Briefing

Battling over books

Conservative groups and Republican officials are campaigning to ban books from schools and libraries.

Conservative groups and Republican officials are campaigning to ban books from schools and libraries. Here's everything you need to know:

Is this campaign new?

Attempts to ban books have gone on for decades, but free-speech advocates say the scale of the current effort is unprecedented in this country. In many states, angry parents have filled school board meetings with lists of dozens of books and demands they be purged from classroom and libraries. Most deal with racial issues, homosexuality, and gender. A report by PEN America found 2,532 instances of book banning in 32 states during the past school year. The American Library Association (ALA) counted nearly 1,600 different books — most dealing with race and LGBTQ issues — targeted for bans or restrictions last year, the most in the 20 years they've tracked such efforts. PEN counted more than 50 groups fighting to ban books, including Moms for Liberty, which since its founding in 2020 has grown to nearly 100,000 members in 38 states. Governors, state legislatures, and local officials have joined in the effort.

Where has that happened? 

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott has called for criminal charges against school staffers who allow children access to books deemed "pornographic"; Oklahoma passed a law removing protection against prosecution for teachers and librarians who distribute "obscene material." In March, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a law that bans schools from using books that are "pornographic" or age "inappropriate" and expands parents' ability to challenge books used in classrooms or available in school libraries. In San Antonio, school administrators had librarians pull more than 400 titles dealing with race, sexuality, and gender off the shelves after a Republican state representative, Matt Krause, made a list of 850 objectionable titles and asked school districts to investigate whether their libraries stocked them. Ban opponents say that's part of a growing trend of "soft censorship" — administrators and librarians quietly removing books they fear might draw conservative scrutiny.

What books are being targeted?

About 40 percent of banned books address LGBTQ themes or have prominent LGBTQ characters, according to PEN. The most-banned books include Maia Kobabe's Gender Queer, a graphic novel about a nonbinary teen, and George M. Johnson's All Boys Aren't Blue, a memoir about growing up Black and queer. Those books include passages about masturbation, oral and anal sex, and sexual assault. Opponents say such content is inappropriate for young people, and that access should be a matter of parental choice. "I would like to protect my kids' hearts and minds from this," said Jennifer Adler, a mother of five in Katy, Texas, referring to It's Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts) by Lev A.C. Rosen, a graphically sexual book about a cross-dressing gay teen. But others say the main objection to such books is discussion of LGBTQ matters that, as Amber Kaul, a bisexual student in Katy, put it, shows gay, trans, and nonbinary kids that their feelings "are valid and OK." Some of the most frequently targeted books have no sexual content but draw fire for their discussions of racism.

How often is race the issue? 

One in five challenged books falls into this category, according to PEN. Books in conservative crosshairs include Ruby Bridges Goes to School, a child's book about the first Black child to integrate a new school, biographies of Nelson Mandela and Duke Ellington, and How to Be an Antiracist, by Ibram X. Kendi. One of the most-banned books last year, according to the ALA, was Angie Thomas' The Hate U Give, about a Black teen whose friend is shot by a police officer during a traffic stop. The list made by Krause, the Texas state representative, targets any books that might "make students feel discomfort...because of their race," including William Styron's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner and Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, a critically lauded book on Coates' struggles with racism, written as a letter to his 15-year-old son.

Is there pushback on the bans?

Yes, and the battle over books is heating up. Last month a House committee held a hearing where witnesses included librarians, teachers, and students. Committee chair Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) called book bans "a hallmark of authoritarian regimes." In some communities, parents and students have mobilized to fight bans. In York, Pennsylvania, a coalition successfully fought back after the school board banned numerous books dealing with racial matters, including children's books about civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Similar efforts have succeeded in Annandale, New Jersey, Round Rock, Texas, and Milford, Ohio. Free-speech advocates say that a silent majority does not agree with censorship, and they must speak up or a loud minority will dictate what books and ideas are off-limits. "Now is the time to start building those communities," said Round Rock parent Natosha Daniels. "You're going to need to band together to fight what is coming down."

Librarians in the crosshairs

When Martha Hickson, a high school librarian in Annandale, New Jersey, tuned in to a school board meeting where parents were demanding the removal of several LGBTQ-themed young-adult books with explicit sexual content, she was left "absolutely stunned." A woman in the angry crowd called her out personally, branding her a "pedophile" and "a pornographer," said Hickson, 62. She's one of a growing number of librarians dismayed to find themselves personally targeted amid battles over books. They're being harassed on social media, publicly named and attacked by conservative officials, and even reported to law enforcement; some fear it's just a matter of time before a local police department arrests a librarian or teacher. Some have quit under the strain; others say they've removed books or chosen not to order certain titles that might draw ­scrutiny — an invisible form of censorship. Librarians and teachers are "making decisions out of fear," said Sarah Chase, a veteran librarian in Southlake, Texas, who took early retirement last year. "Who wants to be accused of being a pedophile or reported to the police for putting a book in a kid's hand?"

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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