The American Library Association has reported a troubling rise in organised attempts to ban – and in some cases even burn – library books.
According to the ALA, the majority of these groups pushing to ban and destroy books are driven by conservative campaigners.
“It’s a volume of challenges I’ve never seen in my time at the ALA – the last 20 years. We’ve never had a time when we’ve gotten four or five reports a day for days on end, sometimes as many as eight in a day,” ALA director Deborah Caldwell-Stone told The Guardian. “Social media is amplifying local challenges and they’re going viral, but we’ve also been observing a number of organisations activating local members to go to school board meetings and challenge books. We’re seeing what appears to be a campaign to remove books, particularly books dealing with LGBTQIA themes and books dealing with racism.”
The backlash against school library books is likely tied to conservative anger over "Critical Race Theory" and ongoing school mask mandate debates. Conservative politicians and media figures have been claiming – mostly inaccurately – that schools teach Critical Race Theory, which acknowledges and examines the structural impact of racism on American history and society.
Few schools actually delve into the nuances of structural racism. Many still have mask mandates - as recommended by the US Centres for Disease Control - and polls show that most parents agree with those mandates. However, a small but extremely vocal group of largely conservative parents - and in some cases, lawmakers - have made school boards the latest enemy in their culture war.
Books are already disappearing from shelves. In Virginia and Utah, Toni Morrison books have been removed from some school shelves due to "explicit" content. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home was also pulled in North Kansas due to its LGBTQ themes. In southern Pennsylvania, a long list of books - almost exclusively written by people of colour - were banned.
In Fredericksburg, Virginia, a Spotsylvania school board member has called for LGBTQ fiction in schools to be burned.
“I think we should throw those books in a fire,” he said. “I guess we live in a world now that our public schools would rather have kids read about gay pornography than Christ.”
A Facebook event called "Book burning event" told parents to have their children check out "objectionable" books from their school library for the purpose of collecting and burning them in the parking lot.
"Start having your children check out library books from their schools now! Ones you do NOT want in our schools. At the school board meeting we will have a fire pit in the parking lot. And will burn every last one of them," the Facebook event blurb reads. "Yes, at the end of the year we will have to pay for them. But this year no one will be able to check them out. Feel free to bring marshmallows and a stick."
The account that posted the book burning event is no longer available on Facebook after either being deleted or hidden. Numerous commenters likened it to the book burning rallies held by the Nazis ahead of World War II.
Ms Caldwell-Stone said conservative organisations like the Heritage Foundation and Heritage Action have been capitalising on the anti-education furore among some parents.
“When you have organisations like Heritage Foundation and Family Policy Alliance publishing materials that instruct parents on how to challenge books in the school library or the public library, right down to a challenge form enclosed in the booklet so they can just fill it out, you’re seeing a challenge to our democratic values of free speech, freedom of thought, freedom of belief,” she said.
She said that while challenges to undermine school boards is disturbing enough, what truly troubles her is that elected officials are throwing their weight behind the censorious campaigns.
In Texas, Governor Greg Abbott told the state's education agency commissioner to notify him of any "instance of pornography being provided to minors under the age of 18 for prosecution to the fullest extent of the law." The "pornography" he was referring to were books like Gender Queer and In the Dream House by Maria Machado, which deal with the author's same-sex relationship.
Last year, the ALA reported more than 273 attempts to ban or challenge the use of books, and is anticipating that the number will increase considerably in 2021.
“You may find school boards, library boards, pulling those books proactively to avoid controversy. We’re seeing school boards and library boards ignore their policies, because somebody pops up and makes the claim that a book is obscene,” she said. “It’s easy to claim that a few words, a paragraph, an image in a graphic novel is somehow obscene or pornographic. But when you evaluate the work as a whole, you end up with Toni Morrison’s Beloved, for example, which has been such a flash point in the gubernational election in Virginia.”