As the Right Censors Public Libraries, Families Are Forming Banned Book Clubs

In October 2021, Texas Rep. Matt Krause, Republican chair of the House General Investigation Committee, sent a letter to state education authorities asking them if their school libraries stocked any of the 850 “divisive” books on a list he’d compiled. Concerned about threats to intellectual freedom, a small group of librarians reached out to one another to discuss how best to respond.

“We felt we needed to speak out, support the right to read, and uplift librarians who might be feeling pressured to remove books from their shelves,” Carolyn Foote, a retired Texas librarian and spokesperson for @FReadomfighters told Truthout. They quickly created the #Freadomfighters hashtag and mounted a Twitter storm, urging parents, teachers, students, librarians and concerned Texans to tweet their legislators with pictures of books that help children and teens navigate race, racism, gender, gender identity and sexuality. In one day alone, 13,000 tweets were sent.

The massive outpouring was “unbelievable,” Foote says, but was also proof that many Texas residents were eager to push back against right-wing efforts to control and suppress literature for children and teens.

Many Texans saw Krause’s list as a wake-up call and expressed shock that it included such a wide range of books: John Irving’s Cider House Rules, William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner, Alex Gino’s George, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Louise A. Spilsbury’s Avoiding Bullies? Skills to Outsmart and Stop Them, and Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel’s I Am Jazz.

These books, and approximately 845 others, State Representative Krause wrote in his letter, were concerning to him because they “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress because of their race or sex.” While the missive did not explicitly direct districts to remove the books, it asked school superintendents to report how much they’d spent to purchase the offending texts. Implicit, critics charge, was that these expenditures represented a misuse of tax dollars.

Texas, of course, is not the only place where children’s reading materials are being scrutinized or where right-wing groups are attempting to restrict what children can access. In fact, organizations purporting to be grassroots and parent-ledNo Left Turn in Education, Moms for Liberty and Parents Defending Education are the most prominent — have demanded that particular books be removed from public and school libraries in almost every state.

No Left Turn in Education, whose executive director, Elana Fishbein, has worked with several established right-wing legal entities, even petitioned the Department of Justice to investigate the materials used in public schools. In a 15-page letter sent to Attorney General Merrick Garland on January 5, Fishbein wrote that public elementary and secondary schools “have edged into depravity actionable under the law.” The letter asks Garland and the DOJ to “pursue, contain and ultimately eliminate the distribution of pornography in public institutions serving minors.” (No Left Turn did not respond to Truthout’s request for an interview).

Social media and mainstream media echo chambers then repeated the charge that porn is pervasive in classrooms throughout the country, an assertion that sent fans of the right into a frenzy of letter writing to school boards and school superintendents throughout the country — and appearances at school board meetings to demand the removal of “offensive” texts. Media and podcast appearances followed.

Project 21, a group of Black conservatives who operate under the aegis of the National Center for Public Policy Research, was just one of the groups that got on board, releasing a statement on its website stating that, “Children are being taught pornography…. Children are being taught victimhood. Bastardized [United States] history…. Parents have discovered that their children are learning divisive Critical Race Theory (CRT) and being exposed to sexualized content.”

Classics and New Texts Are Being Scrutinized

The upshot is that school boards and administrators are removing books, sometimes permanently and sometimes for short-term review, and are limiting student access to a wide array of texts, among them many award-winning titles that are intended to provoke curiosity and spark additional inquiry.

To wit: Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is no longer required reading in Mukilteo, Washington; the school board in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, has removed Susan Kuklin’s Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out from school libraries; and Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe is now under review in Pella, Iowa.

Other frequently challenged children’s and young adult titles include: Mildred Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; Leslea Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies; Anastasia Higginbotham’s Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness; Eve Merriam’s The Inner City Mother Goose; Lois Lowry’s The Giver; Robie Harris’s It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex and Sexual Health; Judy Blume’s Blubber and Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Tiffany Rose’s M Is for Melanin: A Celebration of the Black Child; Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming; Tiffany Jewell’s This Book is Anti-Racist; Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You and Kendi’s Antiracist Baby; Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give; and Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak.

And that’s just the tip of the censorship iceberg.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, notes that right-wing censorship efforts have ramped up since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between September 1 and December 1, 2021, the Library Association recorded 330 challenges to particular books, Caldwell-Stone told Truthout. In 2019, there were just 376 challenges for the entire year, she says.

Caldwell-Stone sees this escalation as a way for conservatives to try to control, and limit, what students learn. “The attempt is based on the myth that the U.S. is a monocultural society, but libraries and schools serve diverse populations,” she says. “The right wing is pushing back against efforts to be inclusive.”

These efforts, she continues, are presented as a matter of parental rights, and are part of longstanding conservative efforts to sidestep discussions of sexuality, sexual behavior and gender identity in public school classrooms. Now, she says, the furor over CRT — which has never been part of the K-12 curriculum — has created a backlash that has lawmakers chomping at the bit to prove their right-wing bona fides.

“In Florida, Oklahoma and Tennessee lawmakers have passed bills to ban instruction of ‘divisive’ concepts or ‘divisive’ content,” Caldwell-Stone says. “Statutes that deem certain materials ‘harmful to minors’ are also now being used to accuse schools and libraries of pandering obscenity. We’re currently tracking 13 such bills in states including Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma.”

Senate Bill 17 in Indiana, she continues, will, if passed, allow parents to sue schools — pre-K through college level — for disseminating materials that they consider “harmful to minors.” A companion bill, SB 167, will allow parental input into all curricula, ostensibly to weed out CRT or other “divisive” topics. The bill also mandates parental consent before a minor can receive mental health, psychological or social and emotional support from school personnel.

The right calls these bills a move toward transparency. But librarian Foote of @FReadomfighters cautions that progressives need to be mindful not to “present as opposed to openness. It’s important,” she says, “to figure out how to speak about this so that we’re not positioned as favoring opaqueness or secrecy. The focus needs to stay on censorship, the desire of some parents to control what all children can read.”

Students and Parents Form Banned Book Clubs

That idea that a stranger will decide what she can or can’t read angers 14-year-old eighth-grader Joslyn Diffenbaugh. In fact, Diffenbaugh became so incensed that she formed a Banned Books Reading Club for middle and high school students in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, after reading about censorship efforts in Texas and elsewhere. Her mother, Lisa Diffenbaugh, a member of Kutztown Organized for Educational Excellence, told Truthout that while she and her daughter believe that parents can try to restrict what their children read, “They don’t have the right to restrict what other kids can read.”

The Banned Books Reading Club began meeting in a Kutztown bookstore in early January. Its first selection was Animal Farm. Group members are eager to read both long-challenged and newly challenged works, Joslyn says, and will alternate between the two categories. “The response has been amazing,” she says. “Teachers are glad we’ll have an opportunity to read these books.” In addition, donations have poured in, allowing the book shop to provide free copies of the readings to group participants. Even more encouraging, copycat banned book reading groups are popping up throughout the country.

Like Joslyn and Lisa Diffenbaugh, Danielle Hartsfield, an associate professor of education at the University of North Georgia and president of the Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group (CLRSIG), is appalled by right-wing efforts to diminish cultural pluralism, invalidate diverse identities and censor books. Toward that end, CLRSIG, she says, trumpets 25 “Notable Books for a Global Society” annually.

“We honor all forms of human diversity,” Hartsfield told Truthout. “This is why we included Lisa Fipps’s Starfish, about a child who is bullied because of body size. If you don’t see yourself in literature, it’s as if you don’t matter. This is why children need books that are both windows into other cultures and mirrors that reflect them.”

But the current climate, she continues, threatens to stifle which books children and young adults can access. “Trump stirred the pot of open hatred. I was hoping people would step back once he was out of office, but the culture of othering those who are in any way different has become normalized.”

This is where the Rainbow Library created by GLSEN — a national advocacy group focused on LGBTQ issues in K-12 education — comes in. Program Manager Michael Rady notes that while attempts to ban queer-affirming books in public schools are nothing new, ramped up efforts from “right-wing sources seeking to censor queer-affirming and Black and Brown-affirming books” has made GLSEN’s work increasingly important. The Rainbow Library, he explains, provides sets of 10 age-appropriate queer and Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC)-affirming books to schools, most of them written by trans, nonbinary, or authors of color.

The program began in Connecticut in 2019; this year, K-12 schools in 28 states will receive books. Teachers or school administrators need to sign up for the program, Rady says, but once approved, they receive technical assistance to reinforce best practices in supporting LGBTQIA+ kids or kids who have questions about gender, sexual identity or sexuality.

“We communicate about the student right to read in a series of online workshops,” Rady says, and talk about the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Island Trees v. Pico. In that decision, SCOTUS determined that, “Although school boards have a vested interest in promoting respect for social, moral and political community values, their discretionary power is secondary to the transcendent imperative of the First Amendment.”

This affirms the efficacy of stocking books that tackle topics that some consider controversial, Rady says. What’s more, “The Rainbow Library highlights the specific importance of having queer and Black and Brown-affirming books in their libraries.”

Rady makes clear that providing books through GLSEN’s Rainbow Library program can be life-saving for marginalized queer and BIPOC youth, who are looking to understand their feelings and desires. He says that he is pleased with the program’s growth to date and is encouraged by kids like Joslyn Diffenbaugh who are denouncing censorship and committing to reading and distributing banned books.

The Library Association’s Caldwell-Stone agrees but knows that the battle ahead will not be easy. “Progressives need to pay attention,” she says, “and show up at school board and library board meetings. We need to watch what is happening in state legislatures and speak up. Elected officials need to hear from people who want schools and libraries to provide access to diverse viewpoints and diverse concepts. Lawmakers need to hear that you want students to learn about LGBTQIA issues and read books that address race and racism. They need to hear that you expect them to represent everyone in the community.”