When right-wing activists got wind that a fall 2021 display of graphic novels at North Kingstown High School in Rhode Island included Maia Kobabe’s award-winning Gender Queer: A Memoir, they quickly demanded that the book be removed, filing an official complaint with the local school board.
Opponents of the book also submitted a second complaint to the police charging that school librarians were distributing pornography to minors.
Pamela Rowland, a library media specialist at the school, calls the months of drama that unfolded in the aftermath of the complaints — which reportedly came from parents of teens at the high school — “laughable,” and says that the objection came to naught.
“I am not a young woman and neither is our school principal, so when a young male police officer came into the school to interview us — two women old enough to be his grandmother — about promoting porn, well, it was absurd and nothing came of the complaints,” Rowland told Truthout.
What’s more, she says that for a while after the brouhaha began, the library maintained a waiting list of students eager to read Gender Queer. “After an anonymous donor gave us money, we were able to buy additional copies of the book,” she said. “This gave everyone who wanted to see what the fuss was about easy and quick access to it.”
“Our school board, school principal and district superintendent were 100 percent behind me,” Rowland added. “Right now, the protests have quieted down and the right’s candidates for school board lost the election in November.”
But this outcome, however encouraging, is unusual.
In other parts of the country, school librarians are facing a far different reality, one in which objections to books giving students access to information about racism, LGBTQIA life and an accurate assessment of U.S. history have led to right-wing calls for book banning and censorship. In many locales, contested school board elections — and disruptive school board meetings — have become routine.
According to an April 2022 report from PEN America, a 100-year-old group promoting freedom of expression and human rights, between July 2021 and June 2022, 5,049 public schools in 138 school districts in 32 states engaged in book banning. Most of the banned titles address race, gender, sexuality or portray the U.S. in ways the right finds objectionable. Frequent targets include Kobabe’s Gender Queer, Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian, George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Ashley Hope Perez’s Out of Darkness and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give.
According to Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education at PEN America, the most prominent proponents of book banning — members of local chapters of groups such as Parents Defending Education, Parents Rights in Education, US Parents Involved in Education, No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty — are zealots.
“They think it is their moral duty to remove books they find offensive from as many places as possible, whether that’s a public school library, a classroom library or a public library,” he told Truthout. “These groups work in tandem. They direct each other to each other’s stuff. This does not happen by accident. The copycatting is leading to the same books being challenged in many places at once.”
Friedman called school book bans “political opportunism,” and said the right is using them to impose a right-wing agenda that erodes public education.
“Moms for Liberty or their aligned candidates were elected to school boards in several districts in Florida and in one district in South Carolina in November,” he said. “After winning a majority of seats in Berkeley, South Carolina, they used their first meeting to fire the school system’s general counsel and school superintendent.” Similarly, the election of a right-wing attorney general in Louisiana led to the creation of a tip line to “snitch on school and public librarians” who refuse to remove books they oppose.
And it’s getting worse: The frequency and volume of the attacks has escalated, Friedman said. In 2021, about 10 different titles were routinely pulled from school libraries. “Now,” he explained, “in places where the right has power, it’s 100 books being pulled.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, calls this “an attack on knowledge and critical thinking.”
“The attempt to limit inclusivity and pluralism comes out of an autocratic playbook,” she told Truthout, and it “reflects an effort to limit information that can lead to empathy for people with a worldview that is different from yours.”
This is done using a multitude of tactics.
Carolyn Foote, a retired Texas librarian and the cofounder of #FReadom Fighters, a largely online group advocating against book bans and censorship, told Truthout that school districts across the country are rewriting school policies for how books can be challenged and limiting how, or if, librarians can order new materials.
“In some districts the school board has decided that any book that references alcohol use or sex has to be taken off library shelves. In other places it’s books they think teach critical race theory” or that they believe “groom” children to be gay or trans, Foote said.
Other policies, she continued, include requiring parents to opt-in or opt-out of library access. “This means that districts have a piecemeal approach to education, so that depending on where a student happens to live, they have different access to information for Advanced Placement tests, college applications or job credentialing.”
Students, of course, bear the brunt of these policies, but librarians, too, are grappling with the lack of consistency.
“In some cases, librarians are barred from ordering books and have to follow procedures for what can be placed on shelves. They’ve had to remove books because of new rules about what is permissible; this puts a huge emotional strain on them. If they want to keep their jobs, they may have to follow policies and remove books that they know should be available. Not everyone can quit their jobs, or change careers, so they have to comply. This leaves them feeling demoralized,” said Foote.
Elissa Malespina knows this feeling well. She was fired from her position as a teacher-librarian at Verona High School in New Jersey in April 2022.
“I had gotten good annual evaluations during my first two years at the school, but in April I was told by the principal that they were not renewing my contract. He said that my book displays were too focused on LGBTQIA issues and racial equity. I was blindsided. I ended up having a huge panic attack and then went into a severe depression that led me to take medical leave for the remainder of the academic year,” Malespina told Truthout.
She now considers herself lucky to have secured a job at New Jersey’s Union High School, which she began in September. “Thankfully, the district is very supportive of me and of LGBTQIA and racial justice,” she said, “but this is not just about books. It is about making students feel that they belong.”
Samantha Hull, supervisor of libraries for the Ephrata School District in Pennsylvania, stressed the importance of belonging when she testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform earlier this year.
“The ability to learn about and appreciate the diversity of human experience, perspective and opinion is crucial to gaining a sense of belonging,” she told the committee. “We can gain this ability through our access to books.… Children’s literature provides a wider perspective on their world and serves to help students better understand themselves and those around them.”
But how best to protect and defend every student’s right to read?
“Libraries are institutions of inclusion and learning,” Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, president of the American Library Association (ALA), told Truthout. “Every story is not for every reader, but every reader deserves to find stories and histories that speak to them and their experience.”
She and the ALA are urging everyone who cares about free expression to join the association’s campaign against book bans and speak out against censorship.
“Students need and want diverse books and they need to tell lawmakers about how a particular book impacted them. This can be an effective counter to the right,” Pelayo-Lozada said.
Parents, she added, can also be effective advocates, especially since most oppose censorship and book restrictions. In fact, an ALA survey conducted in March 2022 found that 71 percent of adults oppose removing books from public libraries. A majority also oppose restrictions on what books can and can’t be accessed in school libraries.
“The right is using libraries as a pawn to attack and break down public education,” Pelayo-Lozada said. “They also want to eliminate public libraries. There is something in every library for every person and we need to talk to parents and help them understand this.”
Patrick Sweeney, political director of EveryLibrary, a pro-library political action committee, agreed and said the right’s arguments about some books being obscene, divisive or inappropriate for children fall apart when review committees actually read the targeted texts. “When they read these books, they realize that they are positive, helping children make good decisions about their bodies and lives and showcasing adults who can help them with whatever issues are troubling them.”
Asked why the right has made so much headway, Sweeney said conservatives’ success comes down to their simple, misleading messaging.
“They can say, ‘We can’t let children access pornography in schools.’ It doesn’t matter that the books they’re critiquing are not pornographic. People respond to the message and send money. But when there’s a robust, serious process for reviewing books, the right’s arguments come apart and the books remain on the shelves. At the same time, librarians are being doxxed, and in some places the school principal is simply walking into a library and removing books to avoid controversy,” he said.
School libraries are an easy target, he continued, and while he is cheered that some librarians, students and parents have begun to fight book bans and censorship, he conceded that the right has succeeded in restricting what many children and young adults can find in their school libraries.
A report released by School Library Journal in September found that 50 percent of school librarians said they self-censor and consider the potential of a negative response to controversial topics before ordering a book. Calling this “a perilous time for school librarians,” the report found that only 3 percent of librarians said they never let subject matter interfere with purchasing decisions.
It’s no wonder that many librarians are on edge, given the rising threat of extremist violence against them. And that’s not their only worry. A 2021 study conducted by the American Library Association noted that by 2019 there were 19.5 percent fewer public school libraries than there were a decade before, with many rural and low-income communities shuttering their collections because of budget cuts.