Every morning before class for the past month, some 30 students have been protesting outside Central York High School. Their demand: that the school board in this exurban area of Pennsylvania, between Harrisburg and York, stop banning books.
Last school year, trustees barred 200 books, articles and documentaries from the classroom for dealing with racial and LGBTQ themes, backing down only in the face of public opposition. This year, the board ejected two novels – Push by Sapphire and A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas – from the high-school library. The students have vowed to assemble every day until these books are also restored.
Mandy Wang, 16, one of the protest organizers, well knows the value of reading. A native Mandarin speaker, she learned English at school and relied heavily on classroom libraries to become bilingual.
“I used books to understand English and to grow my imagination, so seeing them get banned is really personal to me,” she told The Globe and Mail. “They tell very important stories.”
The sidewalk in front of Central York is one of the front lines of a growing fight in schools across the United States. For the past two years, school boards have been censoring books at an accelerated pace. According to PEN America, a freedom-of-expression advocacy group, the first half of the current school year saw 1,477 cases of specific books banned around the country, affecting all school grades.
Some of the bans have been driven by parent groups, usually working from book lists generated by national conservative organizations. Others have been pushed by Republican state governments. All are part of a larger education culture war seeking to shut down discussions of racism, sexism and LGBTQ issues, particularly gender identity.
Bill DeSteph, a Virginia state senator who supports increased book restrictions, frames such policies as a means of guarding children from potential pedophilia, a common argument on the U.S. right.
Among the books targeted in his state are Gender Queer and Lawn Boy, two LGBTQ coming-of-age stories that contain sex scenes, and The Bluest Eye, the Toni Morrison classic that deals with racism and child abuse. Mr. DeSteph also points to some explicit sci-fi graphic novels as works that are inappropriate for minors.
“You have men having sex with boys, children having sex with each other, aliens having sex with humans, in these graphically depicted novels,” he said in his office in Richmond, Va., overlooking the state legislature. “That’s the whole point of what grooming is: You introduce a child to it, you normalize it. Then you get the child to engage in those types of activities.”
Even if a book has artistic merit, Mr. DeSteph contends, that doesn’t mean children should be able to access it. He likens restricting the content of school libraries to putting parental controls on a computer or barring kids from attending an R-rated movie.
“As a parent, it’s my job to protect the innocence of my child as long as humanly possible,” he said. “Lolita is an internationally renowned literary work. Would I let my 10-year-old read that? Probably not. Would I let my 16-year-old read that? Yes, and she did.”
Judi Hayes, 50, a lawyer with two sons in the public-school system in Orlando, argues that barring books from schools actually limits parental choice.
“You always have the option of not letting your child read those books. We have to have parental rights going both ways – it’s not fair for someone to come in and tell us what our children can’t have access to,” she said.
In her state, Governor Ron DeSantis, now a presidential hopeful, has pushed “Don’t Say Gay” and “Stop Woke” laws through the legislature, prohibiting discussion of sexual orientation, gender identity and structural racism in schools. One provision also requires that teachers have every book in their classrooms vetted by a government official.
Fearing repercussions from the state or school board, some educators have begun to self-censor, Ms. Hayes said. One teacher she knows decided to get rid of her entire classroom library, donating the books to Goodwill. For her, it was too onerous to go through the task of registering every tome in a school database for vetting or risk getting punished.
Liana Benavides, a 46-year-old stay-at-home mother in the suburbs of San Antonio, Tex., said local school politics were uncontentious until the pandemic. But when it came time for the board to make decisions about requiring masks in schools, impassioned parents on both sides showed up to meetings to sway trustees to their side. The board initially brought in a mask mandate before dropping it after four days.
Then, last school year, the North Eastern Independent School District pulled 432 titles from school libraries for review, constituting one of the country’s single largest culls. Of those, 110 were ultimately ejected permanently, over the protests of Ms. Benavides and some other parents and students. Around the same time, a new political action committee cropped up to help conservative trustee candidates in San Antonio.
“It’s right-wing Christian nationalists who are pushing this agenda. They want things their way,” said Ms. Benavides, who has two adolescent daughters, over coffee at a diner.
To Devon Barden, censoring books for having explicit scenes, without looking at their larger context, is a misunderstanding of literary merit. The Bible, he points out, contains numerous depictions of sex and violence.
“It feels devaluing because at school we’re getting ready to be soldiers, artists, engineers, health care workers, and they’re saying ‘We feel you’re not able to handle these books,’” said Mr. Barden, 17. His local school board in Madison, Va., banned 21 books earlier this year, including Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
At Central York High in Pennsylvania, the fight began after the George Floyd protests, when a group of teachers compiled a list of books and other resources meant to help children learn about racism. Instead, the Central York School District decided to ban all of the works on the list. These included a biography of Martin Luther King Jr., and All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir about growing up Black and gay.
After a student-run group, the Panther Anti-Racist Union, led a lengthy campaign, holding rallies, showing up in force to board meetings and organizing residents of the area, trustees ultimately relented. They scrapped the ban during the last school year. But a few months ago, the board secretly ordered Push and A Court of Mist and Fury removed from the library. The ban only came to light when a conservative education group lauded it on Facebook.
Ben Hodge and Patricia Jackson, two Central York teachers who have publicly battled the bans, said they had taken heat in their small, semi-rural community for making a stand. Ms. Jackson said someone tried to hack her utilities accounts and harassed her mother by telephone. In Mr. Hodge’s case, he said he was the subject of freedom-of-information requests by a book-ban supporter that appeared to him to be aimed at determining whether he had used school resources to plan protests and whether other staffers were secretly backing him.
Both teachers said the school district had cautioned them for speaking out on social media. The board is currently working on an updated policy that they fear will try to muzzle them.
They see the bans as one facet of a backlash against the steady rise of diversity. “There’s a deep-seated fear of talking about the sins of the past, as these stories do,” said Ms. Jackson, an English teacher and fantasy author herself. “But part of being an American means owning the past and seeing how far we’ve come. They don’t want to do that.”
Mr. Hodge also contends it’s not a coincidence that many of the politicians banning books are the same ones who have pushed for expansions of private education – Florida, for instance, expanded private-school funding this year. “It’s a direct attack on public education,” he said.
To Ms. Wang, the Central York student leader, the notion that she and her classmates need to be protected from difficult subjects seems backward. A novel such as Push, which includes themes of poverty and incest, may be hard to read, she said, but burying it is the greater harm.
The plan is to continue the protests at 7 a.m. every day until the school year ends or the ban is lifted, she said. If it’s still in place when classes resume in the fall, they will keep protesting.
“They have taken this idea that it’s better not to talk about difficult topics at all and that reading about them is hurtful,” she said. “But although they’re hard, they need to be talked about because they happened, whether we like it or not.”