The scene in Spotsylvania County this week unfolded like many others - a parent stepped up to a microphone in a nondescript room, glanced at a sheet of prepared remarks and claimed the school board in this tiny slice of Virginia was exposing her children to pornography.
The woman took issue with two books in particular: “Call Me By Your Name,” an acclaimed novel that centers on a gay relationship, and “33 Snowfish,” about three homeless teenagers. The American Library Association listed “33 Snowfish” in its list of Best Books for Young Adults in 2004, but this parent called it “disgusting” for its discussion of sexual abuse and child pornography.
Searching the district’s online library catalogue, she added, she found 172 hits for books including the word “gay,” 84 hits for books with the word “lesbian” and just 19 hits for books with the word “Jesus” - “but half of them are about Muslims,” she said.
The board voted unanimously to remove all “sexually explicit” books from the district’s libraries for review. Now all 29 of the district’s librarians are searching tens of thousands of titles. “I think we should throw those books in a fire,” one board member declared.
Schools around the country are scrutinizing and sometimes pulling books from the shelves, as backlash to stories centering on race, sex and queer identities becomes part of mainstream Republican politics. Hailed as a winning message in the Virginia governor’s race this month, conservative rallying cries of “parental rights” have helped fuel a new wave of challenges and legal threats over even the most celebrated of titles, according to those who track book censorship.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) ramped up the rhetoric this week with orders for a statewide probe of potential “criminal activity” surrounding “pornography” in schools, days after calling out two LGBTQ memoirs recently pulled in some districts. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster (R) called the same day for a similar investigation. Citing “national attention,” a Kansas school district temporarily froze library checkouts of 29 books after one parent’s queries, lifting the hold this week after critics noted the district seemed to be breaking its policy of keeping materials available pending a review of complaints.
Among the titles put on pause: Decades-old classics such as Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” as well as a nonfiction account of the Ku Klux Klan.
“I find it profoundly disturbing that we’re accepting so easily the idea that books should be banned and burned and taken away,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who directs the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. The virulence of the opposition in Spotsylvania County especially alarmed her.
“I thought we rejected that authoritarian impulse, you know, decades ago,” she said.
Others feel triumphant. Daniel Latham, a father who spoke at the Monday meeting in Spotsylvania, said he and a group of like-minded parents were inspired to review the school system’s library after reading news stories about parents challenging texts elsewhere in the country.
Latham went to the meeting to denounce mask-wearing mandates and teacher equity trainings as well as urge the removal of explicit materials.
Parents nationwide have become increasingly active in the realm of education during the coronavirus pandemic, showing up to school board meetings to complain about virus-driven closures. As campuses reopened, they kept attending. Conservative parents’ complaints have ranged in topic from vaccine mandates to teaching about racism.
Latham, who is White and calls himself a “conservative-leaning independent,” said his parents group has a list of more titles they want to examine.
“I believe that should be the parent’s choice, to expose their children to graphic sexual content,” the 40-year-old said. “If it’s in the [school] library, I lose that choice.”
Objections to books are nothing new, but they seem to have intensified over the past year, according to advocates of free access - with isolated complaints giving way to more concerted efforts that quickly spread to other areas, often propelled by social media. Caldwell-Stone from ALA traced an apparent rise in challenges to political outrage over topics such as LGBTQ sexuality and “critical race theory” - a college-level academic framework that examines systemic racism in America but has become a catchall for conservative concerns about the way schools discuss race.
Citing fears that teachers are laying guilt on White children, some states have passed laws banning classes from broaching the idea that anyone should feel “discomfort” or “anguish” on account of their race or sex. Republican leaders have also sought to cut funding for schools that teach the New York Times’ 1619 Project, and they have advocated “patriotic education” instead of what they call an excessive focus on the United States’ past and present wrongs.
Richard Price, a political science professor who tracks book challenges in schools and libraries, said he views leaders’ recent embrace of these objections as “political opportunism.”
Republicans are “trying to make sure that these parents stay angry and attack their schools because they want to make sure that that energy is still there for next fall,” said Price, a professor at Weber State University.
Objections to books and school curriculums span the political spectrum, and some texts have also been nixed after complaints that they are out of step with progressive values. Last year - amid national soul-searching about racism in the United States, sparked by the murder of George Floyd - people zeroed in on classics as such as “To Kill a Mockingbird” for their portrayals of Black people or what some called a “White savior” character, according to the ALA.
A Los Angeles-area school district removed “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men” and other novels from its core reading list after challenges, though the books remained available in the library. In response, a conservative youth group promised free copies.
“History is to be learned from, not erased anytime the whims of a leftist mob deem it uncomfortable,” Young America’s Foundation spokesman Spencer Brown said last year.
But the ALA’s list of most-challenged books in 2020 is dominated by titles typically criticized by the right as “anti-police,” “divisive,” sexually explicit or immoral. An anti-racism book by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds drew complaints that it did not cover racism against everyone, ALA said. People said a novel about a transgender child did not reflect “the values of our community.”
For many, the kinds of books drawing ire underscore that those eager for restrictions represent the views of a largely White, straight and cisgender group, at the expense of other communities that long struggled to find their experiences in mainstream literature.
“I’m writing for my former students. I’m writing the books that they couldn’t find in our high school library,” said Ashley Hope Pérez, a literature professor and former Texas English teacher whose 2015 novel “Out of Darkness” - which delves into sex, sexual abuse and racism - was denounced this year as “pornography” not fit for students.
Pérez said she hears from readers who, like her, have experienced sexual abuse: In “Out of Darkness,” she said, they can see their suffering but also a character who “reclaims her right to joy.” Now, with her book in parents’ crosshairs, she also gets vicious messages and voice mails from strangers.
“Out of Darkness” was among the 29 books placed off limits this month in Kansas’s Goddard school district, where officials have said very little about their reasoning. An unidentified parent reached out in September with questions about one book their child had checked out, according to the district, which shared a recent explanation to families and staff but did not respond to further questions from The Washington Post.
The parent followed up with a list of books “being challenged at school districts across the nation,” the district said in its note to families and employees Wednesday, after the book freeze hit the news. A Nov. 4 email to principals and librarians - reviewed by The Post and first reported by KMUW - had said that the district was “not in a position to know if the books contained on this list meet our educational goals.” So officials locked the texts down pending further review.
On Wednesday, the district announced that a committee decided to keep all the books “active.”
Similar stories have played out around the country.
In Pennsylvania, a school district froze access to a long list of books and educational resources focused on people of color and anti-racism, including children’s picture books about civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr. Officials reinstated the titles this fall after protests and months of vetting by an all-White school board.
“Teachers come to us scared,” said Emily Kirkpatrick, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English. “Scared about their job, scared about respect in their communities.”
The council used to get one or two contacts a month from educators seeking help with formal book challenges or worrying school board conversations, Kirkpatrick said. “Now it is not uncommon for us to receive, four, five or six requests for help a day,” she said.
In Virginia, attempts to ban or restrict books in schools have surged, gathering renewed media attention and momentum.
In 2013, Fairfax County parent Laura Murphy tried to remove Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Beloved” from classrooms because she said its depictions of bestiality, gang rape and the murder of an infant gave her son nightmares. A few years later, the Republican-led General Assembly passed a bill that would have given parents the right to opt their children out of sexually explicit reading assignments - only to see the legislation, known as the “Beloved bill,” vetoed by then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D).
But the issue has bubbled back up. In late 2019, a group of Loudoun County parents forced the school system to remove at least five books with LGBTQ themes from elementary schools over complaints of inappropriate content. And in Fairfax County, school officials in September removed two LGBTQ texts from high school libraries after parents denounced the books for sexually explicit content.
The texts are undergoing review from two committees of teachers, parents, administrators and students over the age of 18, according to Fairfax County Public Schools spokeswoman Helen Lloyd. She said the committees will recommend whether to put the books back in school libraries later this month.
The fight over “Beloved” re-emerged in the final week of the Virginia governor’s race, when Glenn Youngkin released an ad featuring Murphy and slamming his opponent - McAuliffe - for his veto of the 2016 bill.
The ad quickly racked up more than a million views. Youngkin won the governor’s race this month, with experts ascribing his success to his ability to reach suburban parents.
Less than a week after Youngkin’s victory, two school board members in Spotsylvania County - Rabih Abuismail and Kirk Twigg - said at a meeting that they wanted to not only remove sexually explicit books, but also destroy them.
“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” Abuismail said, according to video of the board’s recent meeting. Twigg added he would like to “see the books before we burn them.”
Twigg did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview, Abuismail, who said he emigrated from Lebanon at around age 6 and is “devoutly Christian” but politically independent, apologized for his remarks. The 24-year-old said he “lost my mind [and] let my frustrations get the better of me” when parents began describing “33 Snowfish.”
Abuismail said he does not want to burn books with sexually explicit content. Rather, he wants the texts removed from Spotsylvania libraries and donated to a “local community library.” He said books such as “33 Snowfish” do not contribute to children’s education nor prepare them for adult life, and that public school libraries should stock texts that focus on basic subjects such as math, history and science.
“I do understand, being younger and on social media, there are platforms like Tik Tok and pornographic video games that are easily accessible to kids,” Abuismail said. “But when it comes to schools, we should not be another outlet for kids to get their hands on sexually explicit material.”
School board member Baron Braswell cautioned that the district is merely at the start of a review process. Braswell, a 60-year-old Black financial adviser and pastor, said he voted to reconsider sexually explicit books because he wanted to give school staffers adequate time to examine them - and reinstate them if need be.
He suggested the district will not pursue a “wholesale getting rid of books,” which Braswell said he would not support.
He recalled how his own high school assigned “Huckleberry Finn” in the 1970s, and how he found the book’s frequent use of the n-word offensive. But his parents never complained about the text to the school board, Braswell said - and he would not have wanted them to do so.
“I’m glad my mother let me be exposed to it,” he said. “I know who I am, I am not going to let ‘Huckleberry Finn’ define me as a person, it never did. But it was an interesting story.”
Others have similar reservations about simply taking books out of circulation.
Sarah Alley, a 38-year-old White mother to a Spotsylvania fourth-grader, worries that cutting off children’s’ access to a book such as “33 Snowfish” could limit their growth and development.
“Kids reading books like that might be energized to go volunteer at a homeless shelter,” she said. “Seeing this sad raw detail about the kids whose lives are affected by sexual assault may inspire them to seek out a career helping change kids’ lives for the better.”
Spotsylvania school staff tasked with wading through the district’s books face a mountain of work - the five high school libraries alone have 65,000 titles, said Schools Superintendent Scott Baker. He said a team of about three dozen people is working all hours on the job.
Baker, who is in his 10th year as superintendent, said the school system wants to be as responsive as possible to parental anxieties. He emphasized, though, that the district ultimately needs to provide compelling reading materials that are relevant and available to all kinds of students.
Rebecca Murray, a retired former school librarian in Spotsylvania County, foresees dire consequences if books are removed.
“When we start allowing parents or general citizens to walk into a school’s library and pull books off the shelf, declare them pornographic or for whatever other reason,” Murray said, “then we no longer have intellectual freedom in our school library.”