Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, October 05, 2023

Banned Books Week 2023

It's Banned Books Week, which celebrates banned and challenged books. My archive in this category is here. Last year, we looked at how LGBTQ issues have been targeted, especially in Florida. Unfortunately, the situation has gotten worse: Recently, "librarians in public schools in Charlotte County, Florida, were instructed by the school district superintendent to remove all books with LGBTQ characters or themes from school and classroom libraries." So librarians were told that even books without sexually explicit content needed to be removed if any character is LGBTQ. (The district has since said that such books will remain available in school libraries, but for high school students only, and the books cannot be taught in class.) This stance is authoritarian and hostile to LGBTQ youth, as we covered last year, but it's also now an outright denial of reality, with conservatives both trying to pretend LGBTQ people don't exist and pretending that this gambit will somehow work.

Unsurprisingly, the American Library Association's list of the most challenged books of 2022 hasn't changed much since the previous year. This year, the list has 13 titles instead of 10, due to ties:

ALA documented 1,269 demands to censor library books and resources in 2022, the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling data about censorship in libraries more than 20 years ago. The unparalleled number of reported book challenges in 2022 nearly doubles the 729 book challenges reported in 2021. Of the record 2,571 unique titles targeted for censorship, the most challenged and reasons cited for censoring the books are listed below.

1. Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe
Number of challenges: 151
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

2. All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson
Number of challenges: 86
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

3. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Number of challenges: 73
Challenged for: depiction of sexual abuse, EDI content, claimed to be sexually explicit

4. Flamer by Mike Curato
Number of challenges: 62
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

5. (tie) Looking for Alaska by John Green
Number of challenges: 55
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

5. (tie) The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Number of challenges: 55
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

7. Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
Number of challenges: 54
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, claimed to be sexually explicit

8. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Number of challenges: 52
Challenged for: profanity, claimed to be sexually explicit

9. Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
Number of challenges: 50
Challenged for: depictions of abuse, claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
Number of challenges: 48
Challenged for: claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) Crank by Ellen Hopkins
Number of challenges: 48
Challenged for: drug use, claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
Number of challenges:48
Challenged for: profanity, claimed to be sexually explicit

10. (tie) This Book is Gay by Juno Dawson
Number of challenges:48
Challenged for: LGBTQIA+ content, providing sexual education, claimed to be sexually explicit

On its censorship by the numbers page, the ALA provides a map of which states have had the most book challenges (Texas is still the worst by far) and some other censorship charts. The downloads page compiles some of those charts in poster formats, including the one below (click for a larger view):

One of the troubling trends we covered last year is the rise in coordinated organizations, not individuals, bringing book challenges. But another problem is that an extremely small number of individuals drive a majority of book challenges. In both cases, the views of the majority, of professionals and the community, are often overruled. The Washington Post profiled one of those book-banning individuals, 48-year-old Spotsylvania, Virginia, resident Jennifer Petersen, in a 9/28/23 piece, "She challenges one school book a week. She says she’ll never stop." It's worth reading the whole thing, but I'll provide some key excerpts, including the opening:

Jennifer Petersen keeps 73 school books she detests in her basement.

She ordered most from Amazon. In the last year, she read each one. She highlighted and typed up excerpts from more than 1,300 pages — of the 24,000-plus pages she read — that she says depict sexual acts. Then she filed challenges against 71 of the books with Spotsylvania County Public Schools, the Virginia district where one of her children is a student and the other is a recent graduate. (Two books were removed before she could challenge them.)

Across 434 pages of challenges — longer than many of the books she objected to — Petersen offered variations on a theme.

“This book reads like a how to guide for raping teens,” she wrote of one.

“The book normalizes teen sex and ... glorifies and incites teens to have sex,” she wrote of another.

“What is the fascination,” she asked of a third, “with so many of these books containing detailed sexual content?”

Petersen, 48, is part of a small army of book objectors nationwide. School book challenges reached historic highs in America in 2021 and 2022, according to the American Library Association. And just a handful of people are driving those records. A Washington Post analysis of thousands of challenges nationwide found that 60 percent of all challenges in the 2021-2022 school year came from 11 adults, each of whom objected to dozens — sometimes close to 100 — of books in their districts.

Petersen is one of these serial filers, whose actions have riven her community, earning her fervent admiration and criticism.

What indeed is Petersen's fascination with reading books she finds objectionable? It's worth repeating the key problem with the book-banning crowd: they're free not to read books they don't like. They can also prevent their children from reading those books. But they're fighting to prevent anyone else from reading those books. That shouldn't be their call. Libraries can and do have challenge systems in place, but adding a title to a library generally involves plenty of discussion and research first, including public input. Removing a book should have a high threshold. A book that's considered a classic, important, or is generally well-regarded shouldn't be removed and denied to the rest of the community just because one person or a small group doesn't like it.

In Petersen's case, she objects to sex the most, but of the books she's challenged, according to the WaPo analysis, 25% are by or about people of color or deal with issues of race, and 27% feature LGBTQ characters. Her book challenges, as of the article, totaled 434 pages, "longer than most of the books she challenged," and 6,556 words. She's definitely been disruptive:

Petersen’s district has lurched from one book controversy to another in recent years. In 2021, the Spotsylvania school board voted to remove sexually explicit tomes from libraries, with two members suggesting burning them — remarks that drew national scorn. The board later rescinded that decision. Then, this spring, the superintendent pulled 14 books for “sexually explicit material” — including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” — and suggested shutting down school libraries to address budget shortfalls. That proposal went nowhere, but the school board voted to make it easier to yank books with sexual content.

Much of the turmoil has been driven, directly or indirectly, by Petersen. In the decades before she began filing challenges, the district saw almost no objections, maybe one every five to 10 years, library staff said. Now, in addition to her flurry of filings, Petersen attends almost every school board meeting, sometimes reading aloud graphic passages from the books she is challenging — mostly sentences too explicit to be printed in this newspaper. . . .

To some, Petersen is a fanatic bent on crushing schools under the weight of prudish objections.

“This whole effort has been a waste of money, time and resources,” school board member Nicole Cole said. (The district said it has not tracked the money, time and work it spent responding to Petersen’s requests, although a top library staffer estimated that a team of 11 people spent 40 hours per week on her challenges last school year.)

Petersen is causing the district to lose staff as well as considerable time and money. She can't complain that her challenges aren't been taken seriously, because her challenges have been reviewed multiple times:

Cole said the district has lost staff members because of what Petersen is doing, although she could not provide an exact number. The district did not answer questions asking about Petersen’s effect on its personnel.

Kimberly Allen, library liaison and high school librarian for the district, estimates that, last school year, fielding Petersen’s challenges required 40 hours of labor per week from her and a team of 10 high school librarians, work they mostly did on their own time, late in the evening and on weekends, because they still had to keep up with their regular jobs. Neither she nor her colleagues received overtime pay, Allen said.

Per school district policy, each challenge at a campus required the principal, sometimes working with librarians, to form a school-level review committee comprising a half-dozen teachers and parents. Each committee recommended keeping the titles, Allen said.

But Petersen appealed every decision, leading to the formation of a second, district-level review committee, comprising another handful of teachers and parents — these selected by the Office of Teaching and Learning. Those panels, too, recommended keeping the books.

The superintendent has the final say: He intervened to pull 14 books this spring. Another 29 books await his verdict. (Five are still at the district committee stage.) So far, none of Petersen’s challenges has been rejected outright. . . .

In “most of the books [she challenged], we do not agree with her assessment, because ... you cannot base the merit of a book on just its parts,” Allen said. “She is weighing the whole book on single passages.”

Petersen is being given fair hearings; it's just that she doesn't abide by the outcomes. A single group of librarians, teachers, and parents reviewing the books and approving them should be sufficient – Petersen brought a challenge, the community considered and it approved the book, she doesn't have to read the book but the community can, case closed. But she's also forcing a second group to review the book – and still getting the same result. The superintendent should abide by those committee decisions, but isn't, presumably to try to appease Petersen. So two people (or one person and a kowtower) are imposing their will on professionals and the community. These are not healthy dynamics.

I've seen some people suggest a limit on book challenges, and that seems like a good idea. One challenge per person per month, perhaps. Petersen and others like her could still bring challenges, but not steal so much time (often unpaid) from librarians and teachers and effectively harass them.

One of the odder asides in the profile of Petersen is briefly mentioning that she's a Buddhist, not a conservative Christian. Unfortunately, the profile doesn't delve any further into Petersen's claimed Buddhism, and avoids raising the issue that the principles of Buddhism are pretty incompatible with book banning. (For that matter, the principles of Christianity don't really suggest book banning, either, but for religious conservatives, the key part has always been the social conservatism, and the religion is more of a gloss, with religious principles selectively followed or just outright ignored.)

It's worth noting that Petersen is citing bad social science as part of her justification for obsessing about sex in books:

In some challenges, [Petersen] cited scientific research to back up her contention children could be harmed by reading about sex acts — in particular a 2020 paper she found in the National Institutes of Health’s online library that said “exposure to sexually explicit media in early adolescence had a substantive relationship with risky sexual behavior” in early adulthood.

In that study, the authors suggested one solution would be for schoolteachers and parents to provide teens with “appropriate information on sexuality,” including sex education classes. Another study published two years later found that exposure to sexually explicit material made some boys happy and upset some girls, but “the majority of adolescents felt neutral, which suggests that seeing sexually explicit materials is not as distressing as originally thought.”

There's also the issue of poor judgment on Petersen's part. As Kimberly Allen points out, Petersen is reading passages out of context and "you cannot base the merit of a book on just its parts." Context matters. Good librarians, teachers and sensible adults and readers understand this:

Gina Terry, a parent and former Spotsylvania English teacher, said in an interview that sexually explicit material is not always harmful — instead, it can be educational. She gave the example of “Sold,” a book told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl sold into sexual slavery. Terry praised the writing as “haunting,” although she acknowledged the text deals with complex, difficult and dark subjects.

“There is absolutely discomfort. But the whole point of the book is to bring attention to the real plight of real girls,” Terry said. “By saying it needs to be banned, we’ve taken these real stories about real people and denied them existence on our shelves.”

Terry makes excellent points, and it's also important to remember that a teacher in a classroom can help guide students through difficult material. So can parents, if they're not uncomfortable discussing such material with their children. But book banners tend to be the parents or other adults who are extremely uncomfortable having such discussions, all the more so if sex, sexuality, race, or racism is involved. Petersen certainly seems to fall in that category. Two passages leap out from the article:

Petersen, too, was alarmed. If children under 18 read about sex, she worries, they will be more likely to engage in unsafe sex or fall victim to sexual predators.

This makes no sense. Students who are taught age-appropriate, accurate sex education (and generally dealt with truthfully) are less likely to have unsafe sex, get sexually transmitted diseases, or get pregnant. They're also presumably less likely to "fall victim to sexual predators." This is just the familiar mentality of a parent uncomfortable talking about sex and sexuality with her kids, even teenagers. It's the same mentality that leads to reality-denying "abstinence only" sex ed classes in conservative states and districts that increase the teen pregnancy rates. It's the same mindset that tries to deny that LGBTQ people, including kids and teenagers, exist.

The second passage is also a doozy:

In that first batch [of challenges], [Petersen] wrote of Beloved: “The book illustrates the horrors of our history. However, the passages outlined do not add to the story and they are sexually explicit.”

Beloved is a good, powerful novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and one of the reasons author Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Evidently, many people think it has value. (At the school where I taught, it was part of the English 12 curriculum at least one year.) But Jennifer Petersen, self-appointed literary critic and protector of the public, arrogantly thinks she knows better than all of them, that the sex scenes Toni Morrison included are unnecessary, and the book should be banned. It's not enough for Petersen and other book banners that they are free to disapprove of a book, don't need to read it, and can even write scathing reviews if they want to. They want to prevent anyone else from having the opportunity to read it and judge it for themselves. In this specific case, as is the case with many challenged books, readers would be denied a memorable, moving experience.

Part of being a healthy, thriving democracy is that people like Jennifer Petersen get their say. But another part of a healthy, thriving democracy is that other people get their say, too, and Petersen and her ilk don't get to make decisions for everyone else. Good public libraries and good public schools are essential for developing happy, inquisitive children, for helping teenagers explore adulthood, and for developing good citizens. Art is capable of saying more than one thing at once, and can be complex and multilayered. Art can be a rich and wonderful experience. If prudes and scolds wish to deny themselves that, that's sad but their right, but the rest of us must stay free to revel in the wonders of the arts (and share good book recommendations).