The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Schools nationwide are quietly removing books from their libraries

Meet the librarians fighting bans and scrambling to preserve children’s freedom to read

Samantha Hull holds three books that were removed without notice from a school in Lancaster County, Pa. (Kyle Grantham for The Washington Post)
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LANCASTER, Pa. — Samantha Hull was on vacation when she got the call about the missing books.

Eight titles had melted away seemingly overnight, a panicked school aide told Hull, from the shelves of an elementary school in one of the 22 districts Hull oversees as co-chair of a group representing school librarians in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster and Lebanon counties. The books included titles such as “In My Mosque,” which instructs children about Islam; “A Place Inside of Me,” which explores a Black student’s reckoning with a police shooting; and “When Aidan Became a Brother,” whose main character is a transgender boy.

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Hull, 33, couldn’t understand it: None of those books had been formally challenged by parents, even though she knew that activists across the country were targeting books featuring discussions of race, gender and LGBTQ identities for removal. The growing national furor had already arrived in Hull’s corner of Pennsylvania: Parents at a high school in Lancaster County, she said, had requested the elimination of “Gender Queer,” a memoir about being nonbinary, and “Lawn Boy,” a young-adult novel that includes a description of a sexual encounter between two boys.

Slowly — over months of meetings, investigations and secret conversations with fearful librarians across her counties — she came to understand the disturbing reality. Administrators, afraid of attracting controversy, were quietly removing books from library shelves before they could be challenged.

“There’s two battles going on at once,” Hull said, referring to parallel pushes from parents who want titles stricken and from school officials who are removing books preemptively. “And it’s been really difficult to fight both of those.”

Interviews with librarians in eight states and nearly a dozen districts revealed similar stories that paint what they describe as a bleak picture of their profession, as they fret about and fight against American schoolchildren’s shrinking freedom to read.

School book bans are soaring: Although the vast majority of challenges go unreported, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom counted 330 incidents of book censorship in just the three months from September to November 2021 — marking the highest rate since the association began tracking the issue in 1990. The questioned texts have mostly been “books about LGBTQ people and race and racism,” according to the National Coalition Against Censorship, and many removals sprang from challenges launched by White, conservative parents spurred on by pundits.

Meanwhile, state legislators are advancing bills that would restrict what children can access in school libraries — some of which also suggest penalizing librarians. A member of the Idaho House is advancing a bill that threatens librarians with a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison if they lend explicit materials to a student under 18.

In Tennessee, a bill proposes to prohibit school libraries from offering books defined as “harmful” to minors. “I don’t appreciate what’s going on in our libraries, what’s being put in front of our children. And shame on you for putting it there,” Republican state Rep. Jerry Sexton told a group of Tennessee librarians early this month. An Oklahoma lawmaker last week compared librarians to cockroaches.

And for some, professional consequences have already arrived: An assistant principal of a Mississippi elementary school was fired this month for reading the picture book “I Need a New Butt!,” which jokingly describes the adventures of a child who searches for a new posterior, to a class of second-graders.

Far less well understood, though, has been a backdoor campaign by wary administrators to remove books. The scope of that effort is impossible to estimate, given its secretive nature, but — in one example — a Nebraska librarian said three of the six book battles she’s been guiding this year have dealt with removals carried out by school officials working outside the bounds of book-challenge procedures.

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All of this is having an effect: Librarians in many places are starting to self-censor. They are refraining from recommending or reading aloud certain titles to students, from displaying certain books on prominent shelves — and even from ordering certain kinds of reading material in the first place.

Although Hull has remained an outspoken advocate for keeping all kinds of books in schools — and has spent much of the past year fighting for books in meetings with various Lancaster and Lebanon school officials — even she is feeling the chill. In the current climate, she said, she would not be willing to order a copy of “Gender Queer” for any of her libraries.

Over the course of the 2021-2022 school year, according to Hull and several librarians who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, there have been formal challenges of six books across the 22 school districts in Lebanon and Lancaster counties. Meanwhile, at least 24 books have been pulled temporarily or permanently from the shelves by officials, without public announcement or explanation — including the children’s books “All Are Welcome,” “It Feels Good to Be Yourself” and “Families, Families, Families!”

A spokeswoman for Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, the educational agency that oversees and provides services to the 22 districts, said that “we are unable to offer any details about this topic” because “we are not involved in [districts’] selection of local curricular resources including local library collections.”

Hull said she has recently been having trouble sleeping, consumed by thoughts about what she views as a war on books. She worries most about the consequences for the next generation of Americans. If book banning continues, she warned, “there will be absolutely no progress for our society.”

“When these students — who weren’t exposed to other realities, to people who are different, who have different life experiences than them — when they have children,” Hull said, “we will be right back where we were, fighting the same fight.”

‘Angry, hurt and frustrated’

Stacy Langton believes parents should control when and how their children learn about sex, and she is adamant that “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” should not be on the shelves in the Fairfax County Public Schools, where two of her six children are enrolled. She has spent the past six months trying to remove the texts, which she believes threaten children’s morals because they describe sex scenes in graphic detail — including, in “Gender Queer,” an encounter between an apparent teenager and an older, bearded man.

“There’s an age-appropriateness to all things, and that includes sex education — you’re inherently going to be destroying a child’s innocence and their purity until they’re old enough to be able to understand,” said Langton, 52.

School officials decided after months of review that both books have literary value and neither depicts pedophilia.

Psychologists, academics and librarians reached by The Washington Post said they see value in introducing children to books that contain challenging material, including of the sexual kind, provided it is done with appropriate context, care and tact.

Research shows there is an association between children reading certain kinds of explicit texts — those that depict sexual violence, degrade women or do not discuss boundaries or consent — and engaging in risky sexual behaviors, as well as sex at an early age, according to Amy Egbert, a research fellow in Brown University’s Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior.

But, Egbert said, she doesn’t believe that those types of books are available in school libraries. The books being challenged, she said, are often those that deal with difficult topics, featuring a main character struggling to understand their own sexuality or experiencing some kind of racial tensions or racism. Removing those books is an obstacle to children’s development, she said, pointing to research — including on abstinence-only sex education — that shows that not talking about subjects with children does not change their behavior.

“Those books help kids to start thinking about topics — topics they are probably thinking about already and a lot of times would find information on,” she said. “The information is presented in a way that is more manageable in books. … The books that are being banned, if handled right, can allow kids to explore the human condition in a safe way.”

As the book challenges mount, Mandy Peterson, executive secretary of the Nebraska School Librarians Association, has developed a recipe for dealing with parents seeking to ban a book.

She has mentored about a half-dozen librarians through book challenges this school year, by far the largest number she has seen in her seven years as a librarian. Peterson, 40, said one of the first things she tells librarians is to keep in mind that many parents making challenges “are really genuinely concerned about their kids” and are not driven by political anxieties.

And when librarians meet with parents, Peterson advises , they should let mothers and fathers air all their grievances, no matter how long it takes.

“Let them get it all out and just wait,” Peterson says. “When the parent is done, acknowledge that you’re so thankful they are involved in their kids’ lives — don’t say it if you don’t feel it, but that goes a long way.”

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Next, Peterson said, librarians should explain the school’s selection policies and how the questioned book fits within those policies. Another important point to make, Peterson said, is that school library books are not required reading. And finally, “I tell them, ‘Don’t take anything personally’ ” — although Peterson knows that can be hard to do.

One-on-one meetings with parents to justify books have become a fixture of librarians’ lives nationwide. Librarians say the process can be emotionally taxing. Parents, as they have done at school board meetings across the country, often grow heated in their criticism of books as inappropriate for young children, librarians say. Some librarians feel that their morals are being impugned, even if they did not select the book themselves.

And looming in the background, said Texas librarian Ami Uselman, is a common fear among librarians that they could land on Fox News — which in turn might inspire social media harassment campaigns.

“That is frightening,” said Uselman, 53, the library director for the Round Rock Independent School District, who successfully parried a recent parent bid to remove “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about growing up Black and queer written by nonbinary author George M. Johnson.

In Tennessee, celebrities have joined the chorus of people criticizing librarians. Country music star John Rich, speaking before the Tennessee House of Representatives last month at a hearing about “obscene books,” compared some librarians to pedophiles. His remarks came just a few days before Sexton, the Tennessee state representative, told a group of librarians that their behavior was shameful. The month before, the state’s McMinn County School Board unanimously voted to ban Pulitzer Prize-winning “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from middle school classes.

Xan Lasko, chairperson of the Intellectual Freedom Committee for the Tennessee Association of School Librarians, said she can understand some parents’ desire to prevent their children from reading sexually explicit material. But she noted that school librarians, who are required to possess master’s degrees, consult a wide array of professional reviews and journals before ordering books and are careful to select only those that come highly recommended for their literary and instructional quality — which includes books that deal with sex. Those can prove useful and important to some children, she said. Librarians at all levels of a school system are often involved in ordering books, sometimes after seeking sign-off from administrators.

Educators also are careful to segment out age-appropriate texts for elementary, middle and high school libraries, librarians say, relying on the professional reviews and websites such as Common Sense Media. Plus, Lasko pointed out, parents can request that their child not be allowed to check out certain texts, including those with sexual material. Where she and other librarians draw the line, Lasko said, is parents wanting to restrict the reading materials available to all children, not simply their own.

“We are all angry, hurt and frustrated,” Lasko said. “What they’re saying about us is unfounded and untrue.”

Still, librarians’ conversations with parents are not always proving fruitless. In Oklahoma, librarian Amanda Kordeliski said she has sat down a dozen times in the past year with parents to argue for various books. She said the most commonly challenged text in her district, the Norman Public Schools, has been Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” which parents criticize for its discussion of rape.

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The conversations, conducted in person, on the phone and via Zoom, have ranged from 10 minutes to more than an hour, Kordeliski said. In each case, she has explained how schools choose books and the particular value of the text the parents are upset about, as she sees it.

Defending “The Bluest Eye,” Kordeliski tells parents that she believes the book has “literary merit” and that it is likely to be featured on AP Literature exams. After speaking with her, every single parent has so far decided not to file a formal objection, she said.

‘We don’t talk about the books’

For Shelly McNerney in Kansas, the trepidation began when the memoir “All Boys Aren’t Blue” disappeared from a middle school classroom library.

McNerney, 44, was confused: She had thought a book could be removed from Olathe Public Schools shelves only after officials completed a formal challenge process, in which a committee spent weeks reviewing the text and deciding whether it merited inclusion. Then she dug deeper into school documents and unearthed a district policy she had never heard of before.

“Staff members may remove a material which has been deemed inappropriate by commonly accepted standards and professional judgment,” the document said.

McNerney read the words back to herself a few times. She was stunned. “I realized,” she said, “that they are using this loophole.”

Asked about the removal, Olathe schools spokeswoman Maggie Kolb said an individual middle school teacher decided to pull “All Boys Aren’t Blue” — along with a book called “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” which explores the love between two Mexican American male teens — from her classroom library after she realized “the titles were not district-approved instructional materials" and were not "grade level appropriate.”

Is this the book I want to end up on Fox News for?
— Shelly McNerney, a librarian in Kansas, asks herself this question every time she orders a book.

Librarians say backdoor book removals are taking place nationwide, as overworked administrators — weary from managing the pandemic and from turmoil over diversity, equity and inclusion programs — seek to quash further controversy before it can begin.

In Nebraska, Peterson said about half of the book removals she has dealt with this year were effected by administrators working outside challenge procedures. She noted that one system she has been tracking, the Kearney Public Schools, has begun requiring that parents sign a permission slip granting their child the right to sign any book out of the library.

Kearney’s superintendent, Ken Edwards, said in a statement that his district adopted the permission-slip policy in January “to allow parents to be the decision maker in what materials their children are reading and have access to, not the district.”

Meanwhile, in Kansas, McNerney said, librarians across her district are reevaluating what books they are willing to order, suggest for students and display on their shelves. That includes McNerney: Every time she orders a book now, she sits down with her husband first, and the two of them attempt to answer the question: “Is this the book I want to end up on Fox News for?”

So far, McNerney said, she has not refrained from purchasing a single text. But she has decided to stop showing or recommending seven books that are sexually explicit, some of which feature LGBTQ characters. And, she said, two middle school librarians in Olathe recently pulled their copies of “Heartstopper,” a graphic novel that chronicles the romance between two high school boys, and donated them to high schools in the district, saying they no longer wanted them.

“My fear is, we’re not officially having book challenges because we’re being careful to censor the collection before it’s ever created,” McNerney said.

‘To keep information from children’

School librarians are fighting back.

In Tennessee’s Hamilton County, elementary school librarian Caroline Mickey spoke in defense of books at a school board meeting last Thursday. Her district had recently formed a committee to examine titles that some residents and parents have deemed inappropriate.

Many of the texts concern race, sex and gender identity, and the list includes books that have drawn challenges elsewhere: “Lawn Boy,” “Gender Queer,” “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” the homosexual love story “Prince and Knight,” and “My Princess Boy,” which documents a child’s gender transition. In her speech, Mickey, 33, shared how books have always been her escape: “Not because my life was boring, but because I only had one” and she wanted to learn about others’ experiences. She said literature provides a natural, safe space in which to discuss the uncomfortable aspects of being alive.

“I heard once that fairy tales do not tell children that dragons exist,” Mickey said at the board meeting. “Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children that dragons can be beaten.”

Meanwhile, in Cody, Wyo., Jennisen Lucas is busy examining a list of about 150 books that residents of Park County flagged as concerning in an email to the interim superintendent early this year.

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Lucas was not familiar with all of the books. The complaining adults — who do not currently have children in the school system, Lucas said — compiled the list after trawling through the online catalogue for Park County School District No. 6. Lucas’s superintendent had forwarded the list as a warning: These books could get challenged, so you might want to take a look at them.

No challenges have been filed, Lucas said. But she is doing everything she can to be ready if they do materialize. She is reviewing her school district’s book selection criteria — broadly, that books are age-appropriate and match either the school curriculum or students’ interests — and preparing a spreadsheet that explains why each book fulfills a part of that criteria. And, in response to the emailers’ concerns, Lucas has ordered a book by prominent Black conservative author Thomas Sowell. That text, Lucas explained, is meant to counterbalance books about racism by Ibram X. Kendi — books she intends to keep on the shelves.

In Pennsylvania, Hull said, officials have returned some books, including “In My Mosque” — although without apology or explanation — but others remain missing.

And more, she said, always seem to be disappearing.

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