Banning Books But Not Guns—What the Hell Are We Doing?
The latest book bans have a decidedly White Christian nationalist spin, and now teachers and librarians find themselves in the GOP crosshairs.
My own graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy—about my childhood spent in Japanese American internment camps in America during World War II—was banned in York, Pennsylvania in 2021 as part of a campaign against teaching about the racial history of America.
At the time I was outraged.
How could anyone, let alone educators, try to hide the truth from children so blatantly? How could they simply invalidate my own life experiences, simply because they were afraid of how it might make White students feel?
As a child, I was tough enough to endure years behind a barbed wire fence because of my race. Surely it’s not too much to ask other students simply to learn about that dark chapter of history?
Little did I know, that book ban occurred at the beginning of a new wave of bans sweeping the nation as politicians seize upon education as a wedge issue.
We look at the move to ban books, rather than guns, in The Big Picture today.
— George Takei
So far in 2023, the United States has seen 164 mass shootings, 14 of which have taken place in schools. According to EdWeek, there have been 158 school shootings in the U.S. since 2018, 51 of which took place in 2022 alone—the most ever recorded in a single year.
Yet instead of making any effort to restrict access to firearms, the Republican Party is working overtime to ban something they deem much more dangerous.
In 2022, the GOP passed 20 laws in 13 states to weaken gun laws even as they turned their attention to banning books in schools and public libraries.
Book Bans Took Off During 2021-2022 School Year
During the 2021-2022 school year, PEN America tracked 2,532 instances of book bans across 1,648 unique titles throughout 32 states. Six states–Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah–even implemented book ban legislation.
While book bans are not a new phenomenon, this surge in the 2021-2022 school year was at the highest level The American Library Association (ALA) had ever seen since it began tracking book banning 20 years ago.
The growth was a direct result of conservative organizing in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns. 70 percent of the groups that issued challenges to books during the 2021-2022 school year were launched since 2021.
According to PEN America:
"Broadly, this movement is intertwined with political movements that grew throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, including fights against mask mandates and virtual school, as well as disputes over 'critical race theory' that in some states fueled the introduction of educational gag orders prohibiting discussion of 'divisive' concepts in classrooms."
This includes groups such as Moms For Liberty, which was founded in 2021 and already boasts over 200 chapters nationwide. Another example is MassResistance which called January 6th "a set-up" and has been named an anti-LGBTQ+ hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It should come as no surprise then, that the vast majority of book challenges occurred in states where Republicans hold or held legislative majorities, with the most in Texas (801 bans), followed by Florida (566 bans), and finally Tennessee and Pennsylvania (between 251-500 bans).
This provides a clue as to the predominant reasons for the challenges to books.
As the ALA bluntly points out:
“Most of the targeted books were by or about Black and L.G.B.T.Q. people.”
Of the 1,648 banned titles, the most common reason for a ban was due to LGBTQ+ themes (674 books or 41 percent).
This included the most banned book of 2022: Gender Queer: A Memoir by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe, which was banned in 41 school districts.
The graphic novel’s description reads:
“Gender Queer Started as a way to explain to [Kobabe’s] family what it means to be nonbinary and asexual, Gender Queer is more than a personal story: it is a useful and touching guide on gender identity—what it means and how to think about it—for advocates, friends, and humans everywhere.”
The second most banned book of 2022 was also LGBTQ+-themed: All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson. It was banned in 29 school districts.
The book's description reads:
“In a series of personal essays, prominent journalist and LGBTQIA+ activist George M. Johnson's All Boys Aren't Blue explores his childhood, adolescence, and college years in New Jersey and Virginia.”
The second most common reason for banning books in the 2021-2022 school year was the presence of protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.
This accounted for 659 of the 1,648 banned books or 40 percent, including the third most banned book: Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, banned in 24 school districts.
Out of Darkness is described as:
“New London, TX. 1937. Naomi Vargas is Mexican American. Wash Fuller is Black. These teens know the town's divisive racism better than anyone. But sometimes the attraction between two people is so powerful it breaks through even the most entrenched color lines. And the consequences can be explosive.”
Finally, the fourth most banned book of 2022—The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison––was banned in 22 school districts.
No stranger to book bans, Morrison’s novel's description reads:
“In Morrison’s acclaimed first novel, Pecola Breedlove—an 11-year-old Black girl in an America whose love for its blond, blue-eyed children can devastate all others—prays for her eyes to turn blue: so that she will be beautiful, so that people will look at her, so that her world will be different. This is the story of the nightmare at the heart of her yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment.”
Banning Books Is Just the Beginning
Not content with simple book bans, Republican-led states are now using the threat of prosecution to suppress content they deem inappropriate.
On January 17, 2023, North Dakota’s House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on HB 1205, a bill introduced by Republican state legislators that would prohibit “public libraries from maintaining sexually explicit books.”
One of the enforcement provisions of the bill according to the AP is:
“Up to 30 days imprisonment for librarians who refuse to remove the offending books.”
Similarly, Indiana Senate Bill 17 lays out the punishment for librarians who are guilty of “Dissemination of Matter or Conducting Performance Harmful to Minors” as:
"A violation of the code results in a level 6 felony, which can carry a penalty of six months to two and a half years in prison in addition to a fine of up to $10,000."
Yes, Republicans are threatening to jail librarians.
Florida House Bill 1467 led school administrators to threaten teachers to remove or conceal their classroom libraries lest they run afoul of Florida’s new law, guidance for which was just released in January.
"According to Florida’s Department of Education, the selection of library materials, which includes classroom libraries, must be 'free of pornography and material prohibited under state statute, suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented, appropriate for the grade level and age group for which the materials are used and made available'.”
Violations can result in a third-degree felony.
Judd Legum broke the story on Popular Information on January 23:
The threat of prosecution led teachers to resort to the following:
Teacher Don Falls explained the message teachers received:
“We were instructed last week that we essentially had three choices as far as our personal libraries that are in our classrooms.
"We could remove them and completely box them up. We could cover them up with paper or some sort of something. Or they could be entered into a database where the school district has all of the library books, and if the book was in the system, then it could remain on the shelf, open.”
Falls chose to cover his classroom library.
Brian Covey—a Duval County substitute teacher who originally posted the video of the empty bookshelves above—was fired for allegedly “violating the school's social media and cell phone policies,” even as the state of Florida was claiming teachers were not being forced to remove books from classroom shelves at all.
According to Popular Information, Covey’s ultimate sin was the:
"...misrepresentation of the books available to students in the school’s library and the disruption this misrepresentation has caused.”
This happened even though, as Judd Legum clearly lays out, there was no misrepresentation by Mr. Covey at all.
They’re Trying to Ban Books in Blue States, Too
Attempting to challenge books in hopes of banning them is not strictly a red state phenomenon, of course. The New York Times’ podcast The Daily covered the story of attempted book bans in the New Jersey town of Annandale in the fall of 2021, when local parents sought to ban books from the local high school library.
One local parent, Caroline Licwinko, filed challenges to “Genderqueer” as well as “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evinson, an LGBTQ+ coming-of-age story often targeted by book banners, as well as “This Book Is Gay” by Young Adult author Juno Dawson.
All three books were identified by Vanderbilt University as among the Top 10 most banned books of 2022.
And as host Michael Barbaro observed:
“…all her concerns are about books that are focused on LGBTQ people.”
For her part, Licwinko was upset she would be associated with an anti-LGBTQ+ movement. But as local residents pointed out at a subsequent school board meeting, there were books available in the library that contained sexual scenarios between males and females that were notably not being challenged.
And Licwinko told on herself when she outright associated the presence of these LGBTQ+-themed books with the concept of “grooming” and “pedophilia,” a dangerous trope advanced by rightwing anti-LGBTQ+ bigots without any foundation.
But while the Annandale School Board ultimately voted to deny the challenges to these books, allowing them to remain on the library shelves of the high school, Licwinko perhaps got the last laugh. She took her activism to the next level and ran for a local school board seat herself.
And she won.
And while Licwinko’s decision to run was seemingly her own, she is a part of the national rightwing movement that sprung up in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns. Their focus was on taking over school boards in order to have a say in the curriculum their children are taught in classrooms as well as the books that get placed on the shelves in their libraries.
As The Daily put it:
"A lot of these groups are funding campaigns for school board seats, endorsing candidates, and trying to get people who share their ideology onto school boards so that they can have more of an influence over everything from what’s in the library to the school’s policies."
Which led Barbaro to ask the crucial question:
"Did winning some of these book ban battles end up costing [those opposed to book bans] the bigger war over control of school boards?"
How to Fight Back
Of course, Barbaro’s observation is not the final word. The larger war has not been won by the book banners…yet.
So far, far right extremists have held the advantage. Their organization and funding spiked in the wake of COVID-19 lockdowns, and their larger political movement has been taking over local government and state legislatures as part of a long-game strategy for decades.
But the left has begun to fight back, albeit without the national organizing, institutional support or funding the right has.
"...liberal groups—including Red, Wine & Blue, a national effort; the Florida Freedom to Read Project, which two Florida mothers formed to combat book bans; and Defense of Democracy, started by two mothers in Fishkill, New York, who were unsettled by what they saw as Christian nationalists targeting school boards—have begun endorsing candidates, distributing campaign signs and training parents to speak out in support of diversity programs, transgender accommodations and books about racial conflicts and LGBTQ issues."
Amanda Littman, who founded Run For Something and is urging Democrats to run for local school boards around the country, explained the lesson Democrats could be taking from the right in this fight.
“What Ron DeSantis is doing in Florida—supporting a bunch of these school board candidates—is really smart, because the No. 1 allies you’re going to need when he tries to run for something else is lots and lots of local leaders who are plugged in with their neighbors and their friends who can advocate on his behalf.
"That’s a school board member.”
The good news is while right-wing anti-freedom book banners have organization and money on their side, they did have only mixed electoral success in 2022.
It is essential we continue to push back on these efforts by joining progressive organizations that are aligned against the right’s authoritarian move to ban books, and by running for local legislative bodies ourselves.
The tragic irony of the right’s crusade to ban books under the guise of “protecting children”—even as they loosen gun laws in the name of “freedom”—is that according to the CDC, firearms rose to become the number one cause of death in children and adolescents in 2020.
Found nowhere on the chart of causes of death in children?
UPDATE 4/18/23: Since this piece was originally published we have continued to see mass shootings surge. The number of mass shootings went from 116 to 164 today. And the number of school shootings went from 10 to 14, as of April 7, including, of course, the deadly massacre at Nashville’s Covenant School.