On Monday, April 4 the National Library Association announced that 2021 was an “unprecedented” year for book banning, with 729 challenges to libraries reported across the country.
“The 729 challenges tracked by ALA represent the highest number of attempted book bans since we began compiling these lists 20 years ago,” said ALA President Patricia Wong. “We support individual parents’ choices concerning their child’s reading and believe that parents should not have those choices dictated by others. Young people need to have access to a variety of books from which they can learn about different perspectives. So, despite this organized effort to ban books, libraries remain ready to do what we always have: make knowledge and ideas available so people are free to choose what to read.”
While this is a national phenomenon, Virginia has become a central player in the discussion about book bans, particularly as it relates to what role parents get to play in schools.
Senate Bill 656, a bill nearly identical to the controversial Beloved Bill, has been signed by Glenn Youngkin. This requires teachers in Virginia public schools to notify parents when students are assigned any book that is deemed “sexually explicit,” allow parents to opt their students out of reading the book and any related assignments or material, and require that alternative material be provided for those who opt out.
Youngkin issued a public statement on the bill in February, expressing his support.
“Today, the Senate moved forward on a bill that reaffirmed parental rights. Since the very beginning, I have advocated to give parents a voice and a say on whether their children can receive alternative reading materials because Parents Matter. The passage of this bill signals to schools that parents will not be silenced. Notifying parents is just commonsense, and I look forward to signing it when it reaches my desk,” Youngkin said.
Though it would not serve to explicitly ban any books, the legislation is just one part of Virginia’s continuing struggle to define the boundary between parental rights in education and censorship.
This fall, school boards and parents across the commonwealth found themselves debating the contents of certain books that are available in public school libraries. The discussion stems from a piece of legislation known as the “Beloved Bill,” which came about when a Fairfax County mother objected to explicit content in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The bill was vetoed by former Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2017, a decision that Youngkin resurfaced in his 2021 gubernatorial campaign.
Since then, some commonly debated books have been Gender Queer, a graphic novel by Maia Kobabe that discusses sexual identity, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, a coming-of-age novel about a gay man, and Maus by Art Spiegleman, another graphic novel that depicts the author’s father’s experience as a Holocaust survivor. While some parents claim that the books’ sexual or violent contents make them inappropriate for schools, others fear that restricting access to schoolbooks is an undue form of censorship.
In November 2021, a Spotsylvania school board meeting gained national attention when they voted to remove books with explicit material from libraries, following a heated meeting in which board member Rabih Abuismail said, “I think we should throw these books in a fire.” The rhetoric of book-burning turned heads and put Spotsylvania under scrutiny, and pushback from anti-censorship advocates eventually led to the board’s reversal of the ban.
Also in November, Fairfax County Public Schools temporarily pulled Gender Queer and Lawn Boy from library shelves for a two-week content review, after which they were returned. FCPS Assistant Superintendent Noel Klimenko said, “I am satisfied that the books were selected according to FCPS regulations and are appropriate to include in libraries that serve high school students. Both books have value beyond their pages for students who may struggle to find relatable stories.”
Loudoun County made the decision in January to ban Gender Queer, citing sexual themes throughout the book.
When it comes to parents having a say in their students’ books, a woman in Spotsylvania is taking an approach that would allow parents to be more informed, without taking any books off the shelves. Inspired by the November debates and their threats of “book burning,” Bernadette Chimner created a website and book club called “The Bipartisan Bookclub,” designed to let parents within Spotsylvania assess library books for mature content.
“A lot of the parents would say to me … ‘You know, it’s not that I don’t want this book in the library, it’s that I don’t want my kid reading it’, or ‘I would want to know if my kid were reading this book. I would want to know what that content was,’” Chimner said.
Anyone in Spotsylvania can attend the monthly meetings, where attendees discuss the content and merits of a book that has frequently been banned.
Users in the county can also use the website to rate books’ mature content on a scale from “None” to “Intense,” and flag topics like sexual content, violence, racially insensitive language, or other sensitive content. Other features include noting “pages to skip” if there are objectionable scenes, plus a “student message” feature where users can leave notes that point out content which could be hurtful, so that students know to think critically about the content.
“If you take a book like that, where they show a problematic message, and instead of pulling it off the shelf and saying nobody can read it, include that extra information for the students so that they can think critically about it, it becomes a much more powerful thinking tool,” Chimner said.
Within high schools, students are also reacting to the threat of book bans.
Voters of Tomorrow, a non-profit political organization for Gen Z students, began a program to distribute copies of Beloved and Maus at public schools in the area.
“Governor Youngkin proudly campaigned as a book-banner, and Governor Abbott is promoting homophobia and erasing LGBTQ+ conversations with his pro-censorship demands. Our coalition of young people is bringing the fight directly to their states, showing these elected officials that we will not allow them to take control of our education for political gain,” said Jack Lobel, a spokesperson for Voters of Tomorrow, in a statement on their website.
While SB 656 is not a complete ban, students have expressed concern that this level of parental involvement creates unnecessary barriers for teachers who want to keep the books in the curriculum.
“What legislators in Virginia and across the nation should do is stop creating these unnecessary hassles and burdens and restrictions to access to key literature, and stop creating unnecessary burdens for teachers that make it harder for them to do their job, especially during COVID, when it’s become harder than ever for a teacher to master the profession,” said Matthew Savage, the president of Virginia Voters of Tomorrow and a senior at George Marshall High School.
The Virginia branch of Voters of Tomorrow set up distribution sites at three high schools in the region, while simultaneously encouraging students to register to vote. Savage approximated that they’ve distributed over 90 copies of Beloved, and around 60 of Maus.
Savage was also involved in the creation of another new bill which will establish a panel of non-voting student advisors to sit on the State Board of Education and provide a student perspective to decisions being made.
“This is really something that I think will further empower students,” Savage said. “And there’s been a lot of conversation in the last election about the role that parents have in their education, but we also have to recognize that students have an essential role as well, and that we need to uplift and recognize their voice.”
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