Press “Pause” and Prepare: The Trend Toward Book Challenges

Banned and Challenged Books, Challenge Reporting, Diversity

Forget Tide Pods and cinnamon swallowing. The latest dangerous fad sweeping the nation is book challenges. In September — traditionally Banned Books Month, celebrating the freedom to read — challenges to YA books Lawn Boy and Gender Queer arose in Texas, Virginia, Ohio, and New Jersey. Recent days delivered challenges to New Kid, Stamped, and Front Desk. In September 2021, ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom recorded 60% more challenges than in September of the previous year.

Interestingly, many of the books targeted in this wave appear on lists like this one from an organization that claims, “We are loud. We are tenacious. We must be heard. We won’t be denied.” 

In keeping with that approach, protestors in Texas, Virginia, Ohio, Missouri, Wyoming, Florida, and New Jersey launched their challenges by ambushing board meetings, where they presented provocative excerpts from Lawn Boy and Gender Queer to fire up followers, foment fear among school board members, and generate viral clicks. In the heat of the moment, operating in “emergency mode,” some districts immediately pulled the books from circulation. 

Press “Pause” and Prepare

But as with any emergency, the best defense against book challenges is preparation. Press “pause” on panic and encourage a more civilized reconsideration process by sharing these tips with your colleagues, principal, superintendent, and board:

  • Familiarize yourself with the books that activist organizations are targeting. Know which of those titles is in your collection, and consider preparing a “resume” for each, similar to these for Lawn Boy and Gender Queer. A librarian’s research skills make this a fairly quick task. ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom can help gather resources to defend specific materials.
  • Understand your district’s reconsideration policies. Keep links handy and have printed copies of those policies and any associated forms available in key offices (e.g., principal’s office, board office) and at public meetings. If you don’t have a reconsideration policy or form, the ALA offers models in its “Selection & Reconsideration Policy Toolkit.
  • Use the policies. During public comments at meetings, when it becomes apparent that a speaker intends to challenge a book or library program, the moderator should explain the policy and process for public complaints, offer the speaker a copy of the policy and the reconsideration form, and move on. Do not permit the meeting to be hijacked by a “protest performance.” Materials reconsideration is a careful, deliberate process and does not occur in the heat of a contentious public meeting.
  • Reserve judgment. Do not form an opinion of the book based on provocative passages presented out of context. Instead, encourage the complainant to read the work in full, as should all members of the reconsideration committee.
  • Engage your librarian. When you receive a complaint — whether verbally or through a formal challenge — alert your librarian immediately. The heat of a challenge is often directed at the librarian, so offer your encouragement and support, and keep the lines of communication open. In return, the librarian can support you by providing background information about the book, placing the book in context within the larger collection or curriculum, and helping form a reconsideration committee. The librarian will also have connections to intellectual freedom organizations, such as ALA, local library associations, and other professional societies, which offer advice and resources to help the district navigate the challenge.
  • Share information and resources with neighboring districts. The recent challenges have been hopping from community to community like wildfire. Use your professional network to share resources and strategies.
  • Protect the First Amendment and students’ right to read. Learn from the history of court rulings about censorship in schools. In Island Trees School District v Pico, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that the First Amendment limits the power of school officials to remove books from school libraries because of their content. In Montero v Tempe Union, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit decided in 1998 that removing controversial books from the curriculum because of parent complaints would be a violation of students’ First Amendment rights to receive information. And in Counts v Cedarville School District, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas ruled in 2003 that it is unconstitutional for the school district to require children to receive parental permission when checking out Harry Potter books from the school library.
  • Report Censorship. Whether you need challenge support or not, please share information with ALA. It can be confidential and anonymous. Anyone can report or contact ALA for any reason.

Although certain titles are trendy targets now, book challenges will be an issue for the long run. That’s because, ultimately, no book is the perfect fit for every reader, especially works that tackle difficult topics reflecting real-world circumstances. But one reader’s objection is not a license to restrict all other readers from the book.

Perhaps the best approach comes not from trends but from a classic ruling by Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Curtis Bok in the 1949 case Commonwealth v Gordon:

“I should prefer that my own three daughters meet the facts of life and the literature of the world in my library than behind a neighbor’s barn, for I can face the adversary there directly. If the young ladies are appalled by what they read, they can close the book at the bottom of page one; if they read further, they will learn what is in the world and in its people, and no parents who have been discerning with their children need fear the outcome. Nor can they hold it back, for life is a series of little battles and minor issues, and the burden of choice is on us all, every day, young and old.”

Martha Hickson is a high school librarian and recipient of the 2020 AASL Intellectual Freedom Award.


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