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‘All The Shelves Would Be Bare’

Christine Emeran, an advocate for free expression talks about the push to ban books, especially those about racism, sexuality and gender.

Once again, librarians are in the center of the culture wars.

Parents questioning the teaching of racism, sexual identity and gender are bringing increasing numbers of challenges to books in school and sometimes public libraries that they say aren’t appropriate for children.

Conservative politicians are also calling for more scrutiny of school libraries, and in some cases, the removal of certain books. In a letter asking state education officials to investigate, South Carolina, Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, described a memoir about gender identity by a nonbinary author as containing “sexually explicit and pornographic depictions, which easily meet or exceed the statutory definition of obscenity.”

In Virginia, parental concerns about books became a central issue in last year’s gubernatorial race. Republican Glenn Youngkin’s campaign used footage of parents requesting that LGBTQ-themed books be removed from school libraries. Youngkin won the election and, since taking office, has asked parents to report “divisive teaching practices,” such as critical race theory, to a hotline.

The American Library Association released a statement last fall flagging “an unprecedented volume of challenges” requesting that books be removed from school and public libraries. Since then, school boards and libraries have continued to weigh requests to remove titles from circulation. 

An NBC News investigation found hundreds of books have been pulled from the shelves in Texas, where conservative parents and politicians have advocated for their removal. A Tennessee school board’s decision to restrict the teaching of “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning set of graphic novels about the horrors of the Holocaust, sparked a national uproar. School board members said they objected to inappropriate language and a naked character. In Wyoming, a county library board rejected a challenge from a resident who wanted to remove “Babysitters Coven” from the public library’s teen section because he said it encouraged the occult and teen drinking. School librarians in Wake County, North Carolina spoke out in favor of keeping targeted LGBTQ-themed books such as “Lawn Boy” and “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” books facing challenges around the country

The National Coalition Against Censorship endorsed a statement warning that “an organized political attack on books in schools threatens the education of America’s children.” It has tracked dozens of book challenges in schools and libraries, as well as incidents of censorship of student expression, and has appealed to school districts to follow established review processes before removing any books

“The continued insistence by those who would ban books that ‘discomfort’ is a reason to prevent students from learning difficult, often devastating, truths threatens America’s students and its entire education system,” NCAC Executive Director Chris Finian said in a statement about the “Maus” case.

Asked how efforts to restrict access to books now differ from attempts in previous decades, Christine Emeran, director of the youth free expression program for NCAC, said many books are still challenged based on language and sex content. But more recently, “it’s broadened to include issues such as racism, sexism and gender identity questions.” Emeran stressed that parents have the right to monitor what their children read. “The overreach happens when the decision for a particular child extends to all children in the community.”

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Professional associations that represent educators, she pointed out, tend to advocate for access to a wide range of views. “The opportunity to discuss and dissent are essential to education, and also serves the school’s goals to prepare children for adulthood and participation in the democratic process,” Emeran said. 

The Center for Public Integrity spoke with Emeran about what the efforts around the country to restrict books have in common with each other and with such efforts in the past. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

A headshot of Christine Emeran.

Christine Emeran, director of the youth free expression program for NCAC

Q: Banned Books Week has been around since 1982, and efforts to restrict reading material has been around even longer. So this isn’t a brand new phenomenon. How is what’s happening today like the challenges of the past, and how is it different?

A: Banned Book Week was a way of giving public awareness of the scope of these particular problems. [A] lot of them … books being challenged … were in the classical canon. Those books would be like “Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Things that you read, “Catcher in the Rye.” Books that you read in the past. So those were books that became challenged books during that time. However, with society there’s a lot of societal changes, and as a result challenges tend to reflect the society in terms of the cultural transformations that they are going through. So nowadays, you see books that are being restricted or being challenged based on … old criteria such as language or sex content. Also, it’s broadened to include issues such as racism, sexism and gender identity questions, right?

Q: Why are we seeing so many challenges to books in school and public libraries right now? What is prompting these concerns around the country? This “uptick,” as the ALA described it?

A: There are cultural changes that are happening in the United States. There are political changes that are happening in the United States. So all of this is sort of context for what is happening. But then also if you think about it, parents in general have always been concerned with their children, protecting their children in terms of material that they felt is appropriate or not appropriate for a particular child. So I think that’s pretty universal in terms of, parents want to advocate for their kids and also their learning. They are allowed to object to a particular book and they have spaces for them to voice their views through like school board meetings or filing a complaint. For us we would never say they couldn’t do that. 

[But] if you look at it from the school officials’ point of view it’s also their job to ensure that the students’ rights are protected and then also to ensure that no one’s personal viewpoints are privileged. So while a parent has the right to influence their own children’s education, it’s not to determine what all children are allowed to have access to or to read or to learn.

Q: What do the challenged books have in common? 

Q: What do the challenged books have in common? 

A: I think for us in terms of themes, if we look at 2021, some of the common themes were books that were being challenged for, for sex, books that were being challenged for political social views, and books that are being challenged for gender identity. 

Q: How are the efforts to challenge specific books related to attempts to restrict the teaching of race, history, sexual orientation, gender identity and politics?  

A: We’re a nonpartisan organization so we can’t advocate for any particular book in terms of what should be taught and what should not be taught but we do advocate for decisions about instructional library materials to be made with respect to free expression principles and also the students’ First Amendment rights. So we also advocate that these decisions are made objectively as possible, that [they] are based on education, pedagogical, literary and professional reasoning and not the personal viewpoints of parents, teachers or administrators.

Q: Parents often say they don’t want their children to be exposed to some of the material they find troubling – the nudity in” Maus,” say, or profanity in “The Hate U Give.” If book bans aren’t the right way, how should schools and libraries handle such concerns? What are the options here? 

A: In a library, if you had a book that was supposed to serve everybody then all the shelves would be bare. A library is meant to include a broad selection of books that provides value to students so parents can say, ‘I don’t want my child checking out this particular book,’ and that could be one way for them to handle those types of things. 

But again this is really up to the community and the schools to decide how to interpret their school communities. There are other school communities that have processes in place to talk about the uncomfortable topics and teachers are trained on how to do that, but again, parents have the option of having their child not participate, opt out of that discussion. 

Because again, parents are afraid that their kids are not ready for these conversations. They’re afraid of the questions that these books might inspire and maybe they don’t want to have these discussions with their kids. And maybe they’re afraid these books are going to expose children to ideas that they haven’t considered, or maybe this is the first time they’re encountering it. 

Q: What effect does restricting books on gender, race and sexuality have on communities and students of color, or LGBTQ students? 

A: First, it’s basically, books are being singled out for viewpoints that are unpopular. it could be a problem when it doesn’t allow students to discover different viewpoints. For us, we support the idea that kids should be allowed to explore themselves and identity in books, and in some cases, it might be a lifesaver for them. 

Q: Why is this discussion important? Why is it important to pay attention to the fact that this number of requests is increasing?

A:  In terms of this particular time, what’s disturbing is that in some cases, we’ve seen school districts, because of the public pressure, are abandoning their policies for reviewing books and they’re pulling the books before they’re reviewed. This idea of removal seems to feel different from what we’ve seen in the past and it also raises concerns about access to information for students and their free expression rights.