Is it literature or pornography? The book banning push in a Florida town |
TAMPA, Fla. — For Julie Gebhards, it all started last spring when her 15-year-old daughter needed a book to read for her English class.
Gebhards researched Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” one of five titles students could choose from.
“The first review I looked at listed every type of sex you can imagine, including a graphic incestuous rape from a father to his 11-year-old daughter,” Gebhards said.
There was “a pedophile, and in his head, describing what he did to little girls. It was really, really disturbing. The list goes on and on.” She asked, “Who puts that there and for what purpose? And how many books are like that? And why?”
Gebhards is now a regular speaker at Hillsborough County, Fla., school board meetings, sharing salacious book passages as a foot soldier in a culture war that is spreading through public schools nationwide.
She warns the live audience and those watching live of the rude content of her message, then begins to read. Other parents sometimes follow suit, creating a sort of pornographic segment during bi-monthly school board meetings.
“I feel like that’s a wake-up call,” Gebhards said when asked if she’s been out for shock value. “It’s like, ‘Hey parents, did you know? And if you didn’t, now you do.
Seen in a broader context, it is an outgrowth of a parental rights movement that kicked into high gear during the months-long school masking debate last year.
“If you want to look at the light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to COVID,” said fellow parent and speaker Jessica Graham, it’s “waking up parents to what’s going on in the school system and allowing them to realize that their voice matters. I think that’s amazing, and I’m glad parents are standing up now and saying, “You know what? As a parent, I have rights.
The challenges of the book multiply
Works of fiction and literature have long been targeted for a number of reasons, not just conservative values: witchcraft in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, racism in Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn’; Communism in George Orwell’s “1984” and radical Islamic themes in Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner”.
In late January, a school board near Seattle removed Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird” from the required reading list, although individual teachers can assign it. The 1960 classic is sometimes criticized for its racist language and the savior status of protagonist Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in a southern town.
While it is not uncommon for parents to rise up against a book, school librarian organizations say such controversies are on the rise. According to the publication Education Week, the number of book challenges in 2021, although not yet available, is expected to be double or triple the 156 that were recorded in 2020.
And they are gaining political ground.
Republican Governors Greg Abbott of Texas and Henry McMaster of South Carolina have called for investigations into school library books they say are pornographic. In Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin has made parent involvement a central pillar of his campaign after running an ad in which a parent was upset that his high school son had been awarded “Beloved,” another Morrison novel. .
Closer to home, two measures that would change the review process for books and other learning materials are making their way through the Florida legislature. Below Senate Bill 1300 and House Bill 1467committees that advise school boards on the classification, disposal or selection of books and other materials should include parents and community members.
And there would be a process by which school boards could remove or discontinue library books.
Sometimes the police intervene. In Flagler County, a school board member filed a complaint with the sheriff, claiming that George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue” — also attacked in Hillsborough — violates state laws on obscenity.
The speakers say they are supported by Moms for Liberty, a national grassroots organization whose co-founders include former school board members from Indian River and Brevard counties.
A rival parent organization called Red, Wine & Blue has banned Book Busters website who plots the book’s challenges on a map and seeks to combat them.
A stressful climate
Hillsborough parents Gebhards and Graham said they were specifically concerned about inappropriate sexual content and were not looking for ways to weed out critical race theory or writing that espoused political ideology.
They said they are still investigating the issue of books and book challenges. They have not yet formulated a game plan or made any specific demands. For now, Gebhards said she cares about “raising awareness and gaining influence.”
Yet the discourse creates a stressful climate for people who stock school libraries.
“Not every book is for every student,” said Kimberly DeFusco, grades 6-12 media services supervisor for Hillsborough County Public Schools.
“There are students, very often, who come to a library and choose something that suits them. Or they decide it’s not good for them. So they give it back, because it’s good for someone else but not for them.
DeFusco distinguishes between books that are assigned or suggested by a teacher and those available in media libraries, which are entirely “self-selected.”
Hillsborough School Board member Stacy Hahn, who took an interest in the issue, said the line was unclear.
“Library books are an extension of curriculum and material,” she said. “I think if a parent is worried about what’s in the library and what their child is reading, we need to have a process for them to get answers.”
DeFusco said librarians welcome parents who want to participate in their children’s reading selections.
As the pandemic has reduced opportunities for adults to volunteer at school media centers, any parent can check out the district’s digital catalogs and help their children make selections.
Hillsborough media specialists have credentials far beyond state requirements, DeFusco said. She described an extensive process for selecting books, taking into account their literary strengths, the demographics of the community, and the wide range of maturity and reading levels that exist at any school. “I wouldn’t change anything about that,” she said.
But it could happen.
Hahn, who is so passionate about literacy that she organizes book drives and reading festivals, said she was surprised and disturbed to hear passages parents read at council meetings.
While not advocating any sort of banning or removal of books, she said she could introduce a board policy that would create a rating system, similar to what exists for games and movies.
She also wants parents to be better informed about the potentially problematic material their children are facing.
“I’m still exploring a lot myself to try to figure out what we can do to make sure parents feel like they have options,” Hahn said.
“Where do you draw the line? »
Others are less inclined to take inspiration from parents
Board chair Nadia Combs, while making clear she respects parents’ right to speak out, worries about the “slippery slope” of limiting reading material.
“Maybe a kid in a school has been through something really awful in their life and they don’t have access to the (public) library or they don’t have access to download those books” , Combs said. “Maybe they need to read these books to understand. Where do you draw the line?”
Combs is also aware of the organized nature of the book’s protest movement, which sometimes traffics in misinformation.
For example, book challengers sometimes state that “Lawn Boy”, a coming-of-age novel about a Mexican American man that contains sexual content, is in elementary school libraries.
The truth is, there are two books called “Lawn Boy,” and the elementary school one is about a kid who started a landscaping business. Gebhards herself confused the two books and later corrected the error.
DeFusco said it’s important to read controversial books in their entirety and not judge them on excerpts that can be taken out of context.
Gebhards said she had read “The Bluest Eye”. The novel, Morrison’s first, traces the descent into madness of an 11-year-old black girl in a small town in Ohio. It explores the troubled stories of the child’s parents. Racism is a central theme, expressed by the young girl’s belief that she is ugly, and her burning desire to have blue eyes.
“Literature helps us understand lives different from our own,” DeFusco said.
“When we connect with literature, when we read stories that are so radically different from our experiences, we can develop empathy. We can learn to understand. We can learn why I travel the world the way I do, but not everyone has the same experiences Literature is a great builder of empathy.
Speakers at school board meetings say there is more at stake than the availability of award-winning literature.
Some have suggested that there is a curriculum in schools to sexualize or desensitize children to adult activity and even prepare them for sex trafficking. Exasperated one evening by this claim, Combs lifted her cell phone and told the audience, “If a child reads a book, there won’t be anyone to groom it.” Grooming comes with telephones which are readily available throughout the school.
Both parties invoke the term “mental health”.
“If a child reads books about, my God, suicide, and if it’s a very fragile child and nobody guides it?” said Hahn, who hopes to arrive at a “middle space” in this polarizing topic.
“At the end of the day, they are minors in our care.”