Why Ban Jodi Picoult?
Bestselling author–not of “adult romances”–finds herself caught up in the latest round of school censorship frenzy
The newest name fighting book bans is a familiar one. Bestselling author Jodi Picoult recently saw 20 of her titles fall victim to Florida’s censorship frenzy.
Since mid-March, Picoult has warned about the dangers of banning on CNN, on Good Morning America, and in The Daily Beast. Her comments bear out new statistics from the American Library Association that confirm another record-breaking spike in bans.
And there’s no sign of slowing, as proposals in Congress and multiple state legislatures move forward with provisions that would further codify censorship in schools.
Picoult’s advocacy is a peek into the machine that removes books from student access swiftly and with minimal review. It’s affected high-profile authors like Picoult, James Patterson and Maus creator Art Spiegelman. But much more commonly, censorship impacts less familiar writers, often those who are part of or write about LGBTQ, Black, Muslim or other marginalized communities.
The American Library Association documented 1,269 censorship attempts in 2022, nearly twice its 2021 tallyand the highest number since the group began tracking such data two decades ago. And 40 percent of the books challenged were part of mass efforts that affected 100 or more titles at a time, the group found.
“A book challenge is a demand to remove a book from a library’s collection so that no one else can read it. Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing these challenges come from organized censorship groups that target local library board meetings to demand removal of a long list of books they share on social media,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, in a March 22 statement accompanying the new data’s release.
That might be Moms for Liberty, Florida Citizens Alliance or Utah Parents United, all groups that share lists of books they claim contain inappropriate content. Coordinated attacks mean speakers at board meetings and those filling out challenge forms often quote the same out-of-context passages, using inflammatory and inaccurate terms like pornography and indoctrination.
In Picoult’s case, it was a parent–also the head of the local chapter of Moms for Liberty–who filed challenge forms charging that Picoult’s books were “adult romance” that don’t belong in schools.
“And the one parent who wanted to ban all 20 of my books said on her form that she had not read the book, she admitted to that,” Picoult said on Good Morning America. “And she said that some of them were adult romance, which is really interesting because I don’t write adult romance. And, in fact, half of the books she pulled do not even have a single kiss in them. But they do have topics like gun rights and women’s reproductive health rights and gay rights.”
Picoult’s books include Handle With Care, which explores issues of disability and reproductive rights, and Keeping Faith, about a little girl who suddenly begins quoting from the Bible and calls God an imaginary friend. But the targeted title that most surprised her? The Holocaust-themed The Storyteller.
“It chronicles the growth of anti-Semitism and fascism in Nazi Germany,” she wrote in a March 12 column for The Daily Beast. “There was a strange irony that a parent wanted this particular book removed, because it felt a bit like history repeating itself.”
As Picoult raises awareness, federal and state Republican lawmakers continue to push proposals that would curtail student access to books.
Republicans passed the “Parental Rights Bill” in the U.S. House, which would require school districts to share with parents a list of all books available in campus libraries — presumably, something different than the online searchable databases that already exist.
In Arizona, Republicans passed a measure requiring the state’s Department of Education to maintain a list of books banned from any use in schools, ones that include “gender pronouns” or “groom children into normalizing pedophilia.” Bill sponsor Justine Wadsack, who insistently tweeted that she and others are fighting against the nationwide grooming of children, singled out Beyond Magenta as an example of a book with problematic content, before admitting that she had not actually read Beyond Magenta. Texas Republicans want statewide mandates prohibiting some books with sexual content, a debate that included a discussion of whether Lone Star classic Lonesome Dove would run afoul of the proposed language.
Back in Florida, where headlines captured a dust-up over Michelangelo’s David, Republicans tucked a provision into new legislation that would require books or other instructional materials that depict “sexual” or “pornographic” content to disappear from shelves while required reviews happen. The measure, at odds with the American Library Association’s recommended review policies, creates a new pathway to pull even more books from shelves.
It all adds up to “the broadest attack on First Amendment rights in schools and universities this country has seen in generations,” said Nadine Farid Johnson, PEN America’s managing director for Washington and free expression programs. Johnson testified March 28 before a subcommittee of the U.S. House’s Judiciary Committee.
What’s happening “is not just parents being involved in their children’s classrooms,” she said. “It is instead an effort to impose the wishes of a few onto entire communities, by enlisting the government to act as a proxy and engage in censorship on their behalf.”