The teen fantasy book, "Daughter of Smoke and Bone" by Laini Taylor, hadn’t been checked out from the Western Middle School library in Russiaville, Indiana for 10 years.
But when the book, published in 2011, finally was checked out this school year, it caught the attention of a resident who thought it didn’t belong in the hands of a middle schooler.
The presence of the book in the middle school library was challenged and reviewed by a committee that determined it should be removed from the middle school, along with other books in the series, and sent to the high school, since it was written for teens aged 14 or older.
Western Community Schools Superintendent Mark DuBois said it was the first time in his nearly 20-year career that he had ever seen a book challenged.
Since 2020 and amid the COVID-19 pandemic, efforts to remove or restrict books accessible to children in schools and libraries have been on the rise. The movement has been largely led by Republican lawmakers, who say parents have become more aware of what children are learning and have access to in schools. Books challenged in across the country include what some deem "offensive" or "inappropriate," many of them containing themes related to LGBTQ, race or sexuality.
"I think it's causing a lot of consternation," said New York Assemblyman John Salka, a conservative Republican. "Since the COVID restrictions were imposed, a lot of parents are realizing what their kids are being taught or not being taught and have become more acutely aware of what's going on in their children's education. They are very concerned and angry and frustrated."
But opponents of these kinds of book bans argue banning books infringes on children's rights to have access to information and limit inclusive education and conversations.
“I think a well-curated library could offend many people,” said Aimee Emerson, president of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association and a middle school librarian in the Bradford Area School District. “We should have reading materials for everyone. We should not be limited to a particular idea. It is what I think is the center of democracy and knowledge.”
This summer, former Norman, Oklahoma public school teacher Summer Boismier found herself entrenched in the book ban movement, calling it a memory that “burned” in her brain.
Before the start of the 2022 school year, district leaders advised teachers to remove texts they thought might violate a new state law, which bans the teaching of certain concepts about race and gender.
Books were being taken from shelves, packed up and rolled down the hallways for storage by her fellow teachers.
Boismier went in a different direction.
She covered her book collection with butcher paper and a caption that read “Books the state doesn’t want you to read.” She also included a QR code with a link to a library card application for the Brooklyn Public Library books and banned book initiative.
“As an English teacher and someone who deeply enjoys reading, I can tell you right now that one thing I’m absolutely not going to do is waste even a single second trying to figure out what stories are going to offend what person, at what time, on what day,” she said. “I have more important things to do.”
When a parent complained, some Oklahoma Republican lawmakers called for her teaching license to be investigated or revoked. She received threats from strangers. And, the state’s secretary of education, Ryan Walters, accused her in a letter of providing “access to banned and pornographic material” and called for her teaching license to be revoked immediately.
She resigned in August and has since taken a job with the Brooklyn Public Library in New York.
Book bans have seen a large uptick since 2020
According to the American Library Association, the number of challenged books has been rising in recent years. In 2020, the ALA documented 273 challenged books and, in 2021, the organization documented 1,597 challenged books. In 2022 alone, the association reports 1,651 unique titles have been challenged through Aug. 31.
PEN America, a nonprofit whose mission is to defend free expression, defines a book ban as an occurrence “when an objection to the content of a specific book or type of book leads to that volume being withdrawn either fully or partially from availability, or when a blanket prohibition or absolute restriction is placed on a particular title within a school or a district.”
Though likely underreported, from July 2021 to June 2022, PEN America lists 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique book titles among 138 school districts in 32 states.
Texas school leaders have banned more books than any other state: 801 books across 22 school districts, with 174 titles banned at least twice, according to PEN America.
Most of those complaints followed soon after Texas Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, released a list in October 2021 of 850 books — most of which predominantly reflected LGBTQ and Person of Color narratives — that he believed could make students feel uncomfortable.
Krause directed school districts to provide him a list of any of those books they had on their shelves.
Johnathan Gooch, communications director for Equality Texas, a statewide political advocacy organization for the LGBTQ community, noted that targeting books written for the LGBTQ or People of Color communities can be detrimental to young people.
“I know that those are difficult topics to discuss, but they're also very real topics that reflect the very real pain that so many people experience,” Gooch said. “I think it's important that we be able to have healthy conversations with children about the darker aspects of life.”
Alabama, New Hampshire and Massachusetts are among 18 states with no bans reported.
Children at the core of censorship
Robert Corn-Revere is an American First Amendment lawyer and author of "The Mind of the Censor and the Eye of the Beholder: The First Amendment and the Censor's Dilemma." The book explores the motivations behind pro-censorship advocates and commonalities in restricting popular culture.
“It's always the effect on kids and throughout history, children have been used as the universal solvent for First Amendment rights,” he said.
Specific to book banning, Corn-Revere reverted back to the 1920s when Tennessee became one of just a few states that prohibited the teaching of evolution at the time.
“That goes back to the Scopes Monkey Trial. While it wasn't focused on banning a specific book, it was focused on banning a particular theory thought to be in conflict with biblical teachings,” Corn-Revere explained. “So, Tennessee adopted at the time what was called the Butler Act, which prohibited the teaching of any theory that conflicted with the divine story of creation as taught in the Bible."
Trends in censorship historically have similarities to current trends — from music, art, comic books and more depicting issues between the urban elite and people in rural parts of the U.S., to the Spanish flu pandemic that left many with doubt and suspicion of pandemic rhetoric, Corn-Revere said. But the culture and the tactics have shifted as people focus their battles on schools and in front of local school boards.
“In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, you have divisions over education...whether or not to keep people at home, whether there's masking," Corn-Revere said. "...In the wake of the publication of the (New York Times) 1619 Project and its incorporation into school curricula around the country, you've then had pushback from more conservative states, and also issues of race in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, where you had nationwide reaction to that and unrest, followed by arguments over how we should teach history."
Politics spark recent wave of book banning
Fueled by concerns about the teaching of critical race theory — which generally is not taught in public elementary, middle and high schools — New Hampshire’s GOP-controlled Legislature approved a “divisive concepts" law like many other states in 2021 (and 2022).
The law prohibits teaching or the use of textbooks about systemic racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination in public schools and state-funded programs.
Supporters of the law argue it will strengthen the state's anti-discrimination laws and improve race relations. The law allows disciplinary action and encourages parents to file complaints about “inappropriate" teachings or books.
"Nothing in this language prevents schools from teaching any aspect of American history, such as teaching about racism, sexism, or slavery — it simply ensures that children will not be discriminated against on the basis of race, gender, sexual identity, or religion,” Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, said in a statement.
The policy mirrors an executive order issued in 2020 by then-President Donald Trump in response to fears about the teaching of critical race theory. It was rescinded by Democrat President Joe Biden.
In Nov. 2021, the parental rights group Moms for Liberty in Hillsborough, NH offered a $500 "bounty" to the first person who successfully catches a public school teacher violating the new law. The group has not responded to CNHI's inquiry on whether the reward has been paid to anyone.
PEN America estimated at least 40% of the bans were tied to legislation or state-exerted political pressure.
Evansville Republican Sen. Jim Tomes introduced a bill earlier this year that would have left schools and certain public libraries open to criminal prosecution for disseminating materials or performances that are “harmful to minors.” Currently, Indiana law provides libraries with an automatic defense against prosecution.
Tomes said he decided to introduce the bill after parents showed him materials their children were checking out at the library. “I can tell you, it’s raw pornography,” he said. “I mean, it wasn't just a little bit, it was absolutely raw pornography – the illustrations in his books, pictures, and the language in the stories that appear in these books.”
He said the goal of the bill isn’t to ban books but to keep out sexually explicit materials from both public and school libraries.
Yolette Ross, chair of the Cherokee County Democratic Party in Oklahoma said it is difficult for her to understand attacks on libraries. She believes misinformation directs these attacks.
“We live in a diverse world with people from all walks of life. What is wrong with our children learning about these groups, including racial minorities and members of the LGBTQ community?” Ross said.
Books containing content that include LGBTQ themes or main characters, and books with a main character of color were the top theme of books banned — approximately 40% for each category between July 2021 and June 2022, according to PEN America.
"Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe is a LGBTQ-themed book and is the most banned book in the country. More than 40 school districts have banned the book.
The book includes intimate depictions and illustrations of sexual experiences and explores puberty and sexual identity. It also seeks to inform through the author’s own life about the difficulties of grappling with sexuality as a Black queer in adolescence through adulthood and the resulting complexities in relationships with family and others.
Members of Citizens for Responsible Education say they are pushing back against what they see as an inappropriate focus on social issues and emotional learning over traditional education, and the introduction of sexually explicit books in school libraries.
"What we’ve come to realize in the past year is that most parents are not even aware that this is happening at the school level and that if they were properly informed, they might very well object to such material being taught to their children,” Mark Harrington, a member of the group, wrote in a recent op-ed.
The Thomas County Public Library System board in Georgia, though not a school library, has held a series of meetings on attempts to relocate books from the children and teen sections due to graphic sexual descriptions in “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, explicit language in “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, and read explicit excerpts from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews.
Many states have no or minimal book bans
A New York-based library activist, Libby Post, advocacy consultant for a national group representing library trustees, United for Libraries, said censorship battles in New York have been relatively rare but when they are initiated they are disturbing. Less than 25 books have been banned in areas of the state.
"Fortunately, we have not been seeing this in New York as much as they are seeing it in some other states," Post told CNHI. "This kind of thing doesn't get very far in New York because we have the ethos of librarianship and the commitment to intellectual freedom and to democracy."
In Georgia, only two school districts have had book bans or challenges, as reported by PEN America.
There were challenges made in January by citizens to remove books from Cherokee County School District media centers, but those challenges were not successful, according to a district spokesperson.
In Forsyth County, Georgia, challenges could only be submitted by residents of the county prior to this current school year. With the new state law and revised policy, challenges can now only be made by parents or guardians of the school their child attends. In January, district staff reviewed 15 books and recommended that 8 be removed indefinitely until they could be further reviewed.
While Missouri has 50 or fewer books banned in various areas of the state, its Republican Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft proposed in October a new rule that would require state-funded libraries to adopt written policies determining what material is age-appropriate and block public funding for library books that might appeal to the “prurient” interests of minors.
“I know that a lot of Missouri libraries are doing a good job on this and reflecting the values of the taxpayers that paid for the materials,” Ashcroft said. “But I just think it’s good to have some guidelines to make sure that we’re reinforcing that parents are in control.”
In the midst of the book ban movement, several libraries, bookstores and groups across the country have launched “Banned Book Clubs” as a way to keep such books in the discussion.
Mickey Uppendahl attended Oklahoma’s Tahlequah Public Library's first Banned Book Club Sept. 29.
“I think it’s important to understand viewpoints that are different from others and usually banning books comes out of trying to suppress viewpoints that are different. So to me, it’s important to learn about things that are different or viewpoints that are different — viewpoints that I don’t hold but are useful for me to understand the people who hold them,” Uppendahl said.
CNHI State Reporters Carson Gerber of Indiana, Christian Wade of Massachusetts, Emily Younker of Missouri, Eric Scicchitano of Pennsylvania, Janelle Stecklein of Oklahoma, Joseph Mahoney of New York, Ali Linan of Texas; and reporters John Smith of the Cumberland (Md.) Times-News, Grace George of Traverse City (Mich.) Record-Eagle, Skyler Hammons of the (Okla.) Tahlequah Daily Press, Dana Melius of The (Minn.) Free Press, and editor Kyle Ocker of the Ottumwa (Iowa) Courier to this report.