Kevin: In 2021, the American Library Association tracked over 1,500 individual book challenges or removals. In addition, our public school system is seeing increasing attempts to ban books from either curriculum or libraries. Many parents are becoming more concerned about the content their children are exposed to at school, whether classroom curriculum or books in the library. Some have been calling to have certain books removed from library shelves for a variety of reasons. What are parents concerned about when it comes to books? What types of books are targeted for banning, and why? What is the review process for library books in schools? And does it work? How should administrators respond to calls for pulling books from school libraries? And what role does politics play in the book banning issue?
Kevin: This is What I Want to Know. And today, in this special episode on banning books, I'm joined by several guests to find out.
Jennifer Pippin is the chair of the Indian River County chapter of Moms For Liberty. She challenged Gender Queer, resulting in the removal of that title in the school district’s libraries. So Jennifer Pippin, thank you so much for joining us on this special episode of What I Want to Know. The first question I have is: How did you get involved with Moms for Liberty and this fight for parental rights, especially as it relates to books and schools?
Jennifer: Sure. Thank you so much for having me on; I really do appreciate it. So, when people ask me, why Moms for Liberty? For me, it was because, again, I was just a full-time working parent that was getting nowhere, and having Moms for Liberty and two former school board members helping us to be able to advocate for our children effectively is why I am doing this today. And again, it started with the COVID-19 protocols; now it's gone into sexually explicit books. And as we say with Moms for Liberty, we kind of play Whac-A-Mole, and we never know what's going to pop up next. But we're just looking out for the best for all children and parental rights.
Kevin: Jennifer, let me ask you this. Why is the issue so important today, this whole issue about the books that are in our kids' school? And also, why is it important to you, especially today?
Jennifer: I think that parents are paying more attention across the country to what their children are learning, what their children are bringing home. Whereas before, we would just send our kids to school before COVID and didn't hear the conversations or see the lessons that they were learning when they went virtual. So I think that parents are less trusting now of what's going on in these schools. And again, it's not all teachers; it's not all school board members, but we're seeing the few that are pushing the critical race theory or these sexually explicit content books, gender dysphoria, these kinds of things — that it is more apparent to us now because we're paying attention.
Kevin: What are some of the common themes or elements that parents like you find worrisome or offensive in these contested books?
Jennifer: As far as the sexually explicit content, we're finding rape — graphic rape, incest, pedophilia, bestiality, oral sex, anal sex. People say that we're targeting the LGBTQIA+ community; that is not the case at all. If there is a sexual act in these books, that's what we're challenging. As far as critical race theory, right now, we have a book in our elementary schools that's challenged called Antiracist Baby. We have a book in our high schools currently that's being challenged that's called Black Person: How to be a Better White Friend. So, all of these books that would divide us by race and say one's inferior to the other — we hear every excuse in the book: children are doing these sexual acts anyways, freedom of speech, the constitutional rights of children. And that's all well and good. We want children to read, but there is federal law, and the Supreme Court said that pornography is not protected by the First Amendment for children. And you look at state statute. So, here in Florida, State Statutes 847 and 1006: They specifically say that books in schools are supposed to be free of pornography and then age-appropriate.
Kevin: Is there a way to balance parents' rights with the different perspectives that an issue like this brings to bear, especially in a way that's acceptable to everyone?
Jennifer: Great question. And I think that has to be on a district-to-district basis, the reason being. So, putting the graphic sex and stuff aside, so, if somebody challenges a book, and maybe there's a committee that says, "Hey, you know what? This book could be on the shelves," maybe having a parental permission slip that they have to opt in to be able to read that book. I know some districts across the country are doing what Blockbuster used to do, and putting them behind the paper bags, and saying, "Listen, you have to have a parent permission slip to be able to read this book. And here's what's in it." So, this way the parent or guardian knows, full disclosure, that, “Listen, in the middle of this book, there's going to be X scene or whatever, or it is going to get into this graphic content.” So, this way the parent or the guardian is put back in the driver's seat, and they know and can discuss with their child what the content of the book is when they check it out.
Kevin: Martha Hickson has been a school librarian at North Hunterdon High School since 2005. She is a recipient of the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity for her activism on behalf of librarians everywhere. Martha Hickson, thank you so much for joining us on this special episode of What I Want to Know. And we're obviously dealing with the book banning issue, and you faced it front and center as a librarian, and we need the voice of a librarian when it comes to this issue. First of all, did you always want to be a librarian?
Martha: I did not always want to be a librarian. I was always an avid reader from the time I was a child. After the events of September 11th, I did a little life inventory, and I had always been interested in teaching. And a friend of mine who had gone to library school in the nineties, the whole time she was there, she kept saying, "You would love this." So I decided to investigate that. And she was right; I did love it. But the last year has been extremely difficult, and I've had some regrets over the last year.
Kevin: How so?
Martha: Well, about a year ago, almost to the day, September 28th, a small group of parents came to our Board of Education meeting with the intention of complaining about two books, Gender Queer and Lawn Boy. Ultimately, their complaints grew to encompass five books. But in the course of that protest at the board meeting, they called me out by name and labeled me a pornographer, pedophile and groomer of children, which was a not only false but devastating accusation. Shortly thereafter, there followed hate mail, trolling on social media. This group of parents even attempted to press criminal charges with the local police and County Prosecutor's Office. And I've been trying to correct that situation and put my life back together for most of the last year.
Kevin: Isn't it true, though, that there's a process that's put in place to decide which books are in the library that extends beyond just you?
Martha: Oh sure. The process is sort of a three-part process, if you think about it. It involves professionals, policies and then the process itself. The professional is the librarian. We are trained at the master's degree level to select materials for a library. Our training includes, for school librarians, includes specialized classes in children's and young adult literature, and we have ongoing professional development in that regard. Through your work — this is my 18th year — you gain considerable experience and knowledge about the publishers and authors who are good for your student population. And we also have significant knowledge of the curriculum in our school, the projects that are undertaken, and what the interests of our students are. With respect to the policies, most libraries have what's called a material selection or a collection development policy. And that is a set of guidelines about the kinds of materials that are acceptable for your library.
Kevin: So, let me ask you this. You said it happened a year ago, this parent protest. Prior to the parent protest, how frequently did you get complaints about the books that were in your library?
Martha: I would say from time to time. As I said, I've been here since 2005; I can recall, off the top of my head, three prior complaints about books. It was so infrequent; I could even tell you the names of them. Looking for Alaska by John Green, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, and Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts. So, I would say maybe once every three years. The difference is, though, in those past situations, what would happen is the parent would either call or email the classroom teacher or the principal to express their concern. The next step was then to have a conversation, where we could listen to the parent's concerns, understand what was bothering them, then explain from the library point of view, what is the literary merit of the book, why is it in the collection, understand the book within the context of the assignment that the teacher has given, offer the parent or student the option of an alternate assignment altogether, or if the book was selected for independent reading purposes, offer the kid the option to choose another book. And I can even provide guidance on that.
Kevin: If you look past a year or more, and then it started to pick up — how much do you think that today's political environment is driving this activity?
Martha: It's hard to say many things with certainty, but in this case, I think almost completely, to the extent that I believe this isn't about the books at all. The books are just a convenient, handy tool with which to wage a proxy war against, in my case, the books that I'm seeing attacked over and over again, and throughout the country, are those that feature LGBTQ themes or those that feature people of color. And I think this is a reaction to the increasing prominence of those populations in our society. I also think it's a reaction to change and a lack of power. And this is one method to respond to that.
Kevin: And as a quick follow-up, especially thinking about what you said earlier, that you had never received any complaints about these books until that nuclear protest at the school board meetings, it sounds also as if you're saying that there is a process and there are policies in place to address those concerns if people communicate.
Martha: Oh sure. We have a policy in our district, it's policy 9130, for public complaints and grievances, and there's a portion of it that specifically addresses library books. And anyone can raise a concern about a library book; we have an intake form that allows them to document their concern. And when that form is received, the first step is to have a conversation around it. And if the concern cannot be resolved satisfactorily through that conversation, then the superintendent must convene a reconsideration committee that is composed of the principal, a department head, a librarian, a board member, and a community member with subject matter expertise in the topic of the book. Those individuals would then read the book cover to cover, discuss it and make a determination as to whether it's appropriate to stay in the library or not. Their recommendation is then passed along to the Board of Education, which would vote: does the book stay or go?
Kevin: Deborah Caldwell-Stone is the director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. Since joining the ALA in 2000, she's worked to address privacy and censorship in the library. Deborah, thank you so much for joining us on this special episode of What I Want to Know. And there are so many organized efforts to go after and challenge certain books. Talk about what you think is driving this book banning issue that is prevalent not only in libraries but in school districts around the country.
Deborah: I think we're seeing a number of phenomena. I think that we're seeing groups of parents who, in all fairness, are concerned about their children's education, a loss of control that probably arises from the pandemic, who are taking a greater interest in what's going on in school — schools and libraries where their children go for their reading materials. But I also think the more malign thing is we're seeing education being used as a political wedge issue, and libraries are becoming part of that control of what young people read. And we've seen really horrible legislation targeting books dealing with racism and slavery, the African American experience in America, under this rubric of critical race theory. And we've also seen attacks on materials that reflect the lives and experiences of LGBTQ persons, again, under some malign theory that it's somehow corrupting for young people to understand and empathize with the lives of others, or even find their own lives reflected in the books they find on library shelves.
And so, we work with librarians and educators, trustees, board members, community members, to fight this challenge. We've even created a new campaign called Unite Against Book Bans, which is meant as a grassroots advocacy platform for individuals and communities to use to fight censorship in their communities. So, folks can go to the website for uniteagainstbookbans.org, and find a whole toolkit on organizing, writing, speaking up at board meetings, knowing who the candidates are and where they stand on the issue.
Kevin: And I believe, as you stated, that politics is driving a lot of this, though the parents’ right to have a role and voice in their child's curriculum and what's happening in school is important. But just one more question on the politics: how do you counter the politics that is driving so much of this, particularly when it comes to some of these titles that have been titles that have been acceptable, even classics that have been acceptable for decades, and all of a sudden they're unacceptable because of the politics of the day? How do you counter that?
Deborah: Well, first, some of it is getting good information out there. There's a lot of misinformation, and even disinformation, that's being shared about the books being read by young people in schools and libraries. But I think that we have to remember that politics are available for everyone. And so, it's incumbent on all of us to understand what's going on at the local board level and to speak up. And I do want to make it clear: we do support the idea that parents should be able to guide their own child's reading. But the simplest thing to say is that they shouldn't be able to dictate what other children read, what other families can access. That should remain the choice of each individual family. And public school libraries, public libraries: Both have a mission to serve everyone in the community and reflect the lives of everyone in the community. And we should anticipate and support the library when they provide books that reflect a variety of views, a variety of lives, knowing that we'll find what we need in the library, and support the right of others to find what they need in the library as well.
Kevin: How important is it for the libraries, and curriculum as a whole, to reflect those experiences of young people in school today?
Deborah: It's absolutely essential. We have looked at studies conducted by academics, and they find that when the materials accurately reflect the lives and experiences of young people, they're far more engaged in their education. It improves literacy; it improves their engagement at school and in their community as a whole. You really want to be able to reach every child where they're at. And that means having a wide variety of materials that reflect a range of life experiences, that acknowledge and celebrate the diversity in our communities, that celebrate the different identities in our communities so that there's some place for every child to engage in their education.
Kevin: So, Deborah, I have one last question, and this is what I really want to know. How can librarians, school superintendents, school boards, on a case-by-case basis, balance the viewpoints of parents with that universal need to make sure that those life experiences are reflected in the books that children have to learn with?
Deborah: I think, as I said earlier, we have to respect the choices of individual parents and provide them with opportunities to make choices about their child's reading assignments, about their child's choices in reading. And in fact, library professionals are anxious to work with individual families when there is some concern about what the child is reading and accessing in the library. They certainly want to make sure that people are matched with books that match their interests and needs, and they'll work hard to do that. But we also have to work on promoting the idea that these are shared community resources, and that just because a book is on the shelf, it doesn't take away from what's available to you and your family, and that we need to assure that everyone is welcomed and included in the library as an institution in the community.
Kevin: Thanks for listening to What I Want to Know. Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app, so you can explore other episodes, and dive into our discussions on the future of education. And write a review of the show. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media, that's #WIWTK. For more information on Stride and online education, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining What I Want to Know.
Jennifer Pippin is the Chair of the Indian River County Chapter of Moms for Liberty. She challenged Gender Queer, resulting in the removal of the title in the school district's libraries.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone is the Director of the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom. Since joining the ALA in 2000, she's worked to address privacy and censorship in the library.
Martha Hickson has been a school librarian at North Hunterdon High School since 2005. She is a recipient of the Lemony Snicket Prize for Noble Librarians Faced with Adversity for her activism on behalf of librarians everywhere.
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What I Want to Know
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