On February 2, the ultra-conservative pastor Greg Locke organized a book burning of the Harry Potter and Twilight sagas in Nashville, Tennessee. The event was aimed at stopping the “demonic influences” of the novels – which involve magic and vampires, respectively – from reaching youngsters in the community.
This is just the latest incident in the cultural war that has gripped the United States, where educational content is at the forefront of the battle. Last week, Tennessee was also in the news after members of a local school board in McMinn County unanimously voted to remove Maus, an acclaimed comic on the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman, from the middle school curriculum. The school board’s ban was based on eight swear words and one scene of nudity – even though the characters in the novel are cats (Nazis) and mice (Jews).
A few months earlier, parents from another county had protested against the reading of the memoirs of Ruby Bridges, the first Black girl to attend a white school in New Orleans.
In Oklahoma, Republicans have introduced a bill in the Senate that would give parents the power to veto school books that are focused on issues such as sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion and sexual identity. If passed, parents would be able to sue teachers for $10,000 for each day the book in question is kept in the school library after it was nominated for removal.
While banning books from schools and public libraries is not new – even The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn came under scrutiny in its day, the scale of the current campaign is unprecedented, fueled largely by the radicalization of the right and the backlash to anti-racism movements and the growing visibility of the LGBQ+ community. The American Library Association (ALA), which was founded in 1967, had never before seen so many complaints.
“Normally we receive between 300 and 350 reports a year, but last year, we saw a radical rise,” explained Deborah Caldwell-Stone, the director of ALA. “Between September 1 and November 30, we received 330, compared to 377 for all of 2019, for example. Never before had we had this amount.”
Other books that have been drawn into the battle include Beloved, the masterpiece by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison denounced for containing explicit content and violence. The protest, first launched by a conservative mother in Virginia, has since been taken up by Glenn Youngkin, the Republican candidate for the Virginia gubernatorial race.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood has been removed from libraries in the Goddard school district in Kansas. Fun Home, a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel that addresses LGTBQ+ issues, has sparked protests in numerous states, and All Blues Aren’t Blue by Black non-binary writer George M. Johnson, Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison have also come under attack. While most of the complaints are usually about supposed sexually explicit content, one of the novels that have faced the biggest backlash is And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about two male penguins who fall in love and have a baby penguin.
Many of these campaigns are led by parent organizations such as No Left Turn in Education and Mothers for Liberty. Tiffany Justice, the founder of Mothers for Liberty, says that her group’s complaints “do not seek to ban books,” but rather “remove those that are explicitly sexual or obscene from the reach of children, in the same way, we don’t have Playboy magazines in school.” That said, most of the complaints concern books that address sexual orientation.
With respect to novels that deal with racism or slavery in the US, the mother from Florida is against any book that is related to so-called critical race theory, a term that is used to describe content that identifies racism as a fundamental and intersectional problem. “A book that promotes critical race theory is not appropriate for children,” she said, adding: “If you are going to put forward a work with a certain point of view, you should also offer children the opposite [point of view].”
Last year, the Central York school district in Pennsylvania banned teachers from using hundreds of books, documentaries and articles that address racism and racial diversity more broadly. The list of banned books included I am Rosa Parks, a children’s book about the heroine of the civil rights movement, A Boy called Bat, a middle-grade series about a boy on the autism spectrum and a documentary about American activist James Baldwin.
Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN America – an organization that defends free expression through the advancement of literature and human rights – worries the current book banning trend is promoting self-censorship. According to Friedman, one of the consequences of the protests is that “teachers don’t want to continue talking about issues such as the LGBTQ+ community because they know that anything they say will be put under a magnifying glass, nor are they recommending books to students, and this is going to affect youngsters who are at the stage of developing their identity in general, especially when LGBTQ+ groups have been historically marginalized.”