The push to control what your kids read and write is intensifying nationwide
The push to control what kids learn and read is intensifying.
A school board in York, Pa., pulled its district’s entire list of diverse books and educational resources. An Ohio mayor called for all school board members to resign or be legally charged over a high-school writing assignment. And Texas weathered a flurry of reading-related challenges, from a suburban Austin police department’s investigation of a high-school library book to a school board member’s resignation over books he called “garbage.”
The incidents are the latest in a stream of classroom controversies as the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week approaches Sept. 26.
“I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I was shocked, terrified, disappointed,” Central York High School senior Edha Gupta told WHTM, the ABC affiliate in York. She is one of many students, teachers and parents who have protested the Pennsylvania district’s decision to designate a list of books, movies and other resources off limits this school year.
The list, developed in tandem with a diversity curriculum that the district has also tabled, features teaching resources such as “Black Lives Matter at School” from the National Education Association and videos like the six-part PBS documentary “The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross.”
It also includes hundreds of books. The list has nonfiction titles such as Tiffany Jewell’s best-selling This Book Is Anti-Racist and Jason Reynolds’ young-adult “remix” of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, novels such as Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ninth Ward and Erika Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, and even a coloring book of African Adrinkra symbols.
The school board voted Sept. 13 to prevent use of the materials, with board member Veronica Gemma insisting that the move was not a ban but allowed time for necessary review, a process that began in November 2020. “We will not teach a curriculum that teaches division and hate,” she said at the meeting.
The decision swirled across Twitter, as authors discovered their books were on the list.
“The only political statement ‘A Big Mooncake for Little Star’ makes is that an Asian child can be a main character in a (book),” tweeted Newbery and Caldecott honoree Grace Lin of her award-winning picture book.
PEN America, the U.S. arm of the international nonprofit devoted to literary free expression, called on the York board to reverse its decision in a Sept. 17 statement.
“District leaders are calling this a freeze, but this is a book ban, plain and simple—and it’s all the more outrageous in this instance because it’s targeting authors and creators of color,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education.
A few hours west of York, the mayor of Hudson, Ohio, threatened to bring charges against the entire school board if members did not resign over a book of writing prompts.
Mayor Craig Shubert complained to the board about 642 Things To Write About, originally assigned as part of a college-credit writing class offered to high-school seniors. Prompts in the book include making a case for your favorite fruit and detailing a perfect day as an astronaut. They also include “Write a sex scene you wouldn’t show your mom” and one about drinking beer. The district pulled the book in response to parent complaints before teachers had assigned specific prompts, Superintendent Phil Herman said.
Nevertheless, Shubert pushed Sept. 13 for the five-member board to resign or face legal consequences.
“It has come to my attention that your educators are distributing essentially what is child pornography in the classroom,” Shubert told the board. “I’ve spoken to a judge this evening. She’s already confirmed that. So I’m going to give you a simple choice: You either choose to resign from this board of education or you will be charged.”
Ralph Lusher, a staff attorney for the Ohio School Boards Association, told the Akron Beacon Journal he was unaware of any case in which school board members have faced charges over curriculum materials. The board’s president said he and his colleagues would be staying put.
Police are also involved in the latest fight over reading in Leander, Texas, a suburb of Austin. Leander police say they are investigating two parents’ complaints about Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison. The 2018 coming-of-age novel, which delves into class issues, won the American Library Association’s Alex Award, given to adult books that also hold special appeal for readers aged 12 to 18.
The book is part of some high school libraries but they don’t assign it as reading, nor is it part of any curriculum, the district noted.
One parent complained about the book’s content at the Leander school board’s Sept. 9 meeting, citing language the main character uses and his memories of sexual experimentation in elementary school. She went on to make a formal complaint with Leander police, who told CBS Austin that the department was investigating two complaints about the book and would turn results over to the city’s Criminal Investigation Division or prosecutors.
The incident follows months of strife over Leander’s high-school book club choice reading lists, which drew complaints from parents. The district has pulled several books from its choice lists, including award winners, titles from authors of color and novels with LGBTQ themes. The district’s decisions prompted calls for changefrom PEN America.
Still dissatisfied with content in books that remained in the Leander high school libraries, board member Jim MacKay resigned. “I will keep for myself the shame and guilt of our ‘literature program’ for the rest of my life,” he noted in an email to his fellow board members.
Meanwhile, in another suburb of Austin, the Lake Travis school district has pulled a book from two middle-school libraries after complaints. The district removed Ashley Hope Pérez’s Out of Darkness, a 2015 young-adult novel about a relationship between a Mexican-American girl and a Black boy in a small East Texas town in the 1930s. Perez’s book was also removed from the Leander book-club lists.
Former school board candidate Kara Bell, who last made news when police charged her with assault on a Nordstrom employee who asked Bell to wear a mask, complained about the book and its sexual references at a Sept. 15 board meeting. The district said it had also received an unidentified phone complaint about the book being pornographic.
“Central Texas is one among many areas in the country that have become hotspots for these eruptions of local anger and disagreement,” PEN America’s Friedman told Austin NBC affiliate KXAN.
Friedman, who told Book and Film Globe via email that PEN America was monitoring the Leander complaints over Lawn Boy, will be discussing the school districts’ decisions with Pérez at a Banned Books Week event that will also feature Chris Tomlinson, a co-author of Forget The Alamo. That book, which argues that the familiar Alamo narrative erased the contributions of Tejano soldiers and Mexico’s push to abolish slavery, became a New York Times best-seller after Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urged the Bullock Texas State History Museum to cancel the authors’ appearance there.