Activism grows in the US in the face of a ban on school books

Until a year ago, Stephana Ferrell’s political activism was limited to an occasional letter to elected officials.

Then came her local school board meeting in Orange County, Florida, and an objection was raised to Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” And the county’s decision late last year to remove it from high school shelves.

“By winter break, we realized this was happening across the state and we needed to start a project to bring parents together to protect access to information and ideas at school,” says Ferrell, mother of two children. Along with Jen Cousins, a parent in Orange County, she founded the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which works with existing parent groups across the state on a variety of educational issues, including efforts to “preserve or recover books that have been questioned or prohibited.

Over the past year, book challenges and bans have reached levels not seen in decades, according to officials from the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and other free speech advocates. . Censorship efforts have ranged from local communities like Orange County and a Tennessee school board that pulled Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus” to state initiatives.

“There are some books with pornography and pedophilia that absolutely should be removed from K-12 school libraries,” says Yael Levin, a spokeswoman for the conservative advocacy group No Left Turn in Education, which has asked Attorney General Merrick Garland to to research the availability of “Gender Queer,” among other books. “We are not talking about a public library or bookstores. We are talking about K-12 school libraries, books that are simply pornographic and contain pedophile content.”

According to PEN America, which has been tracking legislation across the country, dozens of bills have been proposed that limit classroom reading and debate. Virtually all laws focus on sexuality, gender identity, or race. In Missouri, a bill would bar teachers from using the “1619 Project,” the special issue of the New York Times magazine that focuses on slavery in American history, published last year in book form. 1619 is the year the first slave ship arrived in what would later become the United States.

The answers come from organizations large and small, and sometimes from people like Ferrell.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), PEN America, and the NCAC have been working with local activists, educators, and families across the country, helping them “prepare for meetings, write letters, and mobilize opposition,” according to PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nassel. Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle has said he will personally donate $500,000 to a book defense fund to be run in partnership with PEN. Hachette Book Group has announced “emergency donations” to PEN, NCAC and the Writers Guild.

In Missouri, the ACLU sued in federal court in mid-February to stop the Wentzville school district from removing books like “Gender Queer,” Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Keise Laymon’s “Heavy.” . The union has also filed open records requests in Tennessee and Montana over book bans, and a warning letter in Mississippi against what it described as the “unconstitutionality of public library book bans.”

Vera Eidelman, staff attorney for the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, cited the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that “local school boards may not remove books from school library shelves simply because they don’t like them.” the ideas contained in those books. The tricky area, Eidelman acknowledged, is that school officials can ban books for reasons other than disapproving of the views the books express. Officials may determine, for example, that the book is too profane or vulgar.

“The problem is that often our definitions, for example of vulgarity or age appropriateness, are, for lack of a better word, soft, and can also hide or be used as a pretext for government decisions based on views” , said.

Two initiatives against the ban were launched in Pennsylvania. In Kutztown, eighth-grader Joslyn Diffenbaugh formed a forbidden book club last fall that began with a reading of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” The Pennridge Improvement Project has launched a campaign to buy books that have been removed from schools, including Leslea Newman’s “Heather has Two Mommies” and Kim Johnson’s “This is My America,” and place them in small free libraries around the world. the district.

The wave of bans has led to new organizations and a shift in focus for existing groups. Katie Paris, an Ohio resident and founder of Red, Wine & Blue, a politically engaged national network of “PTA moms and digital divas” created in 2019, said she started getting calls last year. of members asking for help as debates on the outbreak of “critical race theory.”

Red, Wine & Blue has launched online sessions it calls Trouble Maker Training, which includes guidance such as “Present a calm face to counter yelling” and “Own Individual Freedom: You Can Decide What’s Right for Your Child , but you can’t dictate what’s right for other families.” Red, Wine & Blue has also launched a website that tracks book bans, raised about $50,000 to organize against bans, and is hosting an event in March with banned book authors and parents from communities where books are being challenged.

“We believe that education works best when parents and teachers work together,” says Paris, a mother of 7- and 3-year-olds. “And if you don’t want your child to have access to a book and you choose not to read them, that’s fine. But you don’t want to take that opportunity away from my children.”

Trying to restore a book involves a process that is often like other types of community activism: writing letters, making speeches, attending meetings.

Meenal McNary is a member of the Round Rock Black Parents Association, about 20 miles from Austin, Texas. The association was founded in 2015 after a black teenager was thrown to the ground by a police officer, but has more recently become active in diversifying the curriculum and fighting efforts to remove books. Last year, a parent’s objection prompted Round Rock school district officials to consider whether “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, should be removed from school reading lists. Middle school.

“We worked with a high school teacher who started a petition, and that got a lot of traction, with over 1,000 signatures,” says McNary. The district followed a three-step review process that culminated in a school board vote, during which McNary and others helped organize people to write letters, attend board meetings and speak to others about the school board. petition.

“We had kids speak up for this book, even though it was traumatic for some to read it,” says McNary. “We had everyone from high school students to grandparents lay out their reasons why this should stay on the shelves. The board ended up voting in our favor and the book is still there.”


Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.

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Activism grows in the US in the face of a ban on school books