Last week, a school board member in Flagler County, Fla., urged the local sheriff to open a criminal investigation over four copies on school library shelves of George M. Johnson's queer YA memoir All Boys Aren't Blue. And while just months ago that kind of move would have been regarded as a shocking but isolated incident, it is now all too common. A similar criminal complaint against librarians in Wyoming garnered national headlines this summer, although the district attorney last month declined to pursue charges.
New headlines virtually every day tell the story: across the country, there is an unprecedented spike in attempts to ban books from schools and libraries. And while efforts to remove books from schools and library collections are not uncommon, librarians and freedom to read advocates warn that this current spike in challenges is different, as it appears to be part of a broader political strategy.
“We have seen a 60% increase in challenges to books received in the month of September compared to last year,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Information Freedom, which tracks book challenges nationwide, told PW. And while Caldwell-Stone is quick to point out that challenges to books on race and the LGBTQIA+ experience in particular have been trending up for years, she says the dramatic increase in book challenges, which includes challenges by conservative politicians, is widespread, and troubling.
For example, in Texas, Governor Greg Abbott is demanding that the state agencies that oversee education and library funding keep "inappropriate” books out of Texas schools. Abbott specifically called out two books involving LGBTQIA+ themes that have been featured in complaints in other states—Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, and In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. And according to the Texas Tribune, Abbott has even directed agency officials to open criminal investigations over offending titles. Furthermore, Abbott’s directive follows a headline-grabbing inquiry launched in October by a Texas state representative (who also happens to be planning a run for state attorney general) that included a list of some 850 books singled out for scrutiny.
“We should always take any attempt to ban or remove books from libraries seriously, because it’s an attempt to censor ideas and to enforce an orthodoxy of what is thought about and talked about in our communities,” Caldwell-Stone says. “But the volume of challenges we are hearing and seeing now appears to be the result of an organized movement by certain groups to impose their political views and make them the norm for education and for our society as a whole. You have a state representative circulating a list of 850 books—and if you read that list they are all dealing with sex education, LGBTQIA+ identity, or the experience of persons of color. You also have people showing up at school boards complaining about the exact same books, repeating almost world for word the same complaints found on social media.”
“That’s absolutely what we’re seeing,” says Shirley Robinson, executive director of the Texas Library Association. “There is clearly an organized effort going on to bring large groups of people to school board meetings or to City Council meetings. And we as a community of educators and librarians need to stand together. We need to find a way to explain to people, in a way that makes sense to them, that we’re standing up for one of their fundamental rights as Americans. That may be a silver lining to all this—we’re getting a chance to explain to people what librarians do, how librarians are educated in collection development, and that there are policies and procedures in place to ensure that the library is safe for every member of the community.”
In fact, in many cases the policies and procedures in place are holding up, and librarians and educators—often bolstered by support from the community—have had some success in pushing back against many of these recent efforts to ban books.
For example, in Goddard, Kans., this week, school officials rejected an attempt to pull a list of 29 books—a list that has been circulating nationally.
In Virginia, the Spotsylvania County School board reversed its recent decision to remove a list of “sexually explicit” books from its schools after pushback from the community. One member of the board had previously said he'd like to see the books burned.
And earlier this summer in Pennsylvania, a student-led movement garnered national attention for successfully pushing back against an attempt by the local high school principal to ban a list of articles, videos, and books mainly featuring Black and Latino representation.
But the more sobering view, observers say, is that the current shockwave of book banning is no accident, and it is not just about the books. Rather, it appears to be part of a political strategy on the right designed to activate voters in communities across the nation, alongside calls to ban the teaching of so-called Critical Race Theory.
“There is an attempt to shift the conversation away from books and ideas to a conversation about parental control,” says John Chrastka, executive director of EveryLibrary, a political action group that works to support libraries at the local level. “What we’re seeing is the weaponization of parental control to advance a political agenda.”
Chrastka stresses that EveryLibrary does not get involved with individual book challenges. “We look at individual book challenges as legitimate conversations within the community, where there are policies in place that need to be articulated and understood and followed,” he says.
But in the recent spike in book challenges Chrastka sees the work of “political actors” seeking to build a base, establish their bona fides, and attract donors. “When book challenges become a tool in a larger political fight that threatens the funding or the structure of libraries or schools, that’s when we go to work,” Chrastka says, adding that EveryLibrary is already engaged in a few locales.
The question, however, is how do librarians, educators, and supporters of the freedom to read, including publishers, effectively push back? It is one thing to defend books when they are challenged. But how do freedom to read advocates push back against an organized political movement effectively using book banning as a political cudgel?
"We really need our allies to stand with us in this fight," says Robinson. "What we’re trying to do in Texas is to engage the community and our legislators, who I think are now starting to see how this effort ripples out and can impact the future of our democracy. And we really need publishers and authors to use their voices to stand with the library and school library community."
Chrastka agrees, but cautions that the usual statements of outrage may not be enough.
"Resources like the Freedom to Read Foundation and the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom have served us extremely well for 50 years and will continue to serve us well in terms of the policy frameworks and the capacity to help librarians respond to individual challenges in their communities," Chrastka says. "But we've entered a period where certain forces don't want to participate in that process. They want to burn it down."