The magic pebble and a lazy bull: The book ban movement has a long timeline

This is an adapted excerpt from “School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics and the Battle for Public Education” by Laura Pappano. Copyright 2024. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

Across the country, state legislatures have passed bills to ban “age-inappropriate” books from schools, in many cases subjecting teachers and school librarians to criminal charges for possession of such books. In January, EveryLibrary, a group that tracks legislation that puts school and college librarians, higher ed faculty and museum professionals at risk of criminal prosecution, identified 44 bills in 14 states as “legislation of concern,” for the 2024 session.

This climate has teachers and librarians feeling fearful, confused and stressed. Lindsey Kimery, the coordinator of library services for Metro-Nashville Public Schools, said she has “no hidden agenda other than that reading was my favorite thing.” Having books by, about and for LGBTQ+ students, she said, “does not mean we are out there promoting it. It just means we have books for those readers, too. What I try to convey is that a library is a place for voluntary inquiry.” 

Krause’s List

It is unclear how the recent book ban fervor started. Certainly, a former Texas state representative, Matt Krause, deserves some credit. On October 25, 2021, using his power as chair of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating, Krause sent a letter to the Texas Education Agency and to school districts listing some 850 books. He demanded that districts (1) identify how many copies of each title they possessed and where they were located, including which campuses and classrooms; (2) say how much the district spent to acquire the books; and (3) identify books not on his list that dealt with topics such as AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases, or other subjects that “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex or convey that a student, by virtue of their race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

Texas Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, looks over the calendar as lawmakers rush to finish their business, Friday, May 26, 2017, in Austin, Texas. Credit: Eric Gay/ Associated Press

Districts had until November 12, less than a month, to respond. This alarmed librarians. At the time, Mary Woodard, president of the Texas Library Association, was also in charge of school libraries in the Mesquite Independent School District (ISD). She recalled receiving the letter. “I was actually at home. My superintendent forwarded it to me. It was in the evening,” she said. “I just felt a cold chill. I was beyond shocked that somebody from our state government was asking what books were available in our school libraries. I never thought I would see anything like that.”  Like librarians around the state, Woodard was quickly called into a meeting with her superintendent. Ultimately, they gathered the information Krause asked for, but decided not to send it unless it was specifically requested. It wasn’t.

The lack of follow-up by Krause was interesting. He has repeatedly refused to say how he compiled the list or what he was trying to accomplish. But around the time the letter gained attention, Krause was running for state attorney general. He failed to make it onto the Republican ballot in March 2022, then decided to run for district attorney in Tarrant County as a “Faithful, Conservative Fighter,” but lost. His legislative term ended on January 10, 2023. He is now running for Tarrant County Commissioner.

Related: The (mostly) Republican moms fighting to reclaim their Idaho school district from conservatives 

The list was probably the most newsworthy thing he did as state legislator — it caught fire. Suddenly, Krause’s list was a state resource and discussed in the national media. Governor Greg Abbott called on the Texas Education Agency to launch criminal investigations into the availability of “pornographic books” in school libraries. Some of writer Andrew Solomon’s books were on the list, prompting him to write an essay titled “My Book Was Censored in China. Now It’s Blacklisted — in Texas.”

Actually, Krause’s list was quite sloppy. Media outlets dove into specifics and unearthed a ridiculous assemblage. Of course, books that mention LGBTQ+ students or are about sexuality (even from the 1970s) or race were well represented. But there was a lot that was puzzling. “Almost one in five of the books listed, I have no idea why they’re included,” wrote Danika Ellis of Book Riot, a podcast and website about books and reading, who sifted through the entire list. “Probably the one that has me the most stumped is ‘Inventions and Inventors’ by Roger Smith from 2002. What’s controversial about a book on inventions??” Other outlets shared similar head-scratching reactions. The Dallas Observer named their “10 most absurd” books on the list.

Actually, Krause’s list was quite sloppy. Media outlets dove into specifics and unearthed a ridiculous assemblage.

Yet many educators treated the list like an instructional manual. Chris Tackett, a political campaign finance expert, tweeted a photo of a man in a hoodie leaving the high school library in Granbury ISD pulling a dolly of cardboard boxes labeled “Krause’s List.” Granbury ISD’s superintendent, Jeremy Glenn, was eager to comply, as a leaked audio recording showed. He gathered librarians in January 2022 and told them that students didn’t need access to books about sexuality or transgender people. A secret recording shared by the Texas Tribune–ProPublica Investigative Unit and NBC News revealed a stunning disregard for students’ First Amendment rights.

Yet when Glenn addressed the librarians, there was clearly no room for disagreement. He stated that school board trustees had been in touch. “I want to talk about our community,” he said in a firm but syrupy drawl. “If you do not know this, you have been probably under a rock, but Granbury is a very, very conservative community and our board is very, very conservative.” He warned, “If that’s not what you believe, you’d better hide it because it ain’t changing in Granbury. Here, in this community, we will be conservative.”

He then detailed that meant not having books about sexuality or LGBTQ+ or “information on how to become transgender.” Then, Glenn revealed his discomfort with gender-fluid individuals, saying, “I will take it one step further with you and you can disagree if you want. There are two genders. There’s male and there’s female. And I acknowledge that there are men that think they are women and women that think they are men. And I don’t have any issues with what people want to believe, but there is no place for it in our libraries.” He told librarians that he was forming a review committee of parents and educators and that they would “pull books off the shelves, especially the 850” on Krause’s list. He finished with a directive that camouflaged the seriousness of what he asked them to do: “When in doubt, pull it. Let the community sign off on it, put it back on the shelf. You’re good to go.”

Objections Reflect Times, Personal Views

Not surprisingly, the matter of what should and may be included in school libraries has long been a source of contention, often influenced by the political climate of the time. In 1950, amid the fervor of McCarthyism, the Yale Law Journal delved into a controversy between The Nation and The New York City Board of Education after the left-leaning magazine published articles critical of Roman Catholic church doctrine and dogma. The school board voted to remove The Nation from school libraries. A multi-year battle followed with The Nation offering free subscriptions, but appeals to the state department of education failed. Was it censorship, as the Yale Law Journal and The Nation defense suggested? Libraries cannot subscribe to every periodical. The schools did not remove existing materials but did not include new issues.

The example hits on a current matter. Aside from pressure to remove materials, what should be included in the first place? Nowadays, rather than face controversy, some librarians are simply choosing not to purchase some books. A survey conducted by School Library Journal in Spring 2022 received input from 720 school librarians, 90 percent from public schools (all anonymous). It found that 97 percent weighed the impact of controversial subjects when making purchases. “The presence of an LGBTQIA+ character or theme in a book led 29 percent of respondents to decline a purchase,” the survey report said. Forty-two percent admitted removing a “potentially problematic” book that had not faced challenge or review. An updated 2023 survey revealed that this has only become more common. Thirty-seven percent said they declined to select books with LGBTQIA+ subject matter; 47 percent admitted to removing a book on their own. Interestingly, one-third said they had considered leaving the profession “in reaction to the intensity over book bans” — but two-thirds said that intensity has moved them to be more active in fighting censorship.

Book banning is a chaotic and illogical business. How a book is received or understood is often subject to the historical moment — and the tastes of individuals.

Book banning is a chaotic and illogical business. How a book is received or understood is often subject to the historical moment — and the tastes of individuals. The notion of an objective measure or checklist to decide what is “appropriate” — something far-right school boards have worked to police and enforce — is slippery to define. In the late 1930s, the children’s book “The Story of Ferdinand,” about a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight a matador, was interpreted as carrying a pacifist political message. But in a whirl of confusion, it was marked as both pro-Franco and anti-Franco — and also as “communist, anarchist, manic-depressive, and schizoid,” according to an analysis of children’s book censorship in the Elementary School Journal in 1970.  

Related: Florida just expanded school vouchers — again. What does that really mean?

In other words, people saw what they wanted to see. That also happened to “Sylvester and the Magic Pebble,” a children’s book by William Steig about a donkey who finds a magic pebble and, frightened by a lion, wishes himself into becoming a rock. The book contained images of police officers dressed as pigs. In 1971, the International Conference of Police Associations took offense at that portrayal of police as pigs — “pig” being a derogatory term for law enforcement officers. According to the author of the journal article, school librarians who agreed with the police association view of the drawings and “considered [the portrayal] a political statement,” pulled the books from shelves in many locales, including Lincoln, Nebraska; Palo Alto, California; Toledo, Ohio; Prince Georges County, Maryland; and several cities in Illinois.

Books often get singled out because they make someone uncomfortable. Lately, far-right activists have particularly objected to graphic images, including of intimate body parts. Which is what happened in the 1970s with Maurice Sendak’s “In the Night Kitchen.” The book includes drawings that reveal the toddler hero’s penis on several pages. School and public libraries quietly devised a solution: They used white tempera to paint diapers on Mickey, the main character. At a meeting of the American Library Association in Chicago in June 1972, some 475 librarians, illustrators, authors and publishers were outraged at the practice of the painting over the penis and signed a petition denouncing it as a form of censorship.

“School libraries are for all students but not all students are the same — they have diverse interests, abilities, and maturity levels, and varied cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.”

Texas Library Association

Books that involve drugs, violence, sex and sexual orientation can attract fierce opposition, regardless of the intended message, literary merit or value. Sometimes these books offer windows into other worlds and experiences, which in 1971 bothered school board members and a few parents in a white middle-class section of Queens, New York City. Community School District 25 board voted to ban “Down These Mean Streets,” by Piri Thomas, in which the author shares his tough story of survival in Harlem as the dark-skinned son of Puerto Rican immigrants. The five members of the school board who voted to ban the book did not have children in any public schools governed by the district. At a meeting that drew some 500 people and lasted for six hours, 63 attendees spoke with most objecting to the ban. According to a New York Times account, “Book Ban Splits a Queens School District,” the five school board members who favored the ban were nicknamed “The Holy Five” or “The Faithful Five.” Four had run on a slate sponsored by the Home Schools Association, a support group for Catholic parents home-schooling their children. In a parallel to the present, some questioned their motives, concerned that they were reflecting personal interests and not the district’s. A few years later, in December 1975, the board, composed of different and recently elected members, voted to repeal the ban. The board president called the book banning “abhorrent” and “undemocratic.”

Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District v. Pico

Thomas’s book also played a role in a case on which the Supreme Court ruled in 1982. It began in September 1975, when several board members of the Island Trees Union Free School District on Long Island, New York, attended a weekend education conference in Watkins Glen, New York, organized by a far-right group, Parents of New York United, Inc. (PONY-U. Inc. for short). Island Trees Union Free School District board members mixed with representatives from the Heritage Foundation and parents opposed to school desegregation in Boston. The keynote speaker, Genevieve Klein, a member of the New York State Board of Regents, advocated for adoption of a voucher system for education. “If you are a parent who believes that reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic are basic tools necessary for developing into a contributing member of society, then you know that parental control is an immediate necessity,” she told the group. “If there is to be any hope for saving another generation from becoming functional idiots the time to act is now.”

Book bans, and opposition to them, date back decades. Here, Gail Sheehy, author of “Passages,” at podium, right, reads during the “First Banned Books Read Out,” New York, April 1, 1982. Credit: Carlos Rene Perez/ Associated Press

PONY-U. Inc. was not just a local group eager to talk about schooling. Headed by Janet Mellon, a far-right activist, the group had spent several years orchestrating opposition to sex education and human relations education in schools and to student busing across Upstate New York. Yet books were top of mind leading up to Watkins Glen. A few weeks prior, the group hosted a talk titled “Book Censorship in Our Schools” at the Central Fire Station in Ithaca, New York. The Watkins Glen conference also came on the heels of one of the most violent and divisive school textbook battles in history. For six months in 1974 and 1975, bitter conflict roiled West Virginia’s Kanawha County after a new school board member, Alice Moore, sought the removal of textbooks that she found objectionable. She had won her seat by convincing voters that schools were “destroying our children’s patriotism, trust in God, respect for authority and confidence in their parents.”

Moore mobilized other conservatives locally and nationally, including prominent education activists Mel and Norma Gabler, who sought to “excise the rot from the nation’s schoolbooks,” as Adam Laats writes in “The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education.” That “rot” included teaching evolution; communicating a “liberated” sexuality; “graphic accounts of gang fights; raids by wild motorcyclists; violent demonstrations against authority; murders of family members; of rape” and “books that denigrated traditional patriotic stories” in favor of popular subjects at the time, including Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Gertrude Ederle, Bobby Jones, Joan Baez, W. E. B. Du Bois “and many others dear to liberal hearts.”

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As protests in Kanawha County grew, violence spread. Reverend Marvin Horand, a fundamentalist minister and former truck driver, called for school boycotts, arguing that “no education at all is 100 percent better than what’s going on in the schools now. If we don’t protect our children from evil, we’ll have to go to hell for it.” The controversy resulted in two shooting deaths and multiple bombings. Horand was charged and ultimately found guilty in connection with the dynamiting of two elementary schools. The Heritage Foundation was also on the ground, providing legal support and helping a local group hold a “series of ‘Concerned Citizen’ hearings on discontent with the public schools.” Mellon of PONY-U. was one of their “expert” speakers.

At the Watkins Glen conference — with the memory of Kanawha County still fresh — board members of the Island Trees Union Free School District received a list of 32 books described as “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” Then, in February 1976, the board ordered the Island Trees Union Free School superintendent to remove 11 books from the district’s junior and senior high schools, including nine from school libraries. The move stirred outrage, but the board defended the ban, claiming that the books contained “material which is offensive to Christians, Jews, blacks and Americans in general.” Two of the books — “The Fixer,” by Bernard Malamud, and “Laughing Boy,” by Oliver La Farge — had won the Pulitzer Prize. At a press conference, school board member Frank Martin read aloud from “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, citing sentences in which Jesus is called a “bum” and a “nobody.” Martin said that “even if the rest of the book was the best story in the world, I still wouldn’t want it in our library with this stuff in it.” The other books: “Down These Mean Streets,” by Piri Thomas; “The Naked Ape,” by Desmond Morris; “Soul on Ice,” by Eldridge Cleaver; “Black Boy by Richard Wright;” “Best Short Stories of Negro Writers,” edited by Langston Hughes; “Go Ask Alice,” by an anonymous author; “A Hero Ain’t Nothing but a Sandwich,” by Alice Childress; and “A Reader for Writers,” by Jerome Archer.

“We are not even allowed to order the newest ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ or the latest ‘Guinness World Records’ unless the board gives express permission for those specific titles. We can’t get any new nonfiction books about camels or squirrels or football without specific approval of the school board.”

A librarian from the Bear Creek Intermediate School, Keller Independent School District, Texas

Opposition to the ban grew. In April 1976, 500 people jammed a local school board meeting. Many juniors and seniors in high school also attended. One told a reporter, “These books are very tame. It’s nothing you can’t hear in the sixth-grade school bus.” Yet the board upheld the ban. Then, several months later, it reaffirmed the ban, saying that board members had read the books and pronounced them “educationally unsound.” By September 1976, the matter had attracted broad notice and Thomas, the author of “Down These Mean Streets,” wrote in The New York Times arguing for “the right to write and to read.”  He explained that the book “was not written to titillate but to bring forth a clarity about my growing up in El Barrio in the 1930’s and 1940’s.” He added, “Since the horrors of poverty, racism, drugs, the brutality of our prison system, the inhumanity toward children of all colors are still running rampant, let the truth written by those who lived it be read by those who didn’t.”

When the books were first removed, Steven Pico, at 16, was vice president of the junior class and a member of the school newspaper’s editorial board. The following year, as student council president and a liaison to Island Tree Union Free District Board of Education, he attended school board meetings. He decided to mount a challenge to the ban. Pico connected with lawyers from the New York Civil Liberties Union, and four other students joined the suit. It took years for the case to make it to the high court. Pico went off to college, earning his BA from Haverford College in 1981. Just over a year later, on June 25, 1982, the Supreme Court handed down its decision. The Court ruled that the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech limited the discretion of public school officials to remove books they considered offensive from school libraries. The New York Times ran its story on the ruling on page one. Linda Greenhouse, who covered the Supreme Court, noted that Bruce Rich, general counsel to the Freedom to Read Committee of the Association of American Publishers, “called the ruling ‘marvelous’ and said it ‘sends a very important message to school boards: Act carefully.’”

The decision in Pico was taken as a victory by those opposed to book bans, but as Greenhouse’s story also stated, it was a complicated win. It was a plurality ruling, which included a four-justice majority and two concurring opinions, that recognized school officials had violated students’ rights when they removed library books they didn’t like. “Our Constitution does not permit the official suppression of ideas,” wrote Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. But, as Greenhouse noted, “The Court did not define the precise limits of the Constitutional right it recognized.”

In the late 1930s, the children’s book “The Story of Ferdinand,” about a bull who would rather smell flowers than fight a matador, was interpreted as carrying a pacifist political message. But in a whirl of confusion, it was marked as both pro-Franco and anti-Franco — and also as “communist, anarchist, manic-depressive, and schizoid.”

School board members in Pico wanted to remove books whose content they disapproved of. But what if books were removed as a result of a restrictive policy? Or if state legislatures or school boards passed rules that restricted library materials? Would that run afoul of the law? Or would it provide cover for de facto book bans? What if a district made a process for approving books so onerous that librarians simply stopped ordering books with certain content?

These and related questions are playing out in real time now over what should be allowed in school libraries. Keller ISD, near Fort Worth, Texas, has faced controversy. When Governor Abbott announced plans to investigate school libraries amid reports of “pornographic” books, he specifically targeted Keller ISD, putting librarians in the district on the defensive. And when the Texas Education Agency released new guidelines for how districts should prevent “obscene content” from entering school libraries — a bid for wholesale changes in how books were acquired for libraries, bypassing the graduate training that is part of being a librarian — a far-right majority Keller ISD school board, newly-election in Spring 2022 with backing from the Patriot Mobile Action PAC, was only too happy to get involved.

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At the time, the Texas Library Association and the Texas Association of School Librarians (a division of the Texas Library Association) objected to the new state guidelines. Those guidelines included the language of the Texas Penal Code Åò43.24(a)(2), a clear political statement, and a not-so-veiled threat. In most states, after all, K–12 schools and public libraries are typically exempt from obscenity laws; it is recognized that items that may clash with the language of those standards — art, biology, literature — involve creative and educational works that seek to deepen understanding of the human experience. Removing that exemption was the goal of the failed Tennessee House Bill 1944; it is a focus of several proposed bills around the country. 

The Texas Library Association objected to the increased burden on librarians, superintendents and school boards to read and review thousands of titles, acknowledging the difficult task for people who lack training as librarians. Such a process means relying on personal views of elected officials and other untrained people, which got the Island Trees Free Union School Board in trouble. In a statement, the Texas Library Association also underscored the actual role that libraries play: “School libraries are for all students but not all students are the same — they have diverse interests, abilities, and maturity levels, and varied cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.” The statement also pointedly rebuffed Abbott’s charge, adding, “Furthermore, school libraries do not collect obscene content.”

Yet the new Keller ISD school board was more than eager to take up removing “obscene content” from school libraries, and on July 8, 2022 passed an updated book policy that largely mirrored the new state guidelines. They weren’t done. A month later, on August 22, the board voted 4-2 (with one abstention) to adopt new district guidelines for selecting books. Each would be judged according to how often certain items appeared in its pages. Ill-defined terms like “prevalent,” “common,” “some” or “minimal” would indicate what amount of specific flagged content — profanity, kissing, horror, violence, bullying, drug or alcohol use by minors, drug use by adults, the glorification of suicide or self-harm or mental illness, brief descriptions of nonsexual nudity, and sexually explicit conduct or sexual abuse — would be permitted at different age levels.

Veteran board member, Ruthie Keyes, who had abstained, puzzled over how to apply the guidelines. In talking about violence, she asked, “Are they talking about military combat?” She had spoken with teachers who estimated having to remove two-thirds of their classroom library books. “That’s a lot,” she said. “And none were talking about explicit sex scenes.” (In November 2022, the board added one more rule: No mention of “gender fluidity” was permitted.)

The new policy created a selection process with more layers of librarians reviewing each purchase. Books would be also placed on a list open to review and challenge by members of the community for 30 days. The board would then approve the purchase of each book. This had an almost immediate effect. At the October 24, 2022, school board meeting, a librarian from the Bear Creek Intermediate School made her way to the mic, her hair piled in a messy swirl, glasses affixed to her face, and paper in hand. She spoke calmly about the policy, which she considered an affront to the training she and her peers had undergone. The board “has shown by its actions that Keller ISD librarians are not respected at all,” she said. “We are not even allowed to order the newest ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’ or the latest ‘Guinness World Records’ unless the board gives express permission for those specific titles. We can’t get any new nonfiction books about camels or squirrels or football without specific approval of the school board.”

“I just felt a cold chill. I was beyond shocked that somebody from our state government was asking what books were available in our school libraries. I never thought I would see anything like that.” 

Mary Woodard, president of the Texas Library Association

She described “a huge environment of fear” among librarians who “are not even trusted to order a new alphabet book like ABC Cats for pre-K students.” Students, she said, keep asking why there are no new books. She must constantly say that titles are coming soon and makes excuses for the lack of new books. What she doesn’t reveal is the truth: “I certainly don’t mention the role that politics is playing in our libraries and our district.”

But in a reminder that this is political, the far-right Keller ISD Family Alliance PAC used the new policy and book removals to fundraise, trumpeting that the board had “stood up against the left’s woke agenda in schools, now we MUST hold the line and protect our hard-earned victories and our children.” Then it asked, “Can we count on you today to support our school board with a donation of $25, $50, $100, $250 or even $500?” Below the text was a “donate” button.

Much as moves to ban books get cast by far-right activists as “protecting” students, they are —and long have been — baldly political. Just last week, a federal judge in Florida heard oral arguments in a case brought by PEN America, publishers, authors and parents against the Escambia County School District and Escambia County School Board. The plaintiffs charge that the board and district removed and restricted books “based on their disagreement with the ideas expressed in those books.” Further, they “have disproportionately targeted books by or about people of color and/or LGBTQ people.”

As this case proceeds, as state legislatures prepare to take up bills that threaten librarians, teachers and the freedom of students to read, however, it is important to remember that this is more than some theoretical debate. There are consequences — for librarians doing their jobs, for children who want ordinary books, and for those for whom these restrictions are received as an attack.

In Keller ISD, during the five-and-half-hour school board meeting at which the board adopted restrictive book selection policies, a high school senior spoke during public comments. He said that he was gay, and in middle school had been told by peers that he was “a freak.”  I began to agree with them,” he said. Then, he recounted, “I found a book about boys that felt the same way as I did.” Reading it made him less alone; he gained confidence as he reached high school. Yet the new library and book policies made students like him “feel attacked by the school board,” he said. “This pervasive censorship is about more than politics,” he added. “It is about lives.”

This is an adapted excerpt from “School Moms: Parent Activism, Partisan Politics and the Battle for Public Education” by Laura Pappano. Copyright 2024. Excerpted with permission by Beacon Press.

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