PHILADELPHIA — A Bucks County school district sent a letter in December requiring educators to remove all library books with “content referring to gender identity” from the public shelves, saying that “these topics should always involve conversations between the student and a trusted adult” and that this decision would “ensure that our students are fully supported.”
The Central York School District, meanwhile, banned educators from teaching a set of books and other media focused on racial justice, concerned that white students may be made to feel guilty about their race — until students protested this fall and got the yearlong ban overturned.
All across the country, new laws that restrict teaching about gender, race, and American history are being used to get books off the shelves. The books are divisive, parents and politicians say, and serve to “indoctrinate” students.
Attempts to ban books are nothing new. But experts say we’ve entered a new age of censorship, marked by what the American Library Association (ALA) called “a dramatic uptick in book challenges and outright removal of books from libraries,” particularly those focusing on the experiences of Black people and queer people.
“In my twenty years with ALA, I can’t recall a time when we had multiple challenges coming in on a daily basis,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA’s Office of Intellectual Freedom, said in a statement last month.
The office saw 60% more book challenges in September compared with September 2020. And those are just the challenges reported to the ALA, largely efforts to restrict books that are clear and explicit — such as those at the Pennridge School District in Bucks County and York County.
But silent censorship, the kind that occurs in the decisions educators make about what to teach or what to carry on the shelves, is also on the rise, say Philly authors who have experienced challenges to their books for young adults.
In this time, when educators can lose their jobs and schools can lose funding for teaching material seen as politically controversial, sometimes it’s easier for teachers and librarians to shield themselves from attack by choosing not to invite an author to speak about his book focused on trans characters or to put it on the shelves.
Heather Hebert, owner of Children’s Book World in Haverford, works with local schools to put on book fairs, which are also fund-raisers for the school. This year, two schools that were also handling ongoing book challenges canceled their book fairs.
Hebert, 53, said she wasn’t sure whether it was because of the political climate or because the people who run the book fairs are already burdened by handling book challenges, but historically, these are events that “never used to be controversial.”
Since it flies under the radar, this kind of quiet censorship can’t be fought by protest or publicity.
“These are choices we’ll never know about,” said author Alex London. “They happen invisibly and quickly.”
London, who is 41 and lives in Mount Airy, has written dozens of fantasy and sci-fi books for young adults and children that sometimes feature queer and nonbinary characters. One of his books, a dystopian novel called Proxywith a main character who is gay, was one of hundreds reviewed for “vulgar content” in a San Antonio-area school district after it showed up on a list of books that Texas State Rep. Matt Krause, a Republican candidate for state attorney general, asked the Texas Education Agency to investigate.
“For us, this is not about politics or censorship, but rather about ensuring that parents choose what is appropriate for their minor children,” a spokesperson for the North East Independent School Districttold the Texas Tribune earlier this month.
Kyle Lukoff, who faced numerous high-profile challenges to his book “Call Me Max” about a trans kid this year, said complaints against him are often couched in a similar language of personal choice and neutrality — “when it’s actually fairly blatant bigotry.”
The chief learning officer at the Austin school district where “Call Me Max” caused an uproar last Marchsaid Lukoff’s book was “not appropriate to be read aloud to an entire elementary-age class.”
“When they say, ‘We don’t want our children to be exposed to topics of gender identity,’ what they mean is specifically transgender identity because their children are exposed to cis people all day every day,” said the 37-year-old who’s moving to South Philly from New York City next year to be closer to his boyfriend.
More than 60 laws that restrict the teaching of critical race theory and other topics — dubbed “educational gag orders” by the nonprofit PEN America — have been introduced in 26 states this year, including Pennsylvania. Twelve of these laws have passed.
In Pennsylvania, State Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon) introduced a bill last summer that would bar educators from teaching “a racist or sexist concept,” defined in part as the concept that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” An institution found to have broken the law would lose state funding in the current fiscal year and the following one.
Laurie Halse Anderson slammed the Diamond bill and others like it as dangerous to children because of how it seeks to control thought and access to information.
The 60-year-old author who lives in Upper Dublin says that she’s long experienced attempts to censor her books — her young adult novels have appeared on a “Frequently Banned/Challenged” list because of how they explore consent and sexual violence — but that this time around, it feels different.
Efforts to ban books are coordinated by groups such as Moms for Liberty. Librarians are concerned for their safety. It’s no longer about an individual book but removing wide swaths of books that touch on race and queer issues.
It’s censorship, Anderson said, with a “broad brush.”