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Book Bans and the Librarians Who Won't Be Hushed

How educators are speaking out in response to recent — and increasing — book bans


Drawing of books with markings indicated which are banned
Illustration: Mark Weaver

In her 25 years as a teacher and school librarian in Santa Clara public schools in California, Megan Birdsong, Ed.M.'94, never had a parent lodge a formal complaint about a book their child was reading. On the rare occasion a parent raised a concern, Birdsong met with them to talk about the merits of the title. “Those kinds of conversations can lead to some understanding,” says Birdsong. 


How things have changed. 


Suddenly book bans and other forms of censorship in schools and libraries are ascendent across the country, led by organized groups and politicians. Last year saw a record-breaking 1,269 efforts to censor books and resources nationwide, nearly twice as many as in 2021, according to the American Library Association (ALA). The ALA used to receive 300 to 400 reports a year of efforts to ban books, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, “but in 2020 we suddenly began receiving a growing number of reports — from one to two a week, if any, to five or six in a single day.” 


“It was not a typical occurrence until the last couple of years,” agrees Birdsong, who last year became the instructional librarian at a Catholic high school in California. From her colleagues in Florida, second only to Texas in book bans, “I have heard about schools where administrators or other leadership came into the library and removed books without any communication about process, just put them on the cart and they’re gone.” 

Unlike the past, today’s challenges aren’t lodged by a parent about a particular book.


Rather, these are efforts to remove entire swaths of titles championed by well-funded groups such as Moms for Liberty, a nonprofit founded in 2021 by conservative women who opposed face masks during the pandemic. Prior to 2021, the vast majority of book challenges involved one title a time. But in 2022, 90% were attempts to ban multiple titles at once, according to the ALA, and 40% involved challenges to 100 or more books. Most challenged titles contain subject matter related to LGBTQ+ topics or race. And it’s not just school libraries that were under attack: 48% of challenges were directed at public libraries.


“We are no longer seeing a parent raising a concern about their student reading a book, but advocacy groups demanding broader censorship of topics they don’t believe should be in schools or where they disagree with the viewpoints expressed in the book,” says Caldwell-Stone. 


The groups leading the charge are often highly coordinated and multi-faceted, working to get their preferred candidates elected to school boards and advocating for educational gag laws such as Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which prohibits public schools teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner the state decides “is not age-appropriate.” In 2022, 36 states introduced educational gag bills to restrict teaching topics related to race, gender, American history, and LGBTQ+ identities, according to pen America, a free speech advocacy network. 


In June, a fifth-grade teacher in Georgia was fired for reading a best-selling children’s book to her class, My Shadow is Purple, which the students chose; the Cobb County School District said she violated a trio of state censorship laws passed in 2022. And this year, Florida objected to two AP courses because it says their content violates new state laws; one course is focused on African American studies, the other is a psychology course that addresses, among other topics, sexual orientation and gender identity. “They are coming from every angle to push this,” Birdsong says.

 

“The educational gag orders and book banning are unreal to me,” says Liz Phipps-Soeiro, Ed.M.'19, director of library services for Boston Public Schools, adding that even in liberal Massachusetts, she’s heard of at least a dozen attempts at censorship. In many cases across the country, “A lot of these books are being banned by one complaint, and you don’t have to have read the books,” she notes. It took just a single parent complaint for Amanda Gorman’s book of her poem, The Hill We Climb, which she read at the 2021 inauguration of President Joe Biden, to be moved from an elementary school in Florida to a middle school, where it was deemed “more appropriate.”

 

There are efforts to ban books in every state, and nearly half the challenged books were written by or about LGBTQ+ people, while most of the others deal with racial issues. The most-challenged books in 2022 included Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Johnson. Texas leads the nation with 93 attempted book bans in 2022 involving 2,349 titles, with The Bluest Eye at the top of the list. Florida is next, and in 2022 Governor Ron DeSantis signed laws requiring schools to use certified media specialists to make sure books don’t include topics that the state disallows. 


While the ALA “fully acknowledges that a parent has the right to guide their student’s reading and the right to have that conversation and perhaps ask that their student not be given that book,” says Caldwell-Stone, “now we’re seeing policies and advocacy to stigmatize a whole range of materials under the rubric that they’re illegal or pornographic — when they are none of those things.” 


Moreover, “We’re seeing librarians and library workers coming under attack for providing for the information needs of their communities in a way that serves the information needs of marginalized communities, being attacked for having books on the shelves that reflect the lives and experiences of LGBTQ+ persons, people of color, Black Americans, Indigenous persons,” she notes. “We’ve even had a number of communities where organizations have demanded that librarians be charged with obscenity or other crimes for having books on the shelves on themes of sex education or sexuality or that address LGBTQ+ themes.”

Many Boston public schools have been without libraries for many years, but as Phipps-Soeiro works to correct that, there are already more than a dozen open librarian positions. She believes that librarianship is less attractive these days because educators are under attack on so many fronts.


“These efforts with book bans are taking us backwards,” says Emily Rosenstein, Ed.M.'05, a former English teacher and current principal at the Ben Gamla Plantation School, a public charter in Plantation, Florida. Educators have worked hard to “ensure students see themselves in the stories in our libraries. By removing these titles, authors, and characters, we are marginalizing students who already suffer historically in that way.” At a time when educators face so many critical issues, including teacher shortages and the learning losses and behavioral regression of kids due to the pandemic lockdown, “is it really the best use of our time,” Rosenstein asks, “to go through hundreds and hundreds of titles” to remove them because someone objects? It’s one thing to ensure topics are age appropriate, she agrees, but another thing entirely to “eliminate them from accessibility for students.” 


The vast majority of Americans from both major political parties are against book bans and restrictions. More than 70% oppose bans in public libraries and 67% oppose efforts to remove books from schools, according to a national poll conducted by the ALA. The majority of public school parents believe a variety of books should be available in school libraries on an age-appropriate basis, including titles addressing racism and LGBTQ+ topics. Another poll, by NPR/IPSOS, found that only 35% of Republicans (and 5% of Democrats) support efforts to remove books from school. 


“It’s really hard to figure how we’ve gotten to a place so far from where a lot of us thought about our country, a place that’s about pluralism, freedom of information, freedom to read,” Birdsong laments. 


What’s at stake in the battle? “Democracy!” she says, with a rueful laugh. 


What’s So Important About Books? 


For anyone wondering why schoolchildren should be offered wide access to reading materials — albeit age-appropriate — educators offer many reasons. Reading is essential to learning, which in turn is essential for an educated populace in a democracy, they say. Books help children understand the world around them in all its complexity, and they deserve to see themselves reflected in the books available to them. And parents should make decisions for their own children but not other people’s kids, they assert. 


“The role of school libraries is to enrich the educational landscape, to create a foundation for the love of literacy,” says Phipps-Soeiro. “That can’t be done from a deficit lens. Our children come to us with their own knowledge, their own experiences, and libraries are a place to share, to build a collective knowledge together, to hear about other experiences, and to give us a broader understanding of our own cultural landscape and that of others.” 

“The more access you have to books and to a variety of books, the better reader you become and the more interested in reading,” says Cynthia Hagan, Ed.M.'22, who runs Book Joy, a literacy nonprofit in West Virginia, which provides books to students in the local schools, many of which are operating without an in-school library. “Not only that, you develop an identity as a reader. It changes the whole trajectory of someone’s life, how they see themselves. Books are touchstones for children just as much for adults.” 


Indeed, says Caldwell-Stone, studies show that “students who can find books about their experience or lives or that offer alternative perspectives, have far better educational outcomes than when censorship is used in school to indicate one viewpoint is not acceptable.” 


As a librarian for five years in West Virginia, Hagan never encountered a single complaint about a book. The new national trend, she says, is “absolutely horrifying and hurts the most vulnerable of the students, because if you can’t afford books at home, you get them at a library. If that’s all being monitored and censored — you’re out of luck.” 

Educators also argue that it’s essential for students to have access to books presenting different viewpoints and identities written by authors from different identities.


“When kids can see themselves in books, they can begin to see themselves as anything,” says Alex Hodges, librarian and director of the Gutman Library at the Ed School, where he is on the faculty. 


“Whether they become doctors, educators, airline pilots, we want them to dream big,” he says. 


In this era of a tragic epidemic of child and teen suicides, which is especially high among those of marginalized identities, it’s critically important for kids to see themselves represented in literature, says Hodges, who received his Ed.D. from the University of Florida in August. “The worse thing we can do is continue to make children feel shame for their identity or for trying to understand the world they see or hear about on TikTok,” he says. 

Moreover, “We need to teach kids how to make decisions for themselves about what they do or don’t want to read,” says Hodges. “Those are conversations parents and teachers and community members could be having so that they are taking care of the whole child and enabling that child to feel value.” 


Birdsong believes that many parents fear that if a child reads about a particular identity, they will adopt it. “That’s not necessarily the case,” she says, “and we need to be freer in our openness to understanding the world and people in it.” She has often had students request books addressing LGBTQ+ topics. “Occasionally it may be students who may share that identity, but I’ve found it heartening that there are also students who read those books who don’t necessarily share that identity,” she says. “I’ve found it inspiring the way kids want to read books that are outside their experience.


“I also find it really strange that in a world where so many of our students have mental health challenges like anxiety and depression that have been linked to social media — and we’ve had congressional hearings on such things but there seems to be very little push other than banning TikTok — I am mystified by the focus on books themselves,” says Birdsong. 


She, like many others, believes the ultimate object of the movement is to stunt critical thinking so that students don’t question the status quo. “One of our calls as educators is creating an educated citizenry who can think about ideas and who can vote,” says Birdsong. “This is an undermining of public education, a dismantling of institutions, all of those things.” 


Phipps-Soeiro agrees. “This is a highly organized attack on our kids,” she says, that has very little to do with concerns about the age-appropriateness of materials. “It’s about shaping a narrative,” says Phipps-Soeiro, who is starting her Ph.D. at the University of Massachusetts, where she will examine the social, historical, and political landscape of information for children. “Children’s books are very potent vehicles for ideology” and “school libraries were created to sort of guard the narrative of meritocracy and white supremacy in the United States.” Book banning is a symptom of “the fear of losing the ability to control a narrative that has kept white people in power.”

 

Hodges puts it starkly: “The oligarchs who have the funding to fund these initiatives want to keep people uneducated so they can maintain control and maintain their wealth. That’s on the record.” 


Fighting Back


But opponents to book bans are fighting back, including in court. 

“We believe that our Constitution, our First Amendment, and our Bill of Rights firmly support the idea that no government should be in the role of telling people what to think or read,” says Caldwell-Stone, “and libraries, as community hubs of information, discovery, and sharing, have a responsibility to collect books across a range of ideas and opinions and to let individuals make their own choices about what to read.” 


In Escambia County, Florida, pen American, Penguin Random House, authors, parents, and students have filed a federal lawsuit against book removals, arguing their First Amendment right to free speech is violated by decisions that are “based on ideological objections to their contents or disagreement with their messages or themes,” according to the complaint. They also argue the bans violate the Equal Protection Clause because the targeted books are disproportionately by non-white and/or LGBTQ+ authors, or address themes of race or LGBTQ+ identity. 


In Arkansas, a coalition of librarians and booksellers filed a federal lawsuit in June claiming that a new state law criminalizing efforts to furnish “a harmful item to a minor” is unconstitutional because it targets books with LGBTQ+ themes. A month later, in July, a federal judge issued an injunction to temporarily block the law, agreeing that it is likely unconstitutional. 


And in Llano County, Texas, seven library patrons last year sued county officials and the library board for restricting books, which they say violates their First Amendment rights. In March, a federal judge granted a temporary injunction, ordering the county to return the books to the shelves. Among the titles removed were a book for teens that described the Ku Klux Klan as a terrorist organization, and Pulitzer-Prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, an analysis of racism in the United States. 


While Board of Education v. Pico, a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case, does offer some First Amendment protections against book bans in schools, overall, the law is murkier than free speech proponents would hope, says Harvard Law School Professor Laura Weinrib. Since book challenges and removals are now so pervasive and it’s been decades since the Supreme Court examined the issue, she predicts they may take it up again soon. However, she warns it’s unclear whether the current court would affirm the Board v. Pico protections. 

For that reason, she sees a promising “new frontier” in a civil rights approach now underway by the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) at the U.S. Department of Education. In Georgia, the OCR found the Forsyth County School District may have created a hostile environment for certain students because the targeted books are by LGBTQ+ or non-white authors. If so, the bans may be discriminatory and in violation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which applies to institutions that receive federal funding.


“I think the OCR approach is so promising because it’s bringing a new and potentially more powerful set of tools to combat discriminatory book bans,” Weinrib says. “This is something new and exciting that could be a good tool for libraries looking to push back.” 

And while the issue plays out in courts, Unite Against Book Bans, a national initiative of the ALA, offers toolkits to help educators, parents, students, and others fight book bans in other ways, including a guide to attending library and school board meetings, which includes talking points and how to petition decision-makers. 


And while having strong policies around book acquisitions and book challenges “isn’t going to save us, I think it is a place to start,” says Phipps-Soeiro.


Hodges agrees. “I teach my students that when you get to your school as an elementary school teacher, and if the librarian doesn’t have a process for books to be challenged, take the ALA toolkit and advocate for it to be put in place,” he says. The policy should include a board of citizens who evaluate challenges, and a requirement that titles must be challenged one at a time, with written forms to record the specifics of challenges. That way, “you can’t challenge a hundred books in one fell swoop, you have to fill out a form for each book, which becomes a paper trail,” he says, and if the forms aren’t fully completed, “a challenge can be dismissed.” 


Those who oppose book bans say free speech proponents must also be as vocal as the other side.


“We need people to step up and say that to their elected officials, so they’re not just hearing from one group,” Caldwell-Stone says. “That’s what Unite Against Book Bans is about, to provide tools to encourage them and create a critical mass of individuals who support our Constitution, our civil liberties, and who want to make sure everyone enjoys the benefits of those freedoms, so they’re not just reserved for a particular group.”


“We really depend on the people who can be strong-willed and strong-voiced early,” agrees Hodges. “I firmly believe that the more we talk about book challenges and book bans and what books and authors are being affected, it raises the issue to be seen and understood by more people. We just need people to be politically active rather than complacent.” 


Phipps-Soeiro is heartened by how many educators are doing just that. 


“I feel my library network has gotten a lot stronger,” she says. “I’m talking to library directors across the country, professors in library science. I’ve met some wonderful caregivers from Florida who were organizing across the state to speak for libraries and librarians and children’s rights to access the books that are being banned. 


“I’m so proud of the librarians who are joining our team, who are taking up the call for this, who are speaking out, which is a lot, even though they know what the consequences are right now,” she adds. “It’s really amazing.”

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