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Em Maguire and Caitlyn Peacock are Grade 12 students in Madison County, VA. The school board has banned 21 books as a result of its new policy.Adrian Morrow/The Globe and Mail

When her local school board moved to ban The Handmaid’s Tale, Caity Peacock was surprised.

The Grade 12 student in rural Madison County, Va., had read Margaret Atwood’s speculative fiction classic, and she didn’t see how anyone could construe it as prurient. Its central themes – misogyny, totalitarianism and theocracy – are serious and its prose style “incredibly beautiful,” she said. It had even been on the syllabus at one of her previous schools.

The astonishment was soon joined by irritation. How could a group of politicians decide what students are allowed to check out at the school library?

“It’s kind of ironic,” Peacock, 17, said. “So much of that book is trying to tell us about how stopping people’s freedom is a bad thing. And now they’ve decided to take away our freedom to read it.”

Despite the protests of Peacock and other students and parents, board members unanimously approved a policy that prohibits any book with “sexually explicit content” from the school system. They ordered 21 books removed from the Madison County High School library. In addition to The Handmaid’s Tale, these include The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson and It by Stephen King.

A largely agricultural community of 13,000, where rolling hills are dotted with deciduous forests and clapboard farmhouses, Madison feels a world away from the culture wars tearing up state legislatures across the U.S. But the school board’s move puts it at the forefront of renewed efforts nationwide to censor books in public school systems.

The driving force behind the ban here is Christopher Wingate, a former army officer and helicopter pilot elected to the school board in 2021. Minors, he contends, must be sheltered from references to sex. “Allowing that sort of thing in the library where children can freely peruse those things seems to me to be a failure of the board to protect our children,” he said at one meeting.

Wingate and school board chair Nita Collier did not respond to interview requests. In a brief telephone conversation, one board member, Charles Sheads, referred to the banned books as “pornography.” Another member, Karen Allen, declined to comment.

Charlotte Wood, the school librarian, said she was not allowed to speak publicly about the ban. “I’ve been told not to say anything,” she told The Globe. “As a librarian, I will say that I completely support intellectual freedom. And that’s about all I can say.”

Several of the banned books, which the school board targeted based on a list provided by Focus on the Family, a Christian fundamentalist group, deal with themes of sexism, racism and religious extremism. The Handmaid’s Tale has consistently drawn the ire of some conservatives, even as it has found new cultural relevance in recent years. To many Americans, living in a country where church-motivated prohibitions on abortion and sex education are proliferating, the dystopic novel has become shorthand for theocratic attacks on women’s rights.

Madison’s new policy, written by Wingate, mandates that “context, reputation, awards, ideology or other factors” should not be taken into consideration when deciding whether a book should be banned. In effect, it holds that literary works and smut be treated the same.

Devon Barden, a Grade 11 student at Madison County High School, said that, by this logic, you would have to censor the Bible. A devout Methodist, he’s well aware of how explicit scripture can get. There’s the Old Testament episode in which Lot impregnates both of his daughters, for instance, or the one where Tamar poses as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law. “It’s the most graphic book I can think of,” said Barden, 17.

As an act of protest, he said, on the day the censored books were pulled from the shelves, he took the Bible from the stacks and placed it with the banned tomes.

“I’m a cradle-to-grave Christian. I read the constitution and I read the Bible and I read banned books,” added his mother, Corina Barden, 50. “I cannot, in good conscience, read the Bible and then turn to someone else and say they can’t read these other stories.”

Schools from Florida to Texas to Pennsylvania are in the middle of this same fight. In Virginia, the state legislature is currently mulling a raft of book-related measures, including requiring that students get their parents’ consent before checking out books with mature subject matter.

Bill DeSteph, a state senator who has helped drive these proposals, says such books could be used for “grooming” children by exposing them to “deviant” behaviour. Even though many of these novels have artistic merit, he contends children may not understand this, and believe the works are encouraging the things they describe.

“Children aged 10, 11 or 12 are going to now try to recreate those situations they’re seeing graphically depicted in these novels,” he said.

DeSteph, 58, said the issue blew up during the pandemic, as parents spent more time looking at what their children were reading. They sent him photos of material they objected to, particularly graphic novels that contain illustrations of sex. He said his aim is to give them more control over what media their children can find.

“That’s why we have parental controls on our phones. That’s why we have parental controls on our TVs. That’s they we have parental controls on our computers,” he said.

To some in Madison, the book ban seems to run counter to such rhetoric on parent choice. “I don’t want other people putting their opinions into what my kids have access to read,” said Devlyn D’Alonzo, a 41-year-old veterinarian with two children in the school system.

She sees the sexually explicit content policy as cover to ban books the school board doesn’t like for political reasons. “People grew up with a narrow worldview and the wider world frightens them,” she said.

Far from wanting to be protected from these things, Peacock says there is value in exploring difficult themes, whether Atwood on gender-based oppression, Morrison on child abuse or Guterson on the internment of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.

“It’s good to read those things,” she said one recent afternoon after class, as she sat in a public library off her town’s main street. For now, this is where she’ll have to come to check out the sorts of books that her school has purged.

“If you don’t have people talk about it, we’re just pretending it doesn’t happen, and then nothing is going to change.”