This Is Your Time, a book for children by Ruby Bridges, who at the age of six was the first Black child to desegregate the New Orleans school system, was pulled from school library shelves this year in Katy, Texas. Speaking of the Normal Rockwell image of her on the book’s cover, Ruby Bridges told a House Oversight Committee hearing on school library book bans that she only “learned the full impact of my own story at the age of seventeen when a reporter showed up on my doorstep with the Norman Rockwell painting which depicted my walk. Until that moment, I thought my experience in 1960 was contained to my own neighborhood, in my own community, on my own street. I questioned if it really even mattered at all. But finally, seeing this painting, now I understood my role in history, and it didn't come from the textbooks used to teach me that very same history.”
As the world of publishing and books warily ventures out of the pandemic years, years that from a macro perspective definitely favored online buying and big-box retailing and their attendant enrichment of the already-famous, sensational, and easily digested, but in the micro often gave new energy to local book communities, rallying neighborhoods around their bookstores, fortifying booksellers’ abilities to serve their locales creatively, and giving new technological opportunities to authors; years that still buffet us with supply-chain disruptions and price volatility; and as we venture out of the upheavals of the #MeToo and George Floyd protests that challenged workplaces not only to be more diverse but to be more responsive to the governance demands of a new and newly impatient rising generation of workers; and as the ravenous demand for news both in journalism and nonfiction that characterized the Trump years abates, and the social media giants adjust to new demands for privacy constraints and moderation, and everyone wonders which of the previous trends will reassert themselves, or whether we face new, as yet little understood trends, the most potent issue in the book world has been the mounting pressure to remove books from school libraries and even public libraries and bookstores on content grounds, and the question of what chilling effects such pressures may have on what gets published, acquired, distributed, and even written, and ultimately how this limits what people, especially children, read and learn about the world.
The American Library Association reported in April that three months last fall saw double the number of reported challenges to school library books (331) from the entire previous year; PEN American Center reported on 1,586 challenges to school library books between July 1, 2021, and March 31, 2022 (list here). Most of these books involve depictions of characters from formerly marginalized groups. The complaint against them was most often age-inappropriate depictions of sex, though it was sometimes that the subject matter “might make children feel discomfort, guilt or anguish” by holding White people responsible for racial oppression or suggesting that racial oppression continues today. There are a few old chestnuts among the persecuted: Slaughterhouse Five, The Handmaid’s Tale, To Kill a Mockingbird. In an April 7 House Oversight Committee hearing, supporters of the challenges endorsed the rights of tax-paying parents to have a say in their elected bureaucracies; book defenders failed to articulate that tax-paying parents currently have such rights. As PEN’s report describes, most school districts have established procedures for parents to challenge books in libraries and on curriculums, procedures designed to ensure that removal of books (read, arguments, ideas) is not “irregular and ad hoc.” Those protesting removals are not involving themselves with initial curatorial decisions: the dispute is over cases in which administrators have bypassed these review procedures to satisfy a loud parent or group of parents or a politician complaining about a professionally selected book or curriculum. As the advocacy group EveryLibrary’s John Chrastka has noted, when a politicized process dictates access to books in ways that “favor one group over another or start to spend taxpayer money in less-than-transparent ways,” it stops behaving like “a public institution because it does not serve the whole public.” One librarian told The Washington Post that a librarian’s worst fear these days is having a book of theirs end up as a segment on Fox news and being doxed on social media and subject to a possibly life-threatening campaign of personal harrassment.
(For those curious, the response to the obscenity charge against these books, in a nutshell, goes like this: (1) none of the works under discussion approaches the legal standard of obscenity; (2) the complainants ignore that the works are situated by librarians and teachers, consulting the professional literature, in a developmentally appropriate context; (3) they misleadingly isolate individual passages and do not consider the work as a whole, as is required by most review processes.)
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When my child was in elementary school I was a politically active parent. The other parents I worked with decried the fact that our local government had excluded parents from school governance, in our case replacing us not with teachers and librarians but with corporate executives and management consultants. It’s interesting to me that the very language we used is echoed by the groups advocating for parents’ right to remove school library books. The most prominent of the new groups is an organization founded in Florida in the fall of 2020, with already 165 chapters in thirty-three states, called Moms for Liberty, headed by a failed local school board candidate, echoing in its nomenclature other mom-fronted groups like “Moms Demand Action” and “Grannies for Peace.” It was often observed in the world I was working in that serving on your school board (even your PTA and then your school board) was a stepping stone to engagement in local politics, especially for women. Now we see political organizers recognizing that parents’ passion around these book challenges is a fruitful proving ground for candidates for office. (Steve Bannon: “The path to save the nation is very simple—it’s going to go through the school boards.”) I am reminded how the organization “Indivisible” began in 2016, taking a page from Tea Party advocates active during the previous administration, by creating a handbook for worried citizens to engage politics at the local level. When I did that sort of thing fifteen years ago I was very inspired by how responsive local politics could be to an organized, engaged group of local people. Now similar efforts, for example by residents trying to stop development in housing-poor neighborhoods, read as selfish and elitist: not everyone has time to research the issues, hound their representatives, go to community board meetings.
To judge by the congressional testimony and other reports of librarians and teachers, the pressure to remove books from school libraries is coming both from individual parents and from organized campaigns. Texas State Representative Matt Krause produced an apparently hastily assembled list of 850 questionable books for review, many of which have subsequently surfaced in parents’ complaints. Some of this activism traces to shadowy entities. But the passion of real-life parents is tangible. Perhaps there are two layers here: (1) it is appropriate to have mechanisms in local politics, like the library book removal procedures, that prevent a few loud people from having a disproportionate influence on governance, but (2) for a functioning democracy to produce healthy results requires people working from a set of positive values. If we disagree with folks using legitimate democratic processes to remove, say, desegregation pioneer Ruby Bridges’ This Is Your Time from the local school library, maybe the problem is not with democracy but with what people are using it for.
One might have thought, a few years ago, that having more children’s books about what it’s like for a kid to desegregate their school, or to have gay parents, or that drafting textbooks so they remind students to treat each other respectfully, might have been a pretty gentle and non-inflammatory way of nudging in a more egalitarian future, but the current upheaval suggests that there is not a working consensus even on this modest goal. Certainly books for children have become significantly more capacious in their grasp of human experience and less small-c conservative in my lifetime. I used to wonder why farm life loomed so large in the iconography of childhood when so few modern children live on a farm. I remember when Sesame Street seemed radical in breaking with these conventions. It seems like what material finds its way into children’s literature may be a slow but eventually self-correcting mechanism. Perhaps it is not surprising that those who do not want to see changes in society try, like the witch with her mirror, to arrest them by arresting their reflection in books … [Read Part Two of this post here]
Ann Kjellberg is the founder and editor of Book Post.
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Thank you, Anne. On to Part Two