Activism grows nationwide in response to school book bans


NEW YORK – Until a year ago, Stephana Ferrell’s political activism was limited to the occasional letter to elected officials.

Then came his local school board meeting in Orange County, Florida, and an objection raised against Maia Kobabe’s graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir.” And the county’s decision last fall to remove it from high school shelves.

“Over the winter break, we realized this was happening across the state and we had to start a project to rally parents to protect access to information and ideas at school,” says Ferrell, mother of two children. Along with fellow Orange County mother Jen Cousins, she founded the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which works with existing parent groups across the state on a range of educational issues, including efforts to “keep or recover the books that have been challenged or that have been banned”.

Over the past year, book challenges and bans have reached levels not seen in decades, according to officials from the American Library Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) and other advocates. freedom of speech. Censorship efforts have focused on local communities such as Orange County and a Tennessee School Board Pulls Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ Graphic Novel to statewide initiatives.

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“There are books containing pornography and pedophilia that absolutely should be removed from K-12 school libraries,” says Yael Levin, spokesperson for the conservative advocacy group No Left Turn in Education, which called on Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate the availability of “Gender Queer” among other books. “Now we’re not talking about a public library or bookstores. We’re talking about K-12 school libraries, books that are just pornographic and with pedophile content.”

According to PEN America, which has tracked legislation nationwide, dozens of bills have been proposed that restrict reading and discussion in the classroom. Virtually all laws relate to sexuality, gender identity or race. In Missouri, a bill would prohibit teachers from using the “1619 Project”, the New York Times magazine issue that centers slavery in American history and has been released last fall as a book.

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Responses have come from organizations large and small, and sometimes from individuals like Ferrell.

The American Civil Liberties Union, PEN America and the NCAC worked with local activists, educators and families across the country, helping them “prepare for meetings, write letters and mobilize opposition” , according to PEN America Executive Director Suzanne. Nossel. Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle said he would personally donate $500,000 to a book defense fund to be run in partnership with PEN. Hachette Book Group announced “emergency donations” to PEN, NCAC and the Guild of Authors.

Legal action was a strategy. In Missouri, the ACLU filed suit in federal court in mid-February for prevent the Wentzville School District from removing these books such as Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison’s “Gender Queer,” “The Bluest Eye,” and Keise Laymon’s memoir “Heavy.” The civil liberties union also filed open case requests in Tennessee and Montana regarding book bans, and a warning letter in Mississippi against what it described as “the unconstitutionality of the book bans.” in public libraries.

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Vera Eidelman, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, cited the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that “local school boards cannot remove books from school library shelves simply because they don’t like the ideas in those books.” The sticking point, Eidelman acknowledged, is that school officials are allowed to ban the books for reasons other than not endorsing the views expressed by the books. Officials might determine, for example, that the book is too profane or vulgar.

“The problem is just that often our definitions of, for example, vulgarity or age-appropriateness, are for lack of a better word, flabby, and they can also hide or be used as a pretext for decisions based on views by the government,” she said. noted.

Two anti-ban initiatives have been launched in Pennsylvania. In Kutztown, eighth-grade student Joslyn Diffenbaugh formed a banned book club last fall that began with a reading of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” The Pennridge Improvement Project launched a campaign to buy books that were removed from schools, including Leslea Newman’s “Heather has Two Mommies” and Kim Johnson’s “This is My America,” and placed them in small free libraries in the district.

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The wave of bans led to new organizations and a shift in focus for existing groups. Katie Paris, an Ohio resident and founder of Red, Wine & Blue, a nationwide network of politically engaged “PTA mamas and digital divas” founded in 2019, said last year she started getting calls of members pleading for help as debates over “critical race theory” erupt.

Red, Wine & Blue has launched online sessions it calls Trouble Maker Training, which includes tips such as “Present a calm face to counter the yelling and screaming” and “Own your individual freedom: You can decide what right for your child, but you can’t dictate what’s right for other families.” Red, Wine & Blue also launched a website that tracks book bans, raised about $50,000 to help organize against bans and organizes an event in March featuring authors of banned books and parents from communities where the books are challenged.

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“We believe education works best when parents and teachers work together,” says Paris, mother of 7- and 3-year-old boys. “And if you don’t want your child to have access to a book and then withdraw, that’s fine. You just don’t want to deprive my children of that opportunity.

Trying to get a book restored often resembles other kinds of community activism — letter writing, speeches, attending meetings.

Meenal McNary is a member of the Round Rock Black Parents Association, based about 20 miles from Austin, Texas. The charity was founded in 2015 after a black teenager was knocked to the ground by a police officer, but more recently has worked to diversify the program and fight book removal efforts. A parent’s objection last year led Round Rock school district officials to question whether “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, should be removed college reading lists.

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“We worked with a middle school teacher who started a petition, and it was very successful, with over 1,000 signatures,” McNary says. The distraction followed a three-step review process — culminating in a school board vote — in which McNary and others helped people write letters, show up at board meetings and let others know. of the petition.

“We had kids who came out in favor of this book, even though it was traumatic for some of them to read it,” McNary says. “We had everyone from college kids to grandmothers and grandfathers explaining their reasons why this should stay on the shelves. The board ended up voting in our favor and the book is still there.


Hollingsworth reported from Mission, Kansas.

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