Parents are challenging or banning books in school libraries and classrooms more than ever before, with two highly contentious works on LGBTQ identity the lead targets of conservatives’ fury.
The American Library Association’s annual “State of America’s Libraries Report” found this week that the most-cited reason for the efforts last year was sexually explicit material, but other reasons included profanity, antipolice messaging and indoctrination of social agendas.
Of 729 challenges reported last year, about 452 — or 68% — were for books taught in schools or found in school libraries, according to the library association. Thirty-seven percent were for public libraries and 1% for colleges and universities.
A total of 1,597 books were challenged or banned at public schools and libraries last year, more than double the previous year’s tally and the most since the association started tracking them. The actual number could be higher because the ALA limits its data to any “formal, written complaint” that the press or educators report.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told The Washington Times in an email that “a parent or group should not have a right to restrict through government action what another parent’s child may choose to read.”
“Banning and restricting books from libraries is a slippery slope to government censorship and the erosion of our country’s commitment to freedom of expression,” Ms. Caldwell-Stone said.
But Matthew T. Mehan, a government professor at Hillsdale College, said the challenges mean conservatives are finally paying attention to what’s being offered on bookshelves as school libraries become the latest battlefield in the fight for the hearts of American children.
“Parents across the country are waking up to the fact that children, especially young children, need innocent space to grow up happy, healthy and whole,” Mr. Mehan said.
A member of the board of advisers for Hillsdale’s K-12 classical education program, the professor added that he recently wrote a children’s book to help protect young students from “woke LGBTQ+ ideology.”
“Books that attempt to sexualize the imagination of young people, before they’re ready to make mature decisions, need to be kept out of the minds and hearts of our little ones,” Mr. Mehan said. “American families are fighting back to give their children room to grow.”
While schools have always limited their library offerings, an onslaught of new books worthy of debate landed on shelves last year.
The two most challenged books on the ALA’s list were Maia Kobabe’s comic book-style memoir, “Gender Queer,” and Jonathan Evison’s novel “Lawn Boy,” a first-person account of a young gay man’s coming of age.
Parents have objected to the graphic images of underage sex acts in “Gender Queer” and to similar descriptions in “Lawn Boy,” which they say dwells disturbingly on the attractiveness of boys.
Only the fifth-most challenged book, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, provoked conservatives for strictly nonsexual reasons: “profanity, violence, and it was thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda.”
The ALA said that, of 715 responses about who initiated challenges, about 279 — or 39% — were started by parents, with library patrons accounting for 24%, school boards or administrations 18%, political or religious groups 10%, librarians or teachers 6%, elected officials 2%, and students 1%.
More than 6 of every 10 book challenges occurred in K-12 schools, where Republican officials have focused efforts to ban many of the titles. Georgia’s Legislature passed a bill last week that would make it easier to remove books “harmful to minors.” And Republican governors in Florida, South Carolina and Virginia have supported local school board decisions to ban “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” under pressure from parents.
The library group declined to say how many challenges each book received.
But in a separate report released Thursday, the New York-based free speech advocacy group PEN America said “Gender Queer” was banned in 29 of the nation’s 13,500 public school districts and “Lawn Boy” in 16 districts from July 1 to March 31.
The authors of “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” have said in interviews that demand from school libraries rose after the ALA gave each of them an Alex Award as books “written for adults that have special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”
Jackie Farmer, a senior program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia, said the higher education advocacy group opposes efforts to ban the titles in high schools for the sake of “intellectual curiosity and freedom.”
“Identity-driven and politically motivated censorship hinders students’ ability to see themselves reflected in books and to learn about others’ experiences or opinions,” Ms. Farmer said.
But since most of the K-12 data came from school districts rather than individual campuses, the ALA said it could not easily report what share of last year’s challenges took place in high schools versus elementary and middle schools.
Parental rights advocates said most of the challenges likely involved children drawn to colorfully presented titles such as “Gender Queer” that were originally intended for adults.
And there’s nothing new about the reasons for challenging them, they added.
“Sex in some way, shape, or form always seems to be the dominant theme on this list year after year,” said Tim Benson, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heartland Institute in Illinois.
“What’s disappointing to me is that all of 2021’s entries, outside of Toni Morrison’s debut novel ‘The Bluest Eye,’ seem devoid of literary merit,” added Mr. Benson, who hosts a podcast on books. “One of them is just a comic book about being gay.”
Tamra Farah, a senior director at the conservative Moms for America, said there’s precedent for parents to battle trendy fiction they don’t want preteens and young teens borrowing from public school libraries.
She cited the Supreme Court’s 1982 divided ruling in Island Trees v. Pico that let stand a school board’s ban of several books — including Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” — that some parents called “anti-American, anti-Christian, antisemitic and just plain filthy.”
“The justices issued a plurality opinion, which allowed school officials to remove a book from a school library if it is inappropriate for the children of the school, including books with sexual and violent content,” Ms. Farah said.
• Sean Salai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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