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Book Ban Efforts Spread Across the U.S.

Author: Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter

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Nov-01-23 We looked at banned books in Utah’s biggest school districts. What we found might surprise you.

In Wyoming, a county prosecutor’s office considered charges against library employees for stocking books like “Sex Is a Funny Word” and “This Book Is Gay.”

In Oklahoma, a bill was introduced in the State Senate that would prohibit public school libraries from keeping books on hand that focus on sexual activity, sexual identity or gender identity.

In Tennessee, the McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from an eighth-grade module on the Holocaust because of nudity and curse words.

Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades. The American Library Association said in a preliminary report that it received an “unprecedented” 330 reports of book challenges, each of which can include multiple books, last fall.

“It’s a pretty startling phenomenon here in the United States to see book bans back in style, to see efforts to press criminal charges against school librarians,” said Suzanne Nossel, the chief executive of the free-speech organization PEN America, even if efforts to press charges have so far failed.

Such challenges have long been a staple of school board meetings, but it isn’t just their frequency that has changed, according to educators, librarians and free-speech advocates — it is also the tactics behind them and the venues where they play out. Conservative groups in particular, fueled by social media, are now pushing the challenges into statehouses, law enforcement and political races.

“The politicalization of the topic is what's different than what I’ve seen in the past,” said Britten Follett, the chief executive of content at Follett School Solutions, one of the country’s largest providers of books to K-12 schools. “It’s being driven by legislation, it’s being driven by politicians aligning with one side or the other. And in the end, the librarian, teacher or educator is getting caught in the middle.”

Among the most frequent targets are books about race, gender and sexuality, like George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy,” Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

Several books are drawing fire repeatedly in different parts of the country — “All Boys Aren’t Blue” has been targeted for removal in at least 14 states — in part because objections that have surfaced in recent months often originate online. Many parents have seen Google docs or spreadsheets of contentious titles posted on Facebook by local chapters of organizations such as Moms for Liberty. From there, librarians say, parents ask their schools if those books are available to their children.

“If you look at the lists of books being targeted, it’s so broad,” Ms. Nossel said. Some groups, she noted, have essentially weaponized book lists meant to promote more diverse reading material, taking those lists and then pushing for all the included titles to be banned.

The advocacy group No Left Turn in Education maintains lists of books it says are “used to spread radical and racist ideologies to students,” including Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Those who are demanding certain books be removed insist this is an issue of parental rights and choice, that all parents should be free to direct the upbringing of their own children.

Others say prohibiting these titles altogether violates the rights of other parents and the rights of children who believe access to these books is important. Many school libraries already have mechanisms in place to stop individual students from checking out books of which their parents disapprove.

The author Laurie Halse Anderson, whose young adult books have frequently been challenged, said that pulling titles that deal with difficult subjects can make it harder for students to discuss issues like racism and sexual assault.

“By attacking these books, by attacking the authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation,” she said. “You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence and attacks.”

Tiffany Justice, a former school board member in Indian River County, Fla., and a founder of Moms for Liberty, said that parents should not be vilified for asking if a book is appropriate. Some of the books being challenged involve sexual activity, including oral sex and anal sex, she said, and children are not ready for that kind of material.

“There are different stages of development of sexuality in our lives, and when that’s disrupted, it can have horrible long-term effects,” she said.

“The bottom line is if parents are concerned about something, politicians need to pay attention,” Ms. Justice added. “2022 will be a year of the parent at the ballot box.”

Christopher M. Finan, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said he has not seen this level of challenges since the 1980s, when a similarly energized conservative base embraced the issue. This time, however, that energy is colliding with an effort to publish and circulate more diverse books, as well as social media, which can amplify complaints about certain titles.

“It’s this confluence of tensions that have always existed over what’s the proper thing to teach kids,” Mr. Finan said.

“These same issues are really coming alive in a new social environment,” he added, “and it’s a mess. It’s a real mess.”

Book challenges aren’t just coming from the right: “Of Mice and Men” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” for example, have been challenged over the years for how they address race, and both were among the library association’s 10 most-challenged books in 2020.

In the Mukilteo School District in Washington State, the school board voted to remove “To Kill a Mockingbird” — voted the best book of the past 125 years in a survey of readers conducted by The New York Times Book Review — from the ninth-grade curriculum at the request of staff members. Their objections included arguments that the novel marginalized characters of color, celebrated “white saviorhood” and used racial slurs dozens of times without addressing their derogatory nature.

While the book is no longer a requirement, it remains on the district’s list of approved novels, and teachers can still choose to assign it if they wish.

In other instances, efforts to ban books are more sweeping, as parents and organizations aim to have them removed from libraries, cutting off access for everyone. Perhaps no book has been targeted more vigorously than “The 1619 Project,” a best seller about slavery in America that has drawn wide support among many historians and Black leaders and which arose from the 2019 special issue of The New York Times Magazine. It has been named explicitly in proposed legislation.

Political leaders on the right have seized on the controversies over books. The newly elected governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, rallied his supporters by framing book bans as an issue of parental control and highlighted the issue in a campaign ad featuring a mother who wanted Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” to be removed from her son’s high school curriculum.

In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott demanded that the state’s education agency “investigate any criminal activity in our public schools involving the availability of pornography,” a move that librarians in the state fear could make them targets of criminal complaints. The governor of South Carolina asked the state’s superintendent of education and its law enforcement division to investigate the presence of “obscene and pornographic” materials in its public schools, offering “Gender Queer” as an example.

The mayor of Ridgeland, Miss., recently withheld funding from the Madison County Library System, saying he would not release the money until books with L.G.B.T.Q. themes were removed, according to the library system’s executive director.

George M. Johnson, the author of “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about growing up Black and queer, was stunned in November to learn that a school board member in Flagler County, Fla., had filed a complaint with the sheriff’s department against the book. Written for readers aged 14 and older, it includes scenes that depict oral and anal sex and sexual assault.

“I didn’t know that was something you could do, file a criminal complaint against a book,” Johnson said in an interview. The complaint was dismissed by the sheriff’s office, but the book was subsequently removed from school libraries while it was reviewed by a committee.

At a school board meeting where the book was debated, a group of students protested the ban and distributed free copies, while counterprotesters assailed it as pornography and occasionally screamed obscenities and anti-gay slurs, according to a student who organized the protest and posted video footage of the event.

Johnson made a video appearance at the meeting and argued that the memoir contained valuable lessons about consent and that it highlighted difficult issues that teenagers are likely to encounter in their lives.

A district committee reviewed the book and determined it was “appropriate for use” in high school libraries, but the decision was overruled by the county superintendent, who told the school board that “All Boys Aren’t Blue” would be kept out of libraries, while new policies are created to allow parents to have more control over which books their children can access. Several other young adult titles that had been challenged and removed were restored.

Jack Petocz, a 17-year-old student at Flagler Palm Coast High School who organized the protest against the book ban, said that removing books about L.G.B.T.Q. characters and books about racism was discriminatory, and harmful to students who may already feel that they are in the minority and that their experiences are rarely represented in literature.

“As a gay student myself, those books are so critical for youth, for feeling there are resources for them,” he said, noting that books that portray heterosexual romances are rarely challenged. “I felt it was very discriminatory.”

So far, efforts to bring criminal charges against librarians and educators have largely faltered, as law enforcement officials in Florida, Wyoming and elsewhere have found no basis for criminal investigations. And courts have generally taken the position that libraries should not remove books from circulation.

Nonetheless, librarians say that just the threat of having to defend against charges is enough to get many educators to censor themselves by not stocking the books to begin with. Even just the public spectacle of an accusation can be enough.

“It will certainly have a chilling effect,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s office for intellectual freedom. “You live in a community where you’ve been for 28 years, and all of a sudden you might be charged with the crime of pandering obscenity. And you’d hoped to stay in that community forever.”

She said that aggressively policing books for inappropriate content and banning titles could limit students’ exposure to great literature, including towering canonical works.

“If you focus on five passages, you’ve got obscenity,” Ms. Caldwell-Stone said. “If you broaden your view and read the work as a whole, you’ve got Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’”

DMU Timestamp: July 13, 2023 21:18

Added November 01, 2023 at 3:51pm by Christopher Sloan
Title: We looked at banned books in Utah’s biggest school districts. What we found might surprise you.

One book was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. One topped a nationwide list for “Best Fiction for Young Adults.” Another has sold 3 million copies and been adapted into a popular Netflix series.

All top the list for the titles most banned by Utah’s biggest school districts.

As the push to remove books from classrooms and libraries wages on — led largely by conservative parent groups across the country and the state — The Salt Lake Tribune looked into what titles have been targeted in the schools attended by most of the state’s children.

The effort to challenge books was codified here with a 2022 law banning any titles containing “pornographic or indecent content” from Utah K-12 libraries and classrooms. And since that took effect, there have been hundreds of complaints filed and hundreds of books pulled.

The Tribune requested a list of the books removed from 17 of the 41 school districts in the state, all along the Wasatch Front, in Utah County and Davis County, down to Washington County School District in southern Utah. Collectively, those districts account for more than 70% of Utah’s public K-12 students.

Across them, 262 books were removed between the law passing last year and school starting this fall. One of the top banned titles, “What Girls Are Made of,” was taken out of six of the districts.

Lauren Liang, an associate professor at the University of Utah who studies censorship in literature for children and young adults, said that number represents the shift in how book challenges are being made.

“It’s no longer about one individual objecting to just one book at their local school,” she said. “We’re seeing this new push to restrict access from these large groups that have long lists of books” that they challenge in multiple districts.

Members of the group Utah Parents United take credit for putting in the bulk of complaints here — with their Facebook page “LaVerna in the Library” dedicated to the titles they find inappropriate and offering instructions on how to submit lists to districts for review. They’ve also filed police reports when they’ve felt the districts haven’t acted quickly enough.

Most of the titles they have flagged focus on race or the LGBTQ community. They have repeatedly challenged the same books, including “The Bluest Eye” by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison and “Gender Queer,” a graphic novel about the author’s journey of self-identity.

The books they disapprove of — and that have been removed the most — are award winners and New York Times bestsellers. They include poetry compilations and fantasy novels.

Utah Parents United declined an interview with The Tribune for this story. And the lawmaker who sponsored the bill, Republican Rep. Ken Ivory, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Liang said she worries many of the requests are based on keywords or select scenes, without the challenger reading the full book or looking at the context for why those scenes matter.

The reasons most often listed by school districts for removing books seem to align with that: “Sexual content.” “Violence.” “Illicit description of sex.”

“If you just go after keywords, you lose all these books,” Liang said. “What are we going to be left with?”

The Tribune’s analysis revealed which districts are banning the highest number of books — with the top taking out 54 titles — which authors are being pulled and which books have been removed the most often across the state. Here’s what we found.


It was a three-way tie for the most banned book here, with each of the top three titles having been removed from six different districts around the state.

Second place was an eight-way tie. Each of those books was removed from five districts.

Catherine Bates, the former librarian at Brighton High School, said she’s not surprised Sarah J. Maas’ fantasy books take up five of the top 11 spots for banned books in Utah schools. She actually removed some of those titles herself, when she did reviews of her school library in Canyons School District.

Bates said she’d look at scenes, like in Maas’ books, that depicted something sensitive — such as sex. If she found that was only in the book for “prurient interests,” which is a federal standard for school libraries, she’d remove it.

Maas’ books — which are actually described as adult novels — fit that description, she felt.

For other commonly banned authors, she said, it was harder for her to make the decision. For example, “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins — who is one of the top removed authors in Utah — includes content about sex trafficking. Bates said that’s not about the prurient interest, so it’s not as clear.

“It’s not in the same realm as a romance novel but was so graphic,” she said.

She had the same stress over “Oryx and Crake” by Margaret Atwood and decided to sit out the review process for that. She felt “too close” to it to be unbiased, she said, having read it multiple times herself and given the book to many students.

As a high school librarian, the students who came to her ranged from 14 years old to 18, which made it a challenge, too.

“Do I think an 18-year-old can handle ‘Oryx and Crake’? 100%,” she said. “Would I give it to a 14-year-old? No, absolutely not.”

The frequent book challenges “made my life much harder and more stressful,” she said, and were part of what led her to leave her job at the end of the 2022-23 school year, after a decade working for Brighton High.

It’s difficult for her to think about the materials she ended up removing from the school’s library, she said, because of how much she “wrestled” with the decisions. Such experiences were leaving her questioning her own competency.

“I’d been a librarian for 10 years and buying books for 10 years and giving books to kids for 10 years and reading 60 to 100 young adult books a year,” she said. “I still felt very unsure about the choices I was making.”

Handfuls of new challenges would be delivered to her every Friday. “It is deeply jarring to get a call from your principal to talk about taking books out of your library,” Bates added.

As a librarian, she said: “I feel like we are the protectors, and we’re the canaries in the coal mine, and the weight of that is hard to bear. … I felt like I was the person protecting my students’ freedom of speech, and that’s a big deal.”


All five of the most banned authors are women.

Liang, the University of Utah associate professor, said what stands out to her is that three of those female authors — Ellen Hopkins, Elana K. Arnold and Lauren Myracle — write about coming of age experiences for young adults, particularly girls.

A lot of those experiences are traumatic, Liang noted, but they’re real and show the “sadness and the gritty reality of the world.” That includes kids who are sexually abused or have a parent who is addicted to drugs, for instance.

“When those things are in books, they are real things,” she said. “We don’t like to think about the number of kids who experience these things, but they’re here and they do. When the books are shut down, what message are you sending to the kids who have experienced that?”

For those teens, she said, the books are validating and somewhere they can see themselves reflected. And for those who haven’t gone through those things, readers can gain empathy or learn warning signs.

Liang also says there’s a reason that young adult authors include a graphic scene in their work. It’s not gratuitous. “The whole point of the book is that this is not an OK thing,” she said.

She points to books by Ellen Hopkins, which include rape. And the same with “Gender Queer,” where the queer author shares their experience of being assaulted. Liang said it’s not about the assault itself; it’s about how the character processes that and moves forward.

In almost all young adult books, Liang said, the point is to show how the character overcomes something horrific like that — often turning to a trusted adult for help.

“They persevere and succeed,” she said. “It’s about hope.”

The books are a model for survival and without them, she feels, kids are losing an example of how to get through something challenging.

She feels when Utah parents just look at those scenes and cite the pornography law to get rid of them, they’re “not using that term in a way that is appropriate to the access that they’re denying.” The point of pornography, she said, is different; it’s about arousal.

That’s not what authors like Hopkins are doing.

Hopkins spoke to The Tribune about her books being banned 35 times across Utah’s biggest school districts. She said she writes about real experiences — including her daughter’s addiction.

“‘Crank’ is my daughter’s story,” she said. “It’s my family’s story.”

Her daughter, Hopkins said, was a straight-A student who wanted to attend an art institute after high school. Then she met a guy, and he introduced her to drugs. Her daughter has struggled with addiction for the 25 years since.

“I wanted to show how easy it would be for that beautiful kid to make one wrong decision … to try to show kids not to do that,” Hopkins said.

The rape scene in the book, she noted, happened to her daughter. It’s real life.

“Every kid’s life isn’t pretty,” Hopkins said. “We can’t just take the ugliness out of the libraries. You need to see it. … And all of my books show them there is always a way out.”

She also provides a list of resources in all of her books. And — what might surprise many parents challenging her titles — there’s also a reference to Christianity in every book. Hopkins grew up in the Lutheran faith and incorporates that into all of her literature.

After every book reading or book signing, Hopkins said, she has a kid or two or three come up to her to share their experience and to thank her for highlighting real traumas. They tell her they feel seen.


The top five districts in the state that have banned the most books collectively account for 223 titles removed. And together, they oversee 42% of the public K-12 students in Utah.

Washington County School District sits at No. 1 with 54 titles pulled. Many of those books — as in other districts — are about the LGBTQ community. That includes removing “This Book is Gay” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

Liang said books about the queer experience are often targeted by parents. But she says access to those is important for kids who may be closeted and want to see themselves in literature.

“When you ban a book, you’re removing access to it for everyone — not removing it just for your individual child,” she said.

Washington County School District has also removed books on race, including “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. Liang said that title often pops up in challenges because it includes a scene about rape. But she feels it’s important and can be read along with a teacher to provide context and historical understanding.

Erasing race or the LGBTQ communities by removing those and other diverse books, though, Liang believes sends a message to students who identify with the characters. It tells them, she said, that they don’t matter or shouldn’t be seen.

At the same time, Washington County School District has kept some challenged books about those communities, including “Julián is a Mermaid,” which is a picture book about a boy who wants to become a mermaid, as well as “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, which deals with racism and police brutality.

Washington County School District spokesman Steven Dunham has previously said the district should balance what’s age appropriate with providing diverse titles that represent all kids.

“I also think it’s interesting how parents are challenging these books in our libraries,” he added. “This is the place that they think their children are going to be corrupted. But they are also giving them phones where they can look up anything.”

Alpine School District — the No. 4 district on the list and the biggest district in the state — made headlines for pulling 52 books to review. Of those in that one challenge from one parent, it removed 22 titles. Overall, it has taken 41 books off the shelf across its schools.

“Our process is tested, sound and fair,” said Vallen Thomas, who oversees the material review process for the district. He said the district has also conducted its own audit of the books it provides access to.

Davis School District drew national attention this past year when a review committee there voted to remove the Bible from elementary and middle schools for containing violence. A parent who was upset at the other books being challenged in the district said if those were going to be removed, the Bible should, too, for being “one of the most sex-ridden books around.”

The district’s Board of Education later reversed that decision and restored the Good Book to shelves.

But Davis still comes in at No. 3 on the list for removing 50 titles.

Liang said Utah has long been seen as the birthplace and breeding ground for authors writing kid and young adult literature — including Shannon Hale, whose works haven’t been banned in the biggest districts here, but have in other states.

Now, the challenges and the removals, she said, are making both authors and teachers nervous. Hopkins admits that she has questioned herself on what she should write next.

Liang is co-director of the READ-U program at the U. that works with teachers on selecting books for their classes that highlight empathy, awareness and diversity. Many, she said, are now self-censoring and worry about each title they pick. Instead of picking what they consider the best of the best books, she said, they’re trying to find ones that don’t mention any sensitive topic.

DMU Timestamp: October 24, 2023 13:53

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