By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Just when you thought the battle over banning books couldn't get more absurd, it does.
The Republican-dominated state legislature in Missouri has proposed de-funding public libraries, after librarians and their supporters sued to block a recent law that criminalized the “distribution” of books that conservatives deem indecent or obscene.
Meanwhile, in Texas, the Commissioner’s Court in Llano County considered closing the system’s three branch libraries after a federal judge ordered that 17 books, including 12 for kids, be restored to its shelves. The works, which include — surprise! — topics such as race and gender identity, had been removed after some members of the community and library board complained that they were “pornographic filth” and “CRT and LGBTQ books.”
Among the titles were Being Jazz: My Life as a (Transgender) Teen; Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents; and They Called Themselves the KKK: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group.
On April 13, with protestors gathered outside, the county board voted unanimously to keep the branches open. But don’t be fooled. The vote only keeps the branches available to the public pending an appeal of the judge’s ruling.
Seven residents have sued the county, claiming their First and 14th Amendment rights were violated by Republican lawmakers who had the books removed. On April 27, the commission will hold a hearing to determine if sanctions are warranted against defendants — public officials including the county judge, commissioners, library board members and the library systems director — who failed to appear for depositions.
The GOP is being accused of showboating for the sake of courting its radical right MAGA base, which demands a Fahrenheit 451 approach to literature it finds offensive or capable of making someone feel uncomfortable. The central question here is: Should a minority of offended citizens be allowed to determine what the rest of us and our kids can read or view and where we can have access to it?
If the concern is really about children being exposed to inappropriate adult subjects, a fair solution is already in place: parents, guardians and current library policies.
Based on my own research and conversations with librarians, it’s important to understand that policing by library staff of what minors read is forbidden by professional standards. It is the responsibility of parents or guardians to monitor their children’s use of public materials.
Many libraries have age requirements as well as special cards for kids that are restricted to juvenile materials. But if a child wants something outside of that area, a library is hard pressed to deny it. This is an oft-discussed issue among professionals. One solution has been to let a parent decide. But if a parent is not present, it is difficult for a librarian to say no.
For example, some parents teach their children that dinosaurs and moon landings have never existed. Should a librarian really deny a child a book about the Apollo missions? How would that librarian even know the parents’ beliefs? If a parent does not trust that their child will select books that meet their approval, they shouldn’t allow the kid to use a public library on their own.
Libraries also have policies on collection development that include factors such as demand, veracity, value in terms of balance and variety, and cost. Librarians don’t have time to read every book before it is purchased, so they have to rely on trusted sources such as Kirkus Reviews and Library Journal for vetting purposes. But that is not good enough for many on the right these days.
Calls for bans are more common in highly conservative communities, especially in rural areas, but librarians everywhere find controversial books angrily shoved off shelves (in one case, a children’s biography of Covid policy lightning rod Dr. Anthony Fauci), turned face-down, and deliberately hidden from sight.
By many accounts — in keeping with America’s current political demographics — the majority of patrons welcome books, including ones for children, that are inclusive in terms of race, ability, family structure, and gender.
Yet some people seethe when they see these books on the shelves or learn they are in school libraries and seek action. GOP legislatures are only too happy to help these days, even if it means crippling the vital services libraries provide for their communities.
One of the more ridiculous cases is that of author Jerry Craft, my friend and former colleague at Sports Illustrated for Kids, whom I wrote about here in November 2021. His popular, funny, highly-acclaimed and award-winning graphic novels. New Kid, Class Act and School Trip
have made him a constant target of right-wing “investigations” and bans.
Jerry’s books are based on his own life as a Black man and the father of two sons, but he’s been receiving hate mail and accusations of being “mentally ill” and trying to “indoctrinate” a generation of kids. Indoctrinate them to what? Respect, empathy and understanding?
If you would like a brilliant look at other literary targets of the right-wing as well as a thoughtful analysis of banning attempts that continue to hit all-time highs in numbers, read Jessie Siegel’s 2021 piece for The Insider.
Right-wingers usually claim that bigotry is not a factor in their behavior. In Llano, the cost of litigation ($100,000 and counting in a system with a budget of $450,000) is cited as the main reasoning behind the possible shutdown.
The library board claims the books were removed under its usual “weeding” process and a local judge in the case claims they can still be checked out. The federal judge noted that they are neither on shelves nor in the system’s catalog. And it is rather suspicious how such drastic actions in Texas and Missouri were attempted immediately after book bans were challenged.
No matter the ultimate outcome in those cases, I’ll be shocked if there aren’t more incidents like this in the future. It’s just bitterly ironic as well as ridiculous that the self-proclaimed party of freedom and its followers are working so hard to limit the freedoms of others. That includes the freedom to understand people via literary access to their points of view and experiences.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.