As a growing number of books are challenged and then removed from schools and libraries nationwide, it’s worth noting not only the discriminatory circumstances surrounding the bans, but also the frenzied and haphazard way in which they are often implemented.
Throughout the past year, we saw videos of outraged parents at school board meetings demanding that books depicting the experiences of marginalized people be yanked from curricula or libraries. In many cases, school boards, principals and librarians acquiesced.
Book challenges in schools aren’t new, of course. Calls for books to be banned have flared up periodically in recent American history. And so, the American Library Association (ALA) has devised a set of best practices: formal reconsideration guidelines for those who “are concerned about the appropriateness of library resources or are unsatisfied with the response from an informal discussion about a title.”
But notably (and unsurprisingly) the current wave of book challenges in schools appears to be comprised largely of cases that bypass the ALA’s guidelines, which were intended to prevent the sudden and arbitrary removal of books from schools.
The ALA suggests that schools or libraries request that parents fill out a form explaining why they believe a book should be banned. From there, a committee of school employees and community volunteers reviews the book in its entirety before determining whether it meets that district’s standards.
“These policies ensure objective, transparent, standardized processes that enable school staff and boards to respond thoughtfully and consistently when concerns arise,” the ALA said in a statement.
The professional association also recommended that, whatever policies school boards abide by, they formalize them instead of winging it. “ALA recommends the adoption and use of written policies for selection and reconsideration of materials as a best practice,” the ALA said. “When boards adopt and use such policies, they inform the community about the board’s intent and mission and provide the community as a whole with an opportunity to carefully consider any request to reconsider library materials.”
As Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told NBC News, the guidelines also say that a challenged book should remain on school shelves and be available to students while the committee deliberates, and before the final decision is publicly announced.
“What we’re seeing these days is a short-circuiting of that process, despite the fact that school boards often do have these reconsideration policies on their own books,” Caldwell-Stone told NBC News. “They’re ignoring them to respond to the controversy and the moral panics that they’re getting targeted with at school board meetings, and books are being abruptly removed.”
That quote was part of a thorough NBC report looking specifically at the book-banning frenzy in Texas. Though many Texas school districts have policies that reference the ALA guidelines and note that a parent’s ability to control what students can read “extends only to his or her own child,” that idea, NBC found, had not been adhered to in spirit or in practice.
One example is the Denton Independent School District near Dallas. The district’s administrators yanked a copy of “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir by author George M. Johnson about their experiences growing up as a Black queer boy, without adhering to formal reconsideration guidelines. The district pulled the book after hearing about concerns from parents in neighboring towns.
These sorts of bans, of course, don’t always work out as parents’ and censorious administrators’ intend. “If you make my book the forbidden fruit, it’s only going to make more teens and more adults interested in reading it, which we’ve seen across the board in sales,” Johnson told me in December. Headlines generated by a Tennessee school district’s move to ban the beloved graphic novel “Maus” from its curriculum also rocketed the book onto bestseller lists.
But, as the NBC report details, librarians and teachers are under great pressure, which takes its toll.
In Texas alone, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) demanded investigations into whether students have access to what he described as “pornographic books” in public schools. Abbott also announced last month his plans to amend the Texas Constitution with a Parent Bill of Rights if he wins re-election. Abbott argues that the bill will codify parents’ rights as the prime “decision-makers” when it comes to a child’s education and health care needs.