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Washington Whispers: Is the Next Step Burning Books?

By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.


Literary masterpieces or objectionable books?
Literary masterpieces or objectionable books?

Censorship is flourishing these days, another front in the culture wars. Freedom of speech under the First Amendment—and its companion, freedom of thought—are under siege.


According to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office for Intellectual Freedom, this fall has seen an unparalleled number of efforts to ban books. Caldwell-Stone told CNN, "In my twenty years with ALA, I can't recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis."


First in the line of fire are books about the lives and struggles of people of color and LGBTQ people. These range from books about civil rights icons like Rosa Parks and Ruby Bridges to children’s picture books like I Am Jazz, which explains to kids what it means to be transgender through a sweet, cheerful true story of a transgender child. Not even the also true, touching story of two gay penguins at the Central Park Zoo, And Tango Makes Three, rendered with delightful illustrations, has been spared from book banning.



According to the New York Times, one of the more frequently targeted books is the 2019 graphic memoir Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe. It has been banned from school libraries in school districts from Virginia to Florida to Iowa, and its presence on school shelves has been challenged in Rhode Island, New Jersey, Ohio, Washington, and Texas. According to Kobabe, one of the claims against the book is that it promotes pedophilia—“based on a single panel depicting an erotic ancient Greek Vase.”


Victoria Manning, a member of the Virginia Beach, Va. school board, was instrumental in getting Gender Queer permanently banned from that school district’s school libraries and curriculum, declaring she was “sickened” by what she had looked at and read.


Although Manning said she had read the entire book, her view was based on a couple of panel drawings without considering how they fit into the context of what the entire book was addressing. She is also challenging several other books, including Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, and Christopher Noxon’s Good Trouble, Lessons from the Civil Rights Playbook.


Manning claimed the challenge to Good Trouble was based on the concerns of other parents, not hers, that her concerns weren’t with books’ overall themes, and that she supports diverse literature and “culturally responsive practices.” But author Noxon told the Los Angeles Times in November that Manning has appeared on Fox and Friends to attack teaching about racism and that she keeps a so-called “wokeness checker” on her personal blog to fight the school district’s equity policy. So Manning’s true motivation is suspect.


District officials say they expect a final decision on the challenged books by mid-December. But Noxon notes that, in the meantime, those pursuing the ban “have succeeded in getting so-called objectionable books removed from shelves and stoking fear and outrage to shore up the conservative base.”


That stoking of fear has been successful. At an October 12 Virginia Beach school board meeting, one parent said of the various challenged books, “I’m not saying, ‘Burn (the books).’ I’m saying: Get them out of our public-school libraries.”


Virginia’s Spotsylvania County School Board was even less open-minded. When it voted unanimously to have books with “sexually explicit” material removed from school library shelves, two members said they did want the books burned. “I’m sure we’ve got hundreds of people out there that would like to see those books before we burn them,” Kirk Twigg, one of the members, said. “Just so we can identify, within our community, that we are eradicating this bad stuff.”


Texas state Rep. Matt Krause has asked schools in his state to confirm whether they have any books from a list of 850 titles Krause has decided “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex,” the criteria set by Texas’s anti-critical race theory law passed in May 2021. Among the books on his list are Black activist Ruby Bridge’s 2020 memoir, This Is Your Time, and William Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Confessions of Nat Turner, along with many other books addressing the nation’s racial history, religion, and politics, as well as books addressing struggles with sexual health, sexual identity, and teen suicide.


In Johnston, Iowa, challenges were raised to The Hate U Give and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, two novels featuring young people of color, ostensibly because of sexually explicit content and “anti-police sentiment.” The Johnston school board voted unanimously to allow the books to remain in classrooms.


Nevertheless, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch, at a Johnston school board meeting in November, State Sen. Jake Chapman said teachers who give “obscene” books to students should face legal consequences. The Dispatch suggested that Chapman’s statement is likely a precursor to the introduction of such legislation. The age-old question: Who will get to decide what is obscene?


In November 2020, an all-white York, Pennsylvania school board voted unanimously to ban a list of books and educational resources that they categorized as anti-racism. Teachers at Central York High School received the list of banned articles, books, and videos, including even a children's book about Rosa Parks, and a CNN town hall on race featuring Muppets from Sesame Street by email from the high school principal. According to the Allentown daily, The Morning Call, one teacher reacted: “Let’s just call it what it is—every author on that list is a Black voice.”


In September 2021, the York school board reversed its decision, unanimously voting to reinstate access to the books. But they did so only after a year of organizing against their decision, culminating in about 200 students and parents protesting, and the students organizing consecutive demonstrations.


School officials then tried to backpedal, claiming the materials had not been banned, just “frozen” while the board was vetting them. Jane Johnson, president of the school board, said that they were attempting to “balance legitimate academic freedom with what could be literature/materials that are too activist in nature and may lean more toward indoctrination rather than age-appropriate academic content.”


Perhaps the board was influenced by parents like the mother who, according to CNN, said, "Schools are not the place for politics or identity to be shaped."


But schools already shape students’ politics and identity—their world view—through the curriculum choices the schools make. As Lauri Lebo, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania State Education Association wrote of the York choices: “They’re banning material from Sesame Street, but not David Duke. They’re banning PBS, but not the KKK. They’ve even banned the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators’ statements on racism—which acknowledges that racism exists and is bad.”


At worst, the book banners want to be sure students are indoctrinated into the ideas and world view they and established political powers favor. At best, the book banners are only challenging the breadth of the world to which their children should have access. But that, ultimately, is just as harmful to their children’s development into thinkers who can question, examine, and analyze the many ideas that will come at them throughout life. For this, it is necessary for students to have access to and discuss books presenting the varied sides of history and exposing them to the varieties of the human condition existing in the wide world outside their community.


Even if Texas state Sen. Krause was innocent of any ulterior political motive in his alleged effort to protect students from books that might make them “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex,” depriving them access to his 850-book list is the equivalent of wrapping them in cellophane and setting them on a shelf like a delicate, breakable curio. His reasoning is reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian Fahrenheit 451, in which all discovered books are burned because reading them might upset people—or make them think. This is the age and school is the place for students to face the discomforts of challenging ideas. Those discomforts are the growing pains that teach them how to assess different points of view and learn to think for themselves. Of course, it is possible that Krause and those in power in Texas prefer to produce a crop of citizens who do not question or analyze.


Admittedly, there is a good argument to be made that books addressing difficult subjects may be appropriate at different ages. For example, while I Am Jazz would be appropriate to teach elementary school age children about empathy and acceptance of others that are different, Gender Queer would not be suitable for that age group.



But, as Kenan Crow, Director of advocacy with OneIowa, told the Iowa Capital Dispatch, “What is age-appropriate for one kid might not actually be age-appropriate for another kid, and that’s really where parents come in … What is not appropriate is for one parent to decide for every other parent in the district what is appropriate for their kids too.”


As to Gender Queer, there is nothing of pedophilia or pornography in it. While the book does contain some drawings that are explicit about sex, they are not salacious, but rather illustrate part of Kobabe’s personal journey through gender dysphoria. Through much of her young life, she was trying to understand where she could fit in a world where male and female sexual roles are firmly delineated, and she didn’t feel an affinity with either. The book is about her ponderings, while she tried to figure out whether she was gay, binary, non-binary, or something else, and needing to find some balance in it all. (Towards the end of the book Kobabe expresses the preference to be referred to as “e” rather than she or he.) It is the limitations of those like Virginia Beach School Board’s Victoria Manning that prevents them from finding the empathy necessary to understand that.


In response to the Virginia Beach ban, James Lucas Jones, publisher of Oni Press Publisher, said in a statement to The Virginian-Pilot, “The fact is, Gender Queer is an important, timely piece of work that serves as an invaluable resource for not only those that identify as nonbinary or genderqueer, but for people looking to understand what that means. Limiting its availability is short-sighted and reactionary.”


And as Nora Pelizzari, communications director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, has pointed out: “Books are often where students can discover broader experiences or develop empathy for people who live lives very unlike their own, because this is a safe way to explore the world — through reading.”


In the view of author Mark Twain, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”
In the view of author Mark Twain, “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.”

If one sets aside the likely cynical political motivations behind the increase in books banned, one is still left with an eternal contest between a broad and narrow view of the world we live in—the broad leading to empathy, acceptance and inclusiveness; the narrow cultivating fear of anything outside of one’s own parochial sphere.


 

Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.


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