‘Throw those books in the fire’: As culture wars escalate so do book bans

School board official Rabih Abuismail was livid. For most of the evening, board members had been listening intently as Virginia parents Christina and Robert Burris informed their meeting about the “shocking” books they’d found at their daughter’s high school library.

One told the story of a gay private school student trying to keep his sexuality hidden from his conservative Nigerian parents; Another featured a blossoming attraction involving a 17-year-old adolescent and the older male guest at his parent’s summer guest house.

Then there was the main subject of disdain: 33 Snowfish, a book about homeless teens trying to escape from the sexual abuse, drugs and prostitution of their pasts. One of the central characters is an orphan, fleeing from his abusive “owner”, who is a producer of pornographic films.

Spotsylvania County School Board member Rabih Abuismail is calling for books to be banned.

Spotsylvania County School Board member Rabih Abuismail is calling for books to be banned.Credit: Associated Press

“It’s sickening,” Abuismail said, demanding that the books in Pennsylvania’s Spotsylvania County be audited, removed and in some cases, burned.

“I guess we live in a world now that our public schools would rather have kids read about gay pornography than Christ. The vetting program has clearly failed … I think we should throw those books in the fire.”

He’s hardly alone in his rage. All around America, parents, politicians and school officials are challenging books at a rate that experts and librarians say is unprecedented.

In Tennessee, the conservative advocacy group Moms for Liberty are trying to remove the children’s book, Seahorse, the Shyest Fish in the Sea, because it has images of seahorses hugging, which the group finds too sexually suggestive.

In Oklahoma, a state senator recently proposed legislation that would enable parents to challenge books in public schools and allow them to collect a $10,000 bounty for each day a challenged book remains on library shelves.

And in Leander, Texas, an angry mother last September attended a hearing to challenge the book Lawn Boyby Jonathan Evison, which her son had found at the Leander High School Library.

Standing at the lectern, and using placards with excerpts from the book, the woman read several graphic passages, in which a young adult reflects on the sexual encounters he had with another boy when they were in the fourth grade. The clip was posted to social media, and within days, parents in other states also began objecting to the book, attending school board hearings and producing social media videos reading the same excerpts.

Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison, has drawn fire from a parent in Texas who the book banned.

Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison, has drawn fire from a parent in Texas who the book banned.

While book censorship is not a new phenomenon, figures from the American Libraries Association provide a telling snapshot of the growing trend, Its Office for Intellectual Freedom received 330 unique reports of book challenges alone in the three-month period between September 1 and November 30 last year.

That compares to 156 unique cases reported to office in 2020, when schools and libraries were largely closed due to the pandemic, and 377 unique cases for the entire year of 2019.

The rise of book banning isnt just taking place in schools – it’s also pushing out into state legislatures and political battlegrounds. Sometimes it draws on the anger over broader issues such as critical race theory: an academic term that studies how race and racism have impacted social structures in America.

“Is increasing book censorship? The answer sure seems to be yes,” says Richard Price, an associate professor of political science at Weber State University.

Ridgeland, Mississippi's mayor has withheld funds from his city's library because LGBTQI-genre books similar to these are on the shelves of the city's library.

Ridgeland, Mississippi’s mayor has withheld funds from his city’s library because LGBTQI-genre books similar to these are on the shelves of the city’s library. Credit: Associated Press

Asked by The Age and the Herald what’s behind the trend, price, who runs the blog Adventures in Censorship, says it’s fear.

“That is the underlying tension for most book challengers – it just depends on what makes them afraid at any given time,” he says.

In the 1970s, the Christian right tried to ban books by Judy Blume, the American author who wrote about taboo subjects like periods and sex. It fascinated teenagers but angered many of their parents.

This time, says Price, censorship is often centered on narratives of race and racism in America, and the representation of LGBTQI people, with social media being used to fuel and amplify complaints against certain titles.

“In the minds of objectors, if they didn’t learn it 30 years ago, or 20 years ago, then it’s not real and it must therefore be an attempt to indoctrinate children,” says Price.

“The problem is, the people making these objections almost never actually read the book or put it in any kind of context.”

Ex-President Donald Trump speaking at a rally in Texas

Ex-President Donald Trump speaking at a rally in TexasCredit: Associated Press

In 2020, former President Donald Trump banned federal employees from training that discusses “critical race theory” or “white privilege,” calling it propaganda.

By last year, many other states were following his lead. Texas, for example, became one of about a dozen states regulating how US history and certain ideas about race can be taught in schools.

Soon after legislation had passed, Republican state politician Matt Krause released a list of about 850 books that he wanted to ban from school libraries.

Some addressed topics as broad as human sexuality and sexually transmitted diseases. Others included “material that might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish” due to their race or gender, or conveyed “that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously “

More recently, the newly elected Republican governor of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, framed book bans as an issue of parental control, using it to rally support in last year’s fiercely contested race to aust Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe. Political observers have no doubt similar narratives will be pushed out in critical races ahead of this year’s midterm elections in November.

But the push to take books off the shelf has been met by countermobilization across the US, with parents, teachers and librarians fighting back on attempts to control what their children read.

Last February, in the Texas city of Round Rock, near Austin, one parent sought to ban Stamped, Racism, Anti-racism and Youthe acclaimed book by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendy, which explores the history of racist ideas in America and outlines options for an “anti-racist” future.

The book had passed a rigorous process to be on the book list, and parents could opt out if they didn’t want their children reading it. Nevertheless, the complainant wanted it off the shelf, claiming it had “inappropriate instructional material”.

However, many in the community disagreed, signing a petition by a local teacher seeking to keep on the school reading list. Others also appeared at a school board hearings to argue against its removal.

The Round Rock Black Parents Association, a grassroots group created in 2015 in response to a child getting choke-slammmed by a police officer, was instrumental in the fight.

One of its members, Meenal McNary read the book when her 12-year-old son Jaiden was in the sixth grade.

He was intrigued by historical references, which would spark further conversations around the dinner table or among his peers, about the nation’s history of slavery and racial injustice. Now, Jaiden runs his own book club with a friend, which discusses, among other things, banned books.

According to McNary, trying to “whitewash” the curriculum by removing books like Stamped would end up being detrimental for children, because it would limit their understanding of the world.

Meenal McNary, and her son Jaiden were one of many families who fought against attempts to ban Stamped, an important book about race in Austin, Texas.

Meenal McNary, and her son Jaiden were one of many families who fought against attempts to ban Stamped, an important book about race in Austin, Texas. Credit:Liz Moskowitz

“It is so necessary and vital, especially in Texas, that these children understand what the history of America is, so that as a community of young people, they can move forward and make it better,” she tells The Age and the Herald,

“Someone might feel bad that this happened to a certain group of people during our American history, but what is the problem learning about this? And what do you do with those feelings? Once you feel bad, do you use it for positive change?”


So where to now for book censorship in America? Richard Price says the main concern is the escalation of state legislatures pushing laws that restrict particular types of books. However, many of the books being challenged don’t reach the legal definition of “obscene” in the US, which could result in individual states taking their fights to the courts.

Groups such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund have also said that states and school districts mounting these challenges are making themselves vulnerable to complaints of discrimination.

“It’s hard to know what’s going to happen when but the hope is that people can defeat most challenges before they go too far, because they often lead to some fairly absurd conclusions,” says Price.

He cites a Shakespeare scholar he knows, “who will tell you a whole lot of Shakespeare is sexually explicit once you explain what the references are.” Could that result in future bans? Or as recently as last Wednesday, controversial Tennessee pastor and Trump supporter Greg Locke led a book burning session to fight what he claimed where the “demonic influences” of books such as Harry Potter and Twilight.

“Things might come to pass,” says Price, “but in many cases it’s going to need litigation and long-term activism.”

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