Parents, Librarians Spar Over Students’ Library Books
Parents vs. Librarians: A Problem of Protecting Childhood Innocence or Banning Books?
WASHINGTON — During Banned Books Week in late September, the American Library Association sounded the alarm at the growing number of school library books that have been challenged, with at least 1,600 titles removed or under review in 2022 alone.
“When you dictate what people can read, what people can choose from, that’s the mark of an authoritarian society, not a democratic society,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s office for intellectual freedom, told The Washington Post in response to the uptick of book challenges, as six states now permit parents to participate in formal reviews of books pulled from the shelves of school libraries.
“Banned Books Week” received a boost from House Democrats who sponsored a resolution that condemned the removal of books because of their “ideas about diversity,” a move that won endorsements from the two leading teachers’ unions in the United States.
But some advocates for parental rights, publishers, and Catholic educators take a very different view of the issues in play. They dispute media headlines raising alarm about book “bans” and social intolerance, when the parents involved are actually focused on protecting their children’s innocence and have no interest in making such books illegal to own or out of reach for the general public.
“They say we are intolerant,” said Jennifer Pippin, a Florida-based nurse and mother, and a member of Moms for Liberty, a national group organizing around school-related issues.
“But what we are actually citing in school board meetings are descriptions of graphic sex,” available to students through school library books.
“There is no book banning going on, if by that you mean that books are being kept out of hands of people who want them,” Thomas Spence, the president of Regnery Publishing, told the Register.
As Spence sees it, most of the discussion on this subject centers on “the efforts of a few beleaguered parents who want to keep what I think are objectively obscene books out of school libraries.”
Such parents and other concerned advocates want families to take a more active role in the education of their children. They express particular concern about books they see as “normalizing” immoral or unlawful behavior, such as underage sexual encounters and contact between minors and adults. And Catholic scholars hope the headlines over banned books will spur parents to become more discerning about the literary quality and values conveyed in books marketed to young adults.
Who’s Really Being Suppressed?
With respect to actual suppression, “The real danger happens quietly and is not seen,” Spence told the Register, detailing what he describes as the suppression of ideas in the marketplace. “It is book stores not carrying certain titles, and publishers not publishing certain material.”
Spence confronted this problem head on with the publication of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, a 2020 work of nonfiction that antagonized transgender rights activists and provoked demands that it be banned from Amazon and local bookstores.
In contrast to the pushback against Shrier’s book from Amazon staff and trans activists, media reports suggest that the campaign to remove LGBTQ-themed books has primarily been led by local parent activists, with a small assist from GOP lawmakers. And the fictional titles stirring their concern typically feature profane language and descriptions of explicit sexual activity.
“They are trying to equate banning books with restricting children from having access to inappropriate books,” Joshua Mercer, a co-founder of CatholicVote, a faith-based advocacy nonprofit, told the Register.
“It is ludicrous,” he said, while noting that examples of real censorship may be shrugged off as a non-issue or remain invisible to the general public.
Like Spence, Mercer also speaks from experience.
In mid-September, as the nation marked Banned Books Week, CatholicVote was locked out of its TikTok account for “hateful behavior.”
The video posts that provoked the permanent suspension from TikTok drew attention to books with appealing LGBTQ protagonists that were available in school libraries, among other issues. One scrubbed video featured a CatholicVote intern reading Rick, a young adult book about a boy who joins his middle school Rainbow Spectrum club, and finds a new welcoming community.
“Inappropriate books like Rick are targeting young children,” read an accompanying caption that urged parents to locate such books in libraries, make them inaccessible to children, and write to the librarian outlining concerns.
Most Challenged Books
Rick represents a burgeoning category of books featuring LGBTQ story lines. According to the ALA’s list of the 10 most challenged books of 2021, the first three include Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe, a graphic comic novel about being “gender nonbinary,” Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, a semiautobiographical book that includes a sexual encounter between two fourth-grade boys, and All Boys Aren’t Blue, a Memoir-Manifesto by George M. Johnson, a Black author who identifies as “Queer.”
The first two titles won an Alex Award, an ALA prize given to books written for adults that have “special appeal to young adults, ages 12 through 18.”
“Winning the Alex has been such an amazing opportunity to connect with those elusive younger readers, since the audience for literary fiction tends to be over 40,” Evison noted in a previous interview.
Meanwhile, the 2020 release of All Boys Aren’t Blue also brought critical acclaim from Amazon and major public libraries. Some school librarians snapped up the books.
But once parents learned that the titles contained detailed sexual behavior, principals began to receive petitions for their removal and school boards rushed to establish committees that reviewed the content of the three books and other controversial titles.
The authors of the three challenged books say their stories offer a “lifeline for queer youth.” And that message of affirmation for marginalized students has won over some school committees who have voted to return the books to the library.
Parents Push Back
Over the past year, concerned parents have kept the issue alive, often sharing their concerns with other families via social media and outlining their concerns at public school meetings.
In one widely circulated video of a Leander, Texas, school board meeting, Brandi Burkman read aloud from several passages from Lawn Boy, which her son had picked up from his high school library.
Her son “was under the impression it was about a kid that ends up with a gig mowing the grass at Disneyland,” she explained before quoting from a passage that included the graphic description of two fourth grade boys engaged in oral sex, an incident the protagonist refers to throughout the story.
“Who normalizes sex acts between fourth graders?” she asked. “I’ll tell you who. Pedophiles.”
The publishing industry and LGBTQ activists have stood behind the challenged titles, dismissing allegations that they sexualize or “groom” young children.
Lawn Boy’s author has defied those who condemn his work.
“I suspect no amount of contextualizing would persuade these people, many of whom might have had their own sexual experiences in youth with which they are still deeply ashamed, that in addressing the subject of sexual identity graphically, metaphorically, or otherwise (particularly when it does not comfortably jibe with their Judeo-Christian conception), I am not a ‘sicko,’ ‘pedo,’ or ‘freak,’” Evison wrote in a post after the Leander, Texas, presentation went viral.
And the ALA, for its part, still sponsors a variety of awards that celebrate an “affirmative” approach to characters struggling with their sexual identity, while its new president, Emily Drabinski, has taken to Twitter to denounce efforts to shut down Drag Queen Story Hours in local libraries.
At the same time, worried parents show no signs of backing down. And during the months leading up to the 2022 midterm elections, parental objections to politicized school curricula have gained a broader audience, giving their movement more traction.
Moms for Liberty member Jennifer Pippin told the Register that the issue became a priority after she learned that the young child of another Moms for Liberty member had come home with the graphic memoir, Gender Queer, and was disturbed by its explicit images of sex acts.
Pippin discovered that the same book was available in her child’s school library, and has successfully petitioned for the review of the book and many other titles with similar issues.
Still, she made clear that parents like her do not want to remove books simply because they explore LGBTQ themes. Rather, it’s the graphic sexual content they oppose.
Reportedly, that stance has resonated with some school board members, who want to address parental concerns, but also seek to provide a welcoming environment for LGBTQ students. Public schools must comply with Title IX rules barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or sexual identity in schools, and that mandate affects bathroom policies, as well as the curriculum and other resources.
A number of commentators, including Stanley Kurtz, senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, have also followed the campaign to challenge library books with mixed emotions.
While agreeing that books with adult sexual content should be reviewed and possibly removed, they don’t want titles with unpopular political or cultural viewpoints to become another target.
One brewing concern is the significant number of school districts that have removed The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies. They have disappeared from school syllabi, mostly because of language or characterizations that some deem to be racist.
In a New York Times commentary, Kurtz warned that an increasing number of “woke librarians” have abandoned the longstanding principle of “library neutrality,” which holds that libraries should refrain from taking sides on issues and instead make competing arguments available to readers so that an informed citizenry can make their own decisions about what to believe. In the face of this ideological bias, he advocates that families push for the inclusion of books with multiple perspectives in school libraries so that students can conduct their own research.
As an example, he said, the controversial book The 1619 Project, which applies critical race theory to America’s foundational history, could be counterbalanced by books with opposing perspectives like 1620 and 1776 Unites.
“I suspect that many parents’ groups would be open to the idea of balancing, rather than banning, books, when sexuality is not at stake,” Kurtz told the Register.
Setting High Standards
But as Church experts evaluate the passionate debate over challenged library books, they are urging Catholic parents and educators to strive for high standards when selecting students’ reading material and not be content with filtering for sex scenes or bad language.
“The premise that reading something is better than nothing is flawed,” Mary Pat Donoghue, executive director of the Secretariat of Catholic Education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told the Register.
“If you feed on garbage food you get bad health outcomes. If you feed on garbage books you are infecting your soul.
“Jesus says we become what we behold,” she added, noting that parents, teachers and librarians need to take the time to find books that enthrall children and stir their moral imagination.
Likewise, parents should be mindful of the more subtle dynamics in play when books become tools of identity politics, and readers are encouraged to “affirm” and identify with characters who struggle with gender confusion, act out in disturbing ways, and cobble together their own truth.
In one sense, these books adopt a therapeutic framework for addressing the characters’ struggles: the inner feelings of gender take priority, while the immutability of biological sex may be presented as a source of trauma.
But parents and teachers can help the young to distinguish between advocacy literature and real classics with universal appeal, and the Church’s own teaching can ground classroom and dinner table discussions.
“The Catholic educational approach affirms the intrinsic dignity of every child and every human person,” Melissa Moschella, associate professor of philosophy at The Catholic University of America, told the Register. “Part of that consistent teaching is an affirmation of the goodness of their bodies as God created them. Affirming the person is inseparable from affirming who that person is as a bodily being created male or female.”
Further, this vision of human dignity and sexual complementarity goes much deeper than “gender stereotypes,” Moschella said.
“We will support the tomboy who is more interested in sports than Barbie dolls,” she said. Affirming the child is affirming them in their unique individuality.
“Ironically, what is going on with the gender-affirming paradigm is that schools are basically telling boys and girls who don’t follow gender stereotypes that if they are different in some way then their bodies are wrong.”
Instead, Moschella said, they “should be saying that it is fine to be … a boy or girl in your own way.”