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) will be inaugurated. 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. A small group of librarians were concerned about intellectual freedom threats and reached out to each other to discuss how to best 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 @FReadomfightersSubmitted Truthout. They quickly created the hashtag #Freadomfighters and launched a Twitter storm asking parents, teachers, students and librarians to tweet their legislators pictures of books that help children and teens navigate racial, gender, sexual identity, and race. 13,000 tweets were posted in just one day.

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? How to outsmart and stop bullies, and Jazz Jennings and Jessica Herthel’s I Am Jazz.

These books, along with approximately 845 other books, were written in by Krause, a State Representative. 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. Critics claim that this was implicitly a misuse 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 parent-led — No 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 is Elana Fishbein,He has worked with several right-wing legal organizations and even petitioned the Department of Justice for an investigation into materials used in public school classrooms. In a 15-page document 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’sRequest 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. Following was media and podcast appearances.

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.”

We are examining both classics and new texts

The end result is that school boards, administrators, and teachers are removing books temporarily and occasionally for short-term review. This restricts student access and a wide variety of texts.

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 OutFrom school libraries; and Gender Queer: A MemoirMaia Kobabe is currently 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 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. Caldwell Stone explained that between September 1, 2021 and December 1, 2021, there were 330 challenges to certain books. Truthout. She says that 2019 saw only 376 challenges.

Caldwell Stone sees this escalation in the context of conservatives trying 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 says, are part of conservative efforts to avoid discussions about sexuality, gender identity, and sexual behavior 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 requires parental consent before a minor receives mental, psychological, or social and/or emotional support from school personnel.

These bills are called transparency by the right. 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.”

Parents and students 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. After reading about the Texas censorship, Diffenbaugh became so angry that she created a Banned Books Reading Club for middle school and high school students in Kutztown. Lisa Diffenbaugh Diffenbaugh was a member Kutztown Organized for Educational Excellence. 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.”

In January, the Banned Books Reading Club met in a Kutztown bookstore. The first selection was Animal Farm. Joslyn states that group members are eager to read both old-challenged works and newer works. They will alternate between them. “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 is the rise of copycat book reading groups across the country.

Joslyn Diffenbaugh and Lisa Diffenbaugh are similar to Danielle Hartsfield. She is an associate professor of education at North Georgia and president of The Hartsfield Institute. Children’s Literature and Reading Special Interest Group(CLRSIG) is shocked by right-wing attempts to reduce cultural pluralism and invalidate diverse identities, as well as 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 StarfishThe story is about a bullied child because of his 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.”

She continues to warn that the current climate could limit access to books for children and young adults. “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. He explains that the Rainbow Library provides 10 sets of age-appropriate queer and Black Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC-affirming books) to schools. Most of these books are written by trans or nonbinary people.

The program was launched in Connecticut in 2019. This year, K-12 schools across 28 states will be able to receive books. Rady says teachers or school administrators need not sign up. However, once approved, they get technical assistance to reinforce best practices for supporting LGBTQIA+ youth or children who have questions about their 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.”

Rady says this affirms the effectiveness and usefulness of stocking books on controversial topics. 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 must be aware of what is happening in state legislatures, and we need to speak up. People who want schools and libraries to be open to diverse viewpoints and different concepts should be heard by elected officials. Lawmakers should hear from you that you want students learn about LGBTQIA issues, and to read books that address racism and race. They need to hear that you expect them to represent everyone in the community.”