War of words: The fight over banning books
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“Catch-22,” Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” “The Great Gatsby,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” “Lord of the Flies,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” … classics, and every one of them banned in some places. Said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, “There was somebody who objected to the profanity, or the challenge to the status quo.”
The Chicago Public Library put them on display, in defiance of efforts nationwide to ban books.
Caldwell-Stone’s job is to know what’s being targeted: “LGBTQIA books. Books [opponents] deemed to be critical race theory, but were actually books on the history of race, racism, slavery in the United States, or representing Black voices, were overwhelmingly being targeted by these demands to remove books.”
On Monday, the American Library Association will announce the Most Challenged Books of 2022. Race, controversial aspects of history, vulgarity and violence may be red flags found in a number of books already challenged or banned, but sex and gender are now overwhelmingly the subject matter being attacked, with such books as Juno Dawson’s “This Book Is Gay” and Jonathan Evison’s “Lawn Boy” targeted – ammunition for Florida’s Republican Governor Ron Desantis’ war on “woke,” which he described in a speech on March 8: “Parents, in their sending kids to school, shouldn’t have to worry about this garbage being in the schools.”
Books like Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer,” an intensely polarizing exploration of gender identity, are at the center of the book battles. “It is a graphic novel, so certainly it’s more in-your-face,” said Caldwell-Stone. “But it’s not intended to titillate; it’s intended to provide a window into one person’s experience, not knowing their gender identity and needing to explore that.”
According to the American Library Association, between 2020 and 2022, the number of individual titles banned spiked more than 1,100%, from 223 to 2,571.
Since 2021, school districts have challenged books in 37 states, with Florida and Texas leading the pack, according to PEN America. Caldwell-Stone said, “These were organized efforts by groups of parents arguing about parents’ rights. Moms for Liberty soon came to prominence as a group that was driving a lot of book challenges in local communities.”
Founded in 2021 by Tiffany Justice and Tina Descovich, both former Florida school board members, the group Moms for Liberty now claims 275 chapters in 45 states, with 115,000 members and counting.
“Never bet against a mom,” said Justice. “Nobody’s going to defend anything like a mom is going to defend their child.”
The two described themselves as “joyful warriors.” Their aim: to play hardball, with a smile. “We want people who are serving in elected office that respect the role of the parent in a child’s life,” said Justice.
Descovich said, “In 2022, our chapters endorsed in over 500 school board races across the country, and they won 275 seats.”
Teichner asked, “What kinds of books do you want in schools and libraries?”
“Books that educate children,” Descovich replied.
“That’s a generalization,” said Teichner.
Justice added, “Books that don’t have pornography in them, let’s start there. Let’s just put the bar really, really low. Books that don’t have incest, pedophilia, rape.”
“Stop it!” said cartoonist Art Spiegelman. “I mean, talk about Orwellian, you know? Calling this organization Moms for Liberty, when it’s actually for suppression, is about as basic as you could find in ‘1984,’ which I think is listed as a young adult novel still, and probably has been banned in lots of places.”
Spiegelman has been speaking out ever since the McMinn County, Tennessee school board voted unanimously last year to ban “Maus,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, citing violence, profanity, and (because of the below, right image) nudity.
Spiegelman said, “I think it’s possible for an adult to say, ‘I don’t want my kid reading that book in class.’ But to forbid the other kids from reading it or taking it out of the library? That’s not liberty; that’s suppression and authoritarianism.”
Spiegelman says: fight back. “Kick out the damn school boards,” he said, “and get school boards in that are more nuanced in what they’re doing; getting involved in local politics as necessary to try to protect libraries’ funding and schools’ needs, instead of making it such a low priority.”
Linda Johnson, president and CEO of the Brooklyn Public Library in New York, said, “This idea of what’s appropriate and inappropriate is so subjective. And teenagers are smart.
“What we ended up doing was issuing a countrywide press release that said, ‘If you’re between the ages of 13 and 21, and you can’t find the material that you want to read on the shelves of your school or your public library, send us an email, and we will send you a digital card which will give you access to our digital collection.'”
In just over a year since it launched Books Unbanned, the Brooklyn Public Library has issued more than 6,200 free digital library cards, and circulated more than 100,000 books and other items.
Summer Boismier was a 10th grade English teacher in Norman, Oklahoma, when, on the first day of school in August 2022, her students walked into her classroom and found all of the bookshelves covered over; in their place was the Books Unbanned QR code.
Boismier did that, after being told to pull books that might violate a new state law prohibiting Oklahoma schools from teaching uncomfortable aspects of “race or sex.” “All it takes is one objection, for any reason,” Boismier said. “A school district could lose its accreditation. A teacher could lose their ability to teach, in not only an Oklahoma classroom, but any K-12 classroom in the country.”
Boismier was removed from her classroom, and accused of distributing pornography for posting the QR code. She resigned before being fired. “I am incensed,” she said. “I’m livid. I’m not heartbroken. Identities are not obscenities. Stories are not pornography. They are possibility.
“I made the calculation,” she said, “knowing that it could possibly cost me my job, knowing that it could possibly cost me my teaching certificate. And that is a hill that I’m willing to die on.”
Now she works for the Brooklyn Public Library with teens as part of Books Unbanned.
In a war where bookshelves are battlefields, both sides want to capture the same flag.
The Brooklyn Public Library’s Linda Johnson, said, “It sounds melodramatic but, you know, to do something which inhibits intellectual curiosity is like a death knell for democracy.”
Moms for Liberty’s Tiffany Justice said, “Our moms and dads are very concerned about the future of the country, and they’re willing to step up however they need to, to fight for the survival of America.”
For more info:
- American Library Association’s Office of Intellectual Freedom
- Moms for Liberty
- Cartoonist Art Spiegelman (Instagram)
- Brooklyn Public Library
- Books Unbanned: Brooklyn Public Library
- Chicago Public Library
Story produced by Jon Carras. Editor: David Bhagat.
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