On Thursday, the Republican-led House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education, chaired by Florida's Aaron Bean (R-FL), held a hearing on book bans—and you could tell from the title how it was going to go: "Protecting Kids: Combating Graphic, Explicit Content in School Libraries.”
The hearing featured testimony from three witnesses who attempted to frame the surge in book bans in schools and libraries as an epidemic of porn that Joe Biden just won't address. It featured Lindsey Smith, a Moms for Liberty organizer; Max Eden, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; and Megan Degenfelder, superintendent of the Wyoming Department of Education. The lone freedom to read advocate was PEN America's Jonathan Friedman,
The message from the hearing's GOP-picked witnesses? There is no book banning. This is about all the filthy, "pornographic" books in schools in libraries. And the hearing predictably followed the book banner playbook: cherry pick graphic passages from books, out of context, and portray libraries and schools as liberal bastions riven with porn. Bean even started the hearing with a disclaimer that the hearing was going to feature some "very sensitive, mature issues" and some "wildly inappropriate" books from school libraries.
One of the notable moments, however, came when Smith said she wanted to "address the lie" that parental groups and Moms for Liberty were engaged in book banning. “If removing a sexually explicit book from school libraries is what you see as book banning, then you need to reevaluate your language.”
A report in The Hill picked up on the same point, and added Eden's concurrence. "Why is it, exactly, that left wing nonprofits, the media, and the Biden administration are so keen to enforce stocking school libraries with pornographic material?” he asked.
Those statements reflect maybe the most pernicious threat freedom to read advocates must understand and counter: how right wing groups are eager to redefine "the language" around what it means to ban a book. Dictating what you can read isn't book banning, they insist—it's parental rights. Unless of course, you're the parent of a child who is being denied access to a book based on what a vocal minority deems appropriate.
Friedman, for his part, wasn't having it. “We can, and we must, distinguish between a parent raising a particular concern to a school official,” he said, “and a well-organized campaign to mobilize people to disrupt public education writ large.”
You can watch the hearing here.
As Publishers Weekly reported this week, Scholastic Book Fairs is responding to accusations of censorship at its book fairs stemming from the creation of a new "optional" new diverse stories offering called "Share Every Story, Celebrate Every Voice." It's worth noting that some observers, most notably Kelly Jensen at Book Riot, have previously warned about book banners going after book fairs. In a post last month, Jensen predicted that book fairs would find themselves targeted.
Meanwhile, at Book Riot, Jensen addresses the move at Scholastic Book Fairs as well as other recent trends, questioning whether some key "gatekeepers" may be going soft in the fight for the freedom to read. "Taken in isolation, all of these incidents are bad on their own," she writes. "But together, the all-white book lists, all-white bestsellers, all-white 'best books,' and an option to remove diverse books from book fairs say one thing: the gatekeepers have given up the fight."
School Library Journal has an excellent piece capturing the response to Scholastic Book Fair's program, including from SLJ's 2021 School Librarian of the Year, Amanda Jones, who says she has canceled her next book fair. “The Share Every Story boxes I received weren’t anything controversial or any books that would put librarians in jeopardy of breaking these absurd new laws I’ve been keeping track of in other states, so I guess I’m just confused about why we had to opt in for them,” Jones told SLJ's Kara Yorio. “And all of the opt-in books seemed to be by authors of color or with characters of color. The feeling I got from Scholastic was that Black authors are controversial and need to be separated." Other librarians piled on. "This is extraordinarily gutless, frankly," tweeted Massachusetts Association of Student Councils field director Tracy O'Connell Novick. "The librarians, teachers, and parents for whom you claim to be watching out for are putting their own safety and positions on the line in many cases to take actions to fight these efforts. You should be backing them up.”
Harper's Bazaar has a great talk with legendary writer Fran Lebowitz, who has some thoughts on librarians and book banning. "This specific kind of book banning is really just bigotry. It’s racism. It’s hatred of people that are not exactly like them," Lebowitz says. "I just came back from Detroit, and before that Baltimore, doing what I’m about to do in Brooklyn. And I signed books after. And lots of times people in the book line tell me, 'I’m a school librarian, I get death threats.' School librarians. These people are like the backbone of democracy. They are so important. They were very important in my childhood, very important to me. No one should get near telling them what to do. You know what you should do if you meet a librarian? Say thank you."
Wisconsin Public Radio reports that the Menomonee Falls High School has banned more than 30 books, including Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. "While several of the books chosen to be removed from Menomonee Falls High School are on the Advanced Placement English Literature reading list, superintendent David Muñoz said the 33 books being removed from circulation are not in compliance with the 'sexually explicit content and/or profanity guidelines, set in school policy," the report states. "The community advocacy group Grassroots of Menomonee Falls Area learned about the book ban earlier in the week, when students who had the books checked out from the library were asked to return the materials by the end of the week."
Great local reporting from Alabama, where the local Cullman Tribune reports that the Public Library Board of Cullman County voted not to remove a host of books after public meeting. "he books challenged at the board’s September 19 meeting were Prince & Knight, Heather Has Two Mommies, and Lily and Dunkin. “I persevere and am here to ensure that our taxpayer-funded public library has clear guidelines in place to protect our children from the pornography creeping into our Alabama libraries,” one resident arguing for the bans said. “Now, it is not for me to judge; that’s God’s job, but it is for me, as a taxpayer, to request that my taxes do not fund agendas with which I disagree.”
In response, another resident defended the library and the books. “I have seen harassment of the Cullman Public Library System on several social media posts,” the resident said. “The library isn’t perfect. None of us are. But I yearn for the time when we as a community strive to move forward in unity through our diversity, where we allow the differences to permeate through us and strengthen us in the spirit of friendship. I will not remain silent while my friends, neighbors and fellow citizens are unfairly demonized and attacked. I will not indoctrinate my children to hate.”
Education Week reports on how a South Carolina school district boosted its ranks of school librarians. "District leaders in Charleston County attribute its teacher-librarian rebuild to a robust 'grow-your-own' program that’s rooted in a strong partnership with a local university; offers attractive incentives including free tuition, flexible programming, and support for candidates; and appears to be contributing to improved academic achievement among its students."
Also this week, ALA announced the longlist for the the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction. The list of 45 books (21 fiction, 24 nonfiction) is now available on the awards’ website. The six-title shortlist—three each for the fiction and nonfiction medals—will be chosen from longlist titles and announced on November 14, 2023.
And finally this week, the Urban Libraries Council has released a useful report on AI in libraries. "Being on the frontline of new technology is a common position for libraries," states a release. While there are general concerns about AI being used for misinformation or disinformation, the positives of generative AI’s productive applications greatly outweigh existing concerns. These applications include responsible applications that improve efficiency, speed up communication and serve as a useful tool for showcasing and validating library services and resources."