Attacks on Student Access to Books Ramping up Nationwide

An unprecedented wave of censorship attempts

Attacks on student access to books are multiplying across the United States, as authors, librarians and other advocates gird their defenses.

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Newly anointed National Book Award winner Malinda Lo urged listeners to pay attention to local school board races in her acceptance speech Nov. 17.

“2022 is coming and we need your support to keep our stories on the shelves. Don’t let them erase us,” said Lo, whose Last Night At the Telegraph Club won top honors for young people’s literature and is also on a list of books challenged by parents in Texas’ Keller ISD.

The American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, which tracks book challenges, recorded a 60 percent increase in complaints in September 2021 compared with 2020. And in just the past few weeks, censorship attempts have mushroomed well beyond a few parents complaining in viral video rants.

Organized efforts, in some cases from top state officials, are targeting hundreds of books. Elected officials are filing police complaints. At least two school board members are unafraid to call for burning books.

In Spotsylvania, Va., the school board voted unanimously to remove books with “explicit” content from its school libraries. Prompted by a parent complaint about a title with LGBTQ content, the board also voted to request a full accounting of potentially problematic books from the district’s schools. After pushback, the panel changed its collective mind the next week, but not before two board members suggested that books deemed offensive should be torched.

“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” board member Rabih Abuismail said. Fellow board member Kirk Twigg counseled that some wanted to “see the books before we burn them so we can identify within our community that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”

After a community outcry, including a petition that garnered more than 6,000 signatures, the board voted to restore the books to shelves, although Abuismail and Twigg voted against doing so.

censorship

In Florida, a Flagler County school board member has filed a criminal complaint with the sheriff’s office over George M. Johnson’s best-selling and award-winning 2020 memoir All Boys Aren’t Blue. Johnson is adapting their young-adult book, a collection of essays about their experiences growing up Black and queer, into a TV series for Sony Pictures with producer/actor Gabrielle Union.

“This book needs to be investigated as a crime in our media center,” school board member Jill Woolbright told the Palm Coast Observer.

Parents are getting organized

Parents are still complaining too, just in more organized fashion. Moms for Liberty, a group founded by two former Florida school board members “to stand up for parental rights at all levels of government,” has encouraged its flock to fight titles they deem troublesome. “Our goal is to have a Moms for Liberty member at every school board meeting across the nation until the end of time,” the group posted Nov. 10 on Facebook.

In Tennessee, a group member said Duncan Tonatiuh’s 2014 picture book Separate Is Never Equal, about the court case that integrated southern California schools, shouldn’t be part of the second-grade curriculum. Its New Hampshire outpost offered a $500 bounty for the first parent who “caught” a public-school teacher breaking the state’s new law that purports to ban “divisive” discussions of racism.

In Indian River County, Fla., the Moms for Liberty chapter led a crusade against All Boys Aren’t Blue and 27 other books the chapter’s leader said students shouldn’t have access to in schools. One commenter urged like-minded parents to search their schools’ library listings for All Boys Aren’t Blue and others that have repeatedly popped up in complaints, including Lawn Boy and Out of Darkness, taking parents through a tutorial on searching Follett library software.

Johnson is one of several authors pushing back against these ballooning censorship efforts. In a video posted to TikTok and Twitter, they shared four ways to support banned authors, such as correcting inaccurate characterizations of books and contacting school boards.

“Black authors, Black queer authors, and all authors are currently under attack,” Johnson said. “We must make sure that we are raising our voices to stop this kind of erasure from ever happening to us again.”

Ashley Hope Pérez, the author of Out of Darkness, called for clarity and action in a lengthy Nov. 13 Twitter thread.

“We need to unite behind a clear, forceful message,” she wrote. “First: This is not just an attack on books. It’s an attack on kids. It’s an attack on schools. It’s an effort to paint teachers and librarians as ‘the enemy.’”

She encouraged advocates to contact school leaders and school boards with messages supporting inclusive libraries before complaints occur, and echoed librarians’ calls for reviewing acquisitions policies.

Students continue to fight censorship as well. One recent example: In Flagler County, students organized a donation drive to purchase copies of All Boys Aren’t Blue in advance of an anti-censorship rally at the school board’s Nov. 16 meeting.

And national organizations are ramping up their efforts. PEN America mobilized early to push back against censorship in school districts outside of Austin, Texas, and has continued to lobby against book bans in several states. The National Coalition Against Censorship has sent letters opposing bans to school districts in Pennsylvania, Utah and Missouri as part of its ongoing advocacy.

“The onslaught of book bans happening right now feels different than what we’ve seen in recent years,” the NCAC tweeted Nov. 11. “Especially in the context of recent legislative attempts to control school curricula, it feels like an overarching attempt to purge schools of materials that people disagree with.”

 

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

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