verbal and online abuse in the past two years. More than 600 people donated a combined $20,000 for Jones on GoFundMe so she could respond with legal action.

Challenging and banning books is nothing new, but such efforts should always be fought. The increased scope and coordination of these censorship efforts is troubling, as is the sheer nastiness and sometimes outright delusion of some of these attacks. They reflect dangerous authoritarianism and bigotry in many areas of the country, dynamics we've witnessed in far too many other political arenas. Legitimate parental concerns have already been heard. But fear, bigotry and open hostility toward students, teachers and librarians – as well as toward public schools and libraries – have no value and do great harm.

(Earlier this year, I wrote about efforts to ban Maus.)