Will renewed efforts to ban books from schools backfire? Yes, some say

Books with LGBTQ and anti-racist themes were the most often challenged in 2021.
By: | December 15, 2021

The resurgence of efforts to ban books from school libraries may result in two outcomes: a slide into a new era of intolerance or an explosion of student interest in the very books being challenged.

At the moment, there is evidence that both situations are occurring. In one district, an attempt to remove books sparked student protests that encouraged community members to donate some of the very books targeted by the school board. Elsewhere, district lawyers have told board members that banning books violates students’ First Amendment rights, says Michael Rady, who manages GLSEN’s Rainbow Library project, a student-led program that provides LGBTQ-themed books to schools and libraries.

“While there has been this uptick in challenges and book-banning attempts, there has also been a real galvanization of students, family members and organizations that have come together to say, ‘Hey, we’re not going to be silenced. We’re going to continue to make sure all students can see themselves in the books they’re reading in school and feel affirmed,'” Rady says.

The American Library Association is reporting a 60% increase in book challenges, “which is huge,” says Jennisen Lucas, president of the American Association of School Librarians.

The sharp increase in banning efforts is centered on books with LGBTQ characters as well as race, racism and people of color, says Lucas, who is also the district librarian for Park County District 6 in Wyoming. “There are misconceptions about what is actually contained in some of the books that are being challenged,” says Lucas. “The people who are reading these books out at school board meetings are only reading the parts they object to. They don’t necessarily look at the book as a whole; they miss the overall picture of the story that’s being told.”

Lucas is also concerned about Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s call to criminally prosecute school librarians or other educators who provide students with “pornographic material that serves no educational purpose.” Last month,  Abbott claimed that “Texas students have been exposed to pornographic books and content in Texas public schools” and cited by name two memoirs that cover LGBTQ+ themes. “I’ve been a school librarian for 20 years. This is the first year I have ever seen the threat of prosecution as opposed to just, ‘We’re not sure this book is appropriate. Can we reconsider it?'” she says. “It’s the job of school librarians to make sure we have a variety of books on a variety of topics. I don’t think people should be prosecuted for doing their job.”

Lucas is working with her school board to update the district’s book selection policy to make sure the process is clearly spelled out—including how to provide diverse books and respond to challenges. Some school board and community members pushed to prohibit books that don’t jibe with the code of student conduct, which emphasizes preventing conflict. “There’s not a good story without conflict—a book has to have a plot but that doesn’t mean we’re trying to purchase materials unsuitable for children,” she says. “And we just have to remember that intellectual freedom is every learners’ right.”

When beliefs differ

After a parent challenged several high school library books in North Kansas City Schools, administrators convened a committee of parents, media specialists, teachers and administrators to review and potentially update the distrct’s book selection process. They temporarily removed two of the books the parents complained about: Fun Home, an LGBTQ-themed memoir by Alison Bechdel, and All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir by LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson.

The books have since been returned to library shelves. Parents can submit a form that prevents their child from checking certain books out of their school’s library. Parents can also review titles in the school library through the district’s website.

The district’s legal review of the parent’s complaint found that removing books is constitutionally permissible in only limited circumstances, Susan Hiland, the district’s director of media and public relations, told District Administration.

“The First Amendment protects an individual’s freedom of speech, thought, and inquiry,” Hiland said“It also encourages respect for the right of others to do the same, even if beliefs differ.”

Anger and optimism

Recent efforts to ban books are part of a wider push to whip up anger that will build support for certain Republican candidates in 2022 and 2024, says Terry Moe, a professor of political science and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. “Conservatives are now are much more extreme than they were 10 years ago,” Moe says. ” They have invested heavily in a strategy of outrage and resentment that’s really less about major public policy and solving social problems, and more about stirring up emotions.”

The books being targetted single out groups—such as immigrants and the LGBTQ community—that have in the past been demonized by conservatives, and Moe says he worries whether school board members will cave in to the outrage. “If a right-wing parent wants to get jacked out of shape and scream at school board members, they can do that,” Moe says. “But how many school board members have the backbone to stand up to that? Not many.”

For administrators, the right thing to do is defend the First Amendment and the importance of giving students a broad-based education. “The solution is to mobilize on the other side and get parents and others involved actively in supporting diverse offerings and protecting freedom speech and freedom of inquiry.”

The good news, adds Rady of GLSEN, is that Rainbow Libraries have in the last few years spread from one to 20 states, and to about 2,000 schools. The organization has heard from schools that students eagerly await the arrival of the Rainbow collections and that books are checked out as soon as they come in, Rady says.

One student was driven to tears when she found an LGBTQ-affirming book in Spanish, Rady adds.

And the academic and social-emotional benefits are clear. GLSEN’s research shows that when students have access to identity-affirming books and curriculum, they have higher grade-point averages and lower rates of depression and are less likely to miss school because they feel unsafe.

And when schools offer these books, libraries become safe spaces and librarians become the trusted adults that LGBTQ+ students can reach out to and confide in about problems such as bullying, Rady says. “An unintended consequence of book banning attempts,” Rady says, “is that students are now going to school libraries and asking for these specific titles, for queer- and Black- and brown-affirming books.”