A shameful 12 months for book banners
At the end of 2021, censorship watchers called the preceding 12 months a “full-blown crisis” of attacks on intellectual freedom. A year later, it’s only gotten worse.
Book banning has continued to spread and spiral at unprecedented rates, with ripple effects that have impacted curriculums, programming and public libraries as well as the contents of school bookshelves.
This year also saw more organized efforts to fight back. Groups like PEN America and We Need Diverse Books launched larger national anti-censorship efforts, and statewide grassroots organizations like the Florida Freedom to Read Project joined the Texas-born FReadom Fighters as linchpins of advocacy.
“When books are removed or flagged as inappropriate, it sends the message that the people in them are somehow inappropriate. It is a dehumanizing form of erasure,” the letter reads. “Every reader deserves to see themselves and their families positively represented in the books in their schools.”
Yet that representation increasingly came under attack in 2022.
“More books banned. More districts. More states. More students losing access to literature. ‘More’ is the operative word for this report on school book bans,” noted PEN America in a September report. Between July 2021 and July 2022, the group recorded 2,532 banning incidents affecting 1,648 unique titles. Texas racked up the most bans, according to the report.
Most targeted books featured LGBTQ characters or themes, or stories containing main or supporting characters of color, the report found. One in five featured issues of race or racism, and 22 percent contained some sexual content.
Book banning took center stage in several school board races across the country this past year. Conservative candidates, many backed by far-right group Moms for Liberty, stoked fear by insisting that “pornography” existed on school shelves, there for the taking. The strategy worked in places like north Texas, where money from conservative groups like the Patriot Mobile cellphone company helped propel candidates onto the dais who weren’t afraid of changing the rules to make censorship easier.
“We went out and found 11 candidates last cycle and we supported them, and we won every seat. We took over four school boards,” Patriot Mobile president Glenn Story told a conservative political conference in August.
One of those was Keller ISD in suburban Fort Worth, where the new board promptly passed a policy requiring all previously challenged books to undergo another round of review. The result: A day before classes began, teachers pulled any copies of 41 titles off shelves, including award-winners like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and a graphic-novel adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. By November, the board had voted to ban any library materials that contained “gender fluidity.” The ACLU’s Texas arm pushed back, filing a complaint with the federal Office of Civil Rights that argued “The policy is discriminatory … the policy attempts to erase the existence of transgender and non-binary individuals.”
Duval County, Fla., is another censorship hot spot. The Jacksonville-area school district spent millions on multiple sets of the “Essential Voices” classroom libraries for its K-5 students in the summer of 2021. But by the time they arrived in January, administrators told schools to put the books away until officials could “review” them for any objectionable content.
Copies of more than 170 titles remain in warehouses nearly a year later, with district officials saying they are “under review.” Among them: Shana Corey’s biography Malala: A Hero For All, Steffi Cavell-Clarke’s Celebrating Different Beliefs, and Linda Sue Park’s Nya’s Long Walk, a picture-book companion to her best-selling A Long Walk to Water.
Park was among the authors who traveled to Duval County to speak at the Dec. 7 school board meeting, along with 100 local activists. “This book was requested by educators … the Essential Voices collection of books has been vetted by education, curriculum and literacy experts who care deeply about children,” she said.
We Need Diverse Books co-founder and CEO Ellen Oh also joined Park in testifying. The national non-profit launched its Books Save Lives campaign in December to raise both awareness and money. The group will use the funds to offer grants so schools can buy diverse books. It will also support diverse writers with book purchases, publicity campaigns for challenged titles and paid school visits.
The latter have become an insurmountable hurdle for some authors. Not only are schools pulling their books from shelves and lessons, invitations are evaporating. In some cases, schools are asking authors not to talk about some of their books during visits. Other growing forms of “soft censorship” include requiring students to get permission before reading certain titles or having parents “opt in” to unlimited library access. Watchdogs have found such restrictive policies in states that include Utah, Virginia, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Florida and California.
Censors “have been able to seize control of the process and really cause a moral panic over books that are both age- and developmentally appropriate but address topics they disagree with,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told The 19th.
Moral panic gave way to outright threats as the year wore on, with public libraries in at least six states closing for a day or more due to warnings of impending violence. During observance of Banned Books Week in September, library systems in Fort Worth, Denver and Nashville all shut down branches after receiving threats. The ALA called on the FBI to investigate.
And there were more permanent developments. In Idaho, four Boundary County Library employees, including the director, resigned after facing harassment and threats over Gender Queer, Maia Kobabe’s graphic memoir and a frequent target of censors. (The book wasn’t on the library’s shelves, but the director told a patron she could arrange to get a copy upon request.) A library in Jamestown, Mich., lost its funding after employees refused to remove all LGBTQ+ titles from shelves. “A local tragedy with national implications, the Patmos Library is the only library in the country that has essentially been defunded by the vote of its citizens due to its refusal to comply with censorship,” the Michigan Library Association said in a Nov. 14 statement.
As 2023 nears, it’s hard not to wonder how far the next wave of censorship will go–and how many will suffer as a result.
“I want to remind the board here that you care about the children. All of the children,” We Need Diverse Book’s Oh said during her testimony to the Duval County school board “And I want to emphasize the word ‘all,’ not just some kids whose parents you might be afraid of upsetting.”