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War of words

In the fight over sexualized content in kids’ books, concerned parents show that free speech cuts both ways

War of words
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Jen Pippin was scrolling through Facebook during her lunch break when a video popped into her feed. It showed a Pennsylvania mother reading an excerpt of the 2020 book All Boys Aren’t Blue during a local school board meeting. The book is a “memoir-manifesto” written by self-­described nonbinary activist George M. Johnson. It’s recommended for ages 14 and up. In the video, dated October 2021, Vicki Flannery read aloud a passage in which the author describes a sexual encounter he had at age 13 with his 18-year-old cousin. Flannery, a mother of two, told school board members that until that week, the book had been shelved at an elementary school library in the North Penn School District in suburban Philadelphia.

Pippin, an operating room nurse in Sebastian, Fla., says her “jaw hit the ground” when she saw the clip. She searched her school district’s library database and discovered All Boys Aren’t Blue shelved in some of its high school libraries.

“That’s when my crusade began,” she said.

During the last two years, parental outrage over children’s books with obscene and pornographic content has rippled across the country. Many moms and dads have launched grassroots campaigns to restrict or remove books. Others have spearheaded policy changes in their local districts that give them more say over what books their kids are exposed to in school libraries and classrooms. Opponents accuse them of banning books and suppressing free speech. But their pushback is forcing transparency and much-needed debate among school boards, administrators, and librarians over what constitutes age-appropriate reading material at a time when authors and publishers are pushing more sexualized content than ever before.

Jen Pippin in Sebastian, Fla.

Jen Pippin in Sebastian, Fla. Todd Anderson/The New York Times/Redux

Pippin’s crusade in the Sunshine State involves co-leading a chapter of Moms for Liberty. The day we talked, she was prepping for January’s monthly chapter meet-up at Woody’s Bar-B-Q. It was rib night, and Pippin gave a library update along with details on the upcoming school board meeting.

According to its website, Moms for Liberty is a nonprofit “dedicated to fighting for the survival of America by unifying, educating, and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.” Two Florida mothers and former school board members founded the group in January 2021. Now, it has swelled to more than 270 chapters and 120,000 members in 44 states. Pippin’s chapter has 4,200 members in a county with a population of 164,000.

Tiffany Justice, co-founder of Moms for Liberty, said COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns allowed parents “a peek behind the educational curtain.” What they saw prompted many to take action.

Some, but not all, of that attention has been directed at books. Moms for Liberty is one of about 50 groups working to restrict or remove from schools books it deems obscene or pornographic, according to a recent report from PEN America, a free expression advocacy group. PEN tracked 50 groups comprised of 300 local or regional chapters, more than 70 percent of which were formed after 2020.

According to PEN, parent or community member complaints prompted school districts to pull 1,648 unique titles from school libraries or classrooms between July 2021 and June 2022. Nearly half of PEN’s 10 most-challenged books in 2021 came from the young adult category, and all but three were published after 2015. PEN calls the effort to have them pulled from shelves “deeply undemocratic.” The American Library Association (ALA) labeled the sharp uptick in challenged books “unprecedented.” Its own tracking showed an increase in the number of books parents and patrons sought to remove reached about 1,600 titles in 2021, up from less than 600 in 2020. Prior to that, the ALA logged roughly 350 challenges annually.

What changed? The focus of the books. In the early 2000s, the Harry Potter books topped the ALA’s list of Top 10 most-challenged books. The Captain Underpants series topped the list in 2012 and 2013. But in 2017, the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative group focused on parental rights in education, began tracking newer books with sexual and pornographic content—material it argues violates state anti-pornography statutes. The alliance’s “Porn in Schools Report” now includes 58 titles, including graphic images and excerpts, but “is by no means exhaustive,” it states.

In the last two years, sales of LGBT-themed fiction have skyrocketed, particularly in the young adult ­category, according to a recent report from NPD BookScan. Literary groups have award categories for titles showcasing LGBT content for kids, such as the ALA’s Stonewall Book Awards. Last year, for the first time, one kids book hit a kind of literary grand slam: Too Bright To See by Kyle Lukoff is a middle-­grade novel with a transgender protagonist and a transgender author. The book won a Newbery honor and a Stonewall Award and was listed as a finalist for the National Book Award.

Award-winning titles trickle down to book lists school librarians and teachers rely on. Maryland’s Montgomery County Public Schools recently compiled a list of LGBT-affirming books slated for use in classrooms from pre-K through fifth grade.

One of today’s most-contested books is Gender Queer, a 2019 graphic memoir by Maia Kobabe, a 2020 ALA Alex Award winner. The author describes a personal journey to nonbinary, asexual status, with illustrated panels depicting sexual experimentation.

Parents I spoke with said this new landscape necessitates scrutinizing books like never before—to protect their kids and reserve their right to choose how and when to teach them about sex and sexuality. For speaking out, they say they’ve been vilified in the media, characterized as far-right activists, and accused of Nazi-style book banning and puritanical suppression of free speech.

If you’re not going to stand up for your kids at this point in time, I’m not sure what more would motivate you to do so.

FOR  10 YEARS, AMY SNEAD, a mother of four from Bedford County, Va., volunteered almost daily at her sons’ rural public elementary school. Her duties included making   copies, compiling “Monday folders” for teachers, and planning the annual teacher appreciation week. One year, she chose a beach theme and set up a sandbox, beach chairs, and an ocean backdrop in the school atrium. “Teachers listened to an ocean sound machine with their feet in the sand,” she recalled.

Snead never imagined she would become the district’s chief antagonist in the fight to purge obscene books from school libraries. It all started with the pandemic. “It awakened mama bears from hibernation,” she said. “We realized we need to pay more attention. If you’re not going to stand up for your kids at this point in time, I’m not sure what more would motivate you to do so.”

In 2021, after hearing about books being contested in the national spotlight, she searched the Bedford County school library database. Snead discovered 11 titles in high school libraries with sexual content she felt was inappropriate. So, she started a Moms for Liberty chapter and now regularly attends and speaks at school board meetings wearing a navy blue T-shirt emblazoned with the group’s logo.

When presenting sensitive material to school board members, Snead, a professing Christian, said she chooses not to read explicit excerpts or hold up graphic posters of printouts from controversial books. Instead, she presents board members with printed handouts including quotes, red flags, and sensitive material. She seeks to be a go-between and facilitate conversations between concerned parents, teachers, and school administrators.

Snead said she has been accused of trying to remove minority voices from books or ban titles ­altogether. But her criticisms deal only with sexual content. None of the books she contested have been removed from school libraries. Instead, Snead helped the district create a new policy in which all parents of K-12 students receive an email notification if their child checks out a book or will be required to read a book. It gives parents the option to restrict their child’s access.

Snead likens her district’s book policy to schools requesting parental permission slips for a movie rated PG or higher or flagging a child’s Chromebook if he or she types sexually explicit lines into a search engine. “There’s this disparity of what’s OK to censor and what’s not,” she said. “For some reason, bringing to light what is in school libraries has evoked this ­visceral reaction that’s not factual.”

Controversy over books in schools and efforts to remove titles are hardly new. For example, critics have tried to remove Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 numerous times for vulgarity and discussion about drugs. Ironically, the book is a dystopian tale about book-banning under a fictional authoritarian regime. Will Creeley, a First Amendment attorney and senior program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education calls book censorship “an old political hot potato.”

But as the battle over books grows hotter and increasingly political, some worry about unintended consequences—and where the lines will be drawn.

Last January, the McMinn County (Tenn.) School Board found itself at the center of a censorship debate when it unanimously voted to remove from its eighth grade curriculum Maus, a Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman. The 1980 book recounts the imprisonment of Spiegelman’s father at Auschwitz, portraying Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. Board members cited instances of “rough” language and a partially nude woman. Critics accused them of restricting Holocaust education.

As with Maus and other controversial titles, ­sometimes the national frenzy over restricting books prompts a jump in sales. Maus rose to the top of the Amazon bestseller list when the McMinn board restricted it. Similarly, Gender Queer saw a 130 percent boost in U.S. print sales during one week last May when media outlets widely reported a dozen school districts had pulled the book, NPD BookScan found.

The vast majority of the titles PEN America now lists as “banned” in schools deal with LGBT issues or sexual content. About 1 in 5 titles address race or ­racism, and 4 percent include characters and stories about religious minorities.

Creeley argues the fervor among conservative ­parents to remove recent titles stems from increased visibility of how school districts handle sexuality and gender identity: “You’re seeing a social moment where the stakes are more intense and the debate is being amplified by those fears.”

Still, book disputes are happening on both sides of the political aisle. Citing racial concerns, the Burbank (Calif.) Unified School District in 2020 banned from its shelves a number of perennially challenged books, —To Kill a Mockingbird, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Of Mice and Men—as well as other titles, including Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. One conservative group pushed back, promising to provide free copies to young readers.

Meanwhile, librarians opposed to book censoring have formed their own advocacy groups. They say they're being demonized and called pedophiles or groomers—people who break down children’s emotional barriers to gain access and abuse them. In some cases, complaints over books have led to police investigations. In the Austin suburb of Leander, for example, two parents filed police reports over Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison. Published in 2018, the sexually explicit book was being offered in local high school libraries.

Creeley calls this a dangerous precedent: “It teaches our youth that the state is properly entrusted with the power to decide what we may see and read, what we can think about and discuss.” He notes that in some districts the Bible has been among titles that have been pulled from school libraries based on citizens’ complaints.

THE DEBATE OVER WHICH BOOKS are appropriate for kids has become a rallying cry for conservatives in particular. In 2021, Republican Glenn Youngkin, now governor of Virginia, ran a campaign ad featuring a mother objecting to her son’s high school's required reading of Toni Morrison’s 1987 book, Beloved. The book contains sexual content and bestiality commentary.

Last July, hundreds of parents gathered at a Tampa, Fla., hotel for the first annual Moms for Liberty “Joyful Warriors” National Summit. The event featured patriotic music and high-profile speakers: Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson. Break-out sessions addressed parents’ and students’ legal rights, gender ideology in schools, and books and curriculum.

Amid the uproar, Moms for Liberty is building political clout—it now has three political action ­committees. Contesting books is only “a small part” of what the group does, Justice told me. It has no ­formal list of contested books—and no plans to make one. Chapters are encouraged to vocalize concerns about books with school boards, or better yet, run for a seat.

And while book battles continue to rage in local school districts, Republican-led states such as Florida, Texas, Tennessee, Arizona, and Georgia have pushed for state laws that would make it easier to restrict and remove titles with sexual content or other material deemed objectionable. In Tennessee, a new law requires public schools to scrutinize all library materials for age appropriateness and publish full inventories online for parents. A Florida law that took effect last July requires books in schools be approved by a state-trained media specialist who deems them age-appropriate, free from pornography, and “suited to student needs.” Of course, what constitutes age-­appropriate remains at the heart of the current debate. And while some conservative parents might agree with a media specialist trained under a Republican administration, that might change if Florida’s political power shifts toward Democrats.

The new policy has already caused grumbling in the classroom. Some teachers have written articles or posted pictures on social media of their classroom libraries barren or covered with paper while they wait for media specialists to review titles.

“What worries me is that people on both sides of the debate appear to be digging in their heels,” said Erika Sanzi, director of outreach for Parents Defending Education. “The actual dialogue and ­reasonable debate over what is age appropriate in children’s books gets little attention—but it is happening.”

In Indian River County, where she lives, Jen Pippin says 202 books have now been removed or challenged, pending removal from school libraries. Last year, she served as a parent representative for the Florida Department of Education’s committee that developed training materials for the media specialists evaluating schools’ books.

Pippin recalled submitting her first request to the district to review the book All Boys Aren’t Blue. It was taken off the shelves within 24 hours of the board’s review. Not every request she has brought to the board has been successful. But with two teens in local public schools, she believes the fight is worth it.

Several of 2021’s most-challenged books

Several of 2021’s most-challenged books

10 most-challenged books of 2021*

Gender Queer | Maia Kobabe
LGBTQ content; Sexually explicit or sexual references

Lawn Boy | Jonathan Evison 
LGBTQ content; Sexually explicit or sexual references

All Boys Aren’t Blue | George M. Johnson
LGBTQ content; Sexually explicit or sexual references 

Out of Darkness | Ashley Hope Perez 
Sexually explicit or sexual references; Depictions of violence or abuse

The Hate U Give | Angie Thomas 
Depictions of violence or abuse; Anti-police message

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian | Sherman Alexie 
Sexually explicit or sexual references

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl | Jesse Andrews 
Sexually explicit or sexual references

The Bluest Eye | Toni Morrison 
Sexually explicit or sexual references; Depictions of violence or abuse

This Book Is Gay | Juno Dawson 
LGBTQ content

Beyond Magenta | Susan Kuklin
LGBTQ content; Sexually explicit or sexual references

*Most recent data available from the American Library Association

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.



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