Virginia schools pull books from libraries
The Richmond Times-Dispatch recently published an investigation which revealed 23 Virginia school districts have removed books from school libraries over the past two years, amid a historic level of book bans across the country. RTD reporters Jess Nocera and Sean McGoey spoke to VPM News education reporter Megan Pauly about their findings. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity.
Pauly: Nationally, challenged books in schools often address LGBTQ themes, issues of race and racism, or include sexual encounters. What were some of the reasons the books in Virginia were challenged?
McGoey: So the books that are challenged in Virginia are challenged for almost all of these same reasons. LGBTQ issues were one of the most common things we saw. I sent public records requests to every school district in the state for this information, and what we received from each district was a little different. So not everyone shared the reasoning behind why some of these books were disputed. But it wasn’t really rocket science to look at what we’re up against and what some of the common themes are. And it’s really those things that you mentioned… it’s sexualities that aren’t heterosexuality, it’s race issues, there’s also a lot of books that parents object to, especially maybe in the lower grades just for inappropriate language.
Pauly: According to your reports, “Gender Queer,” an autobiographical graphic novel by a non-binary, asexual author, was the most contested book in Virginia, having been pulled from the shelves of five school districts, including Hanover County. Why was this book challenged and ultimately removed, and were similar reasons cited for other books on LGBTQ themes that were also removed?
McGoey: Yeah, “Gender Queer” is this autobiographical novel about someone coming to terms with the fact that they’re not like the people they see around them. And part of that journey is discovering a certain kind of sexuality that they weren’t necessarily aware of, and that involves a lot of experimentation along the way. And it has angered parents in several school districts across the state, as they say these are really detailed depictions of sexual activity. And with the added wrinkle, because it’s a graphic novel, it’s actually visual representations. Some parents even claim that this makes it a form of pornography given to their children. And that’s actually something that we see a lot with books that deal with sex and sexuality, and in particular LGBTQ issues, that are grabbed. We even hear the kind of national grooming day buzzword associated with some of these books. So yes, it is something that happens often.
Pauly: I understand that school districts are expected to have a formal review process in place when books are challenged. What review processes are in place in districts where titles are eventually removed from library shelves?
Nocera: So a common process that I’ve seen while doing this research, and when I’ve spoken with librarians, is that a complaint is made, normally by a parent, and then a committee is set up and they read and review the book. But in some cases — it’s sort of become a trend — sometimes parents just talk about a book title at a school board meeting. Sometimes they follow up on the complaint, sometimes not. And the book is just taken off the shelf before the committee sits down and reads it when really the books are supposed to stay on the shelves while the committee reviews them and then the decision is made to to remove or not.
Pauly: And which books – some in particular – were removed before the review process?
Nocera: In Henrico County, “Out of Darkness”. The eight copies were immediately withdrawn for examination. Should all eight copies be withdrawn? I don’t know, I don’t know how big their committee was. In some cases, the school district said, “Well, we had to pull them all out so the committee could read them. I don’t know if that was the situation here. But in the end, the eight copies were put back on the shelves. In Fairfax County, “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” were banned. And then they ended up being brought back after two separate committees ruled those books weren’t inappropriate.
McGoey: And even once a committee has decided, it is not necessarily final. Fairfax County actually decided to keep both “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” which were two of the most banned books in America according to a Penn-America study. Their [Fairfax’s] the committees decided to keep these two books on the shelves, but the parent who originally challenged them is actually appealing the decision. They are therefore again under examination. So, you know, this process is often long and a bit messy.
Pauly: Did you get any insight into what drove the decision making after the review, about what we keep on the shelves? Or do we take it off?
McGoey: In a few cases, we actually received notes from the review process. And in the case of a book like “Gender Queer,” the committee determined that the complaint that it was child pornography was unfounded and that there was in fact real value to be had. this book about what can be really uncomfortable – self-discovery, you know, having that available, so kids can have different perspectives on other kinds of experiences than their own.
Pauly: Some librarians I interviewed for My Own Stories believe that while parents have the right to decide what their own children read, they disagree that all parents have the right to choose what that every child can read. What was the reaction of school librarians and other community members you spoke with about their reaction to these books being removed from library shelves?
Nocera: I received the same type of reaction that you have in your report. Every librarian I spoke to told me that the parent has the right to decide what their child or children can and cannot read. But they don’t have the autonomy to decide that for all children. But that’s kind of what was going on…you just have parents trying to speak for all kids and saying this book isn’t good for all kids. I spoke with a librarian in Arlington, where in early April they held a wake-up-and-read event, which lasted a week, every day at one of their library branches. The community was invited to come in, have a cup of coffee and pick up a copy of some of these banned and contested books. And what the librarian told me was that people were staying there, and they really wanted to talk about the books, and it was more than just walking in, getting a book and leaving. People were already starting this dialogue among themselves.
Pauly: Any further reaction from community members? I mean, are you planning any protests or walkouts?
Nocera: When I spoke with Zetta Elliott, she told me how another book of hers was banned in York, Pennsylvania. And then the students actually protested that and the book went back on the shelf. So I’m curious to see if something like this happens somewhere here in Virginia. I mean, I think we’re already seeing kids stepping in in other ways to find their voice and share it. You know, earlier this week there was all the walkouts about Roe versus Wade. So I think it’s only a matter of time to see the kids react to that as well.
Pauly: Thank you for your excellent reporting on this issue.
McGoey: Thank you.
Nocera: Thank you.
Below is a list of all book titles that have been removed from the shelves of the Virginia school library, according to reports by McGoey and Nocera. Books that have been kept in libraries after revision or moved to different grade levels are not included below, but can be found in RTD’s statewide book map pulled for review.
“Queer Gender” by Maia Kobabe (removed by Chesapeake City Public Schools, Goochland County Public Schools, Hanover County Public Schools, Loudoun County Public Schools)
“Forever Felix” by Kacen Callender (removed by Goochland County Public Schools)
“The sun is also a star” by Nicola Yoon (removed by Gloucester County Public Schools)
“Juliet Breathe” by Gabby Rivera (removed by Goochland County Public Schools)
“Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur (removed by Madison County Public Schools)
“Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo (removed by New Kent County Public Schools)
“If I Ruled the Zoo” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Poquoson City Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools, Suffolk City Public Schools)
“I saw him on Mulberry Street” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Poquoson City Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools)
“McElligot’s Pool” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Poquoson City Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools)
“Beyond the Zebra!” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Poquoson City Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools)
“Great scrambled eggs!” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Poquoson City Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools)
“Julian is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love (removed by Powhatan County Public Schools)
Crank by Ellen Hopkins (removed by Powhatan County Public Schools)
“#MurderTrending” by Gretchen McNeil (removed by Powhatan County Public Schools)
“Drag Queen’s Hips Go Swish, Swish, Swish” by Lil Miss Hot Mess (removed by Shenandoah County Public Schools)
“These Witches Don’t Burn” Isabel Sterling’s series (removed by Shenandoah County Public Schools)
“American Gods” by Neil Gaiman (removed by Shenandoah County Public Schools)
“Meet Cute Diary” by Emery Lee (removed by Shenandoah County Public Schools)
Several other graphic novels (removed by Shenandoah County Public Schools)
“Witchcraft” by unknown author (removed by Smyth County Public Schools)
“Call Me By Your Name” by Andre Aciman (removed by Spotsylvania County Public Schools)
“Check, please” Ngozi Ukazu series (discontinued by Stafford County Public Schools)
“Dear Whites” by Justin Simien (removed by Stafford County Public Schools)
“Dear White America” by Tim Wise (removed by Stafford County Public Schools)
“The Cat Quiz” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Stafford County Public Schools)
“When Aiden became a big brother” by Kyle Lukoff (removed by Roanoke County Public Schools)
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (removed by Wythe County Public Schools)