News that a Tennessean school district unanimously banned the use of “Maus” — a Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust by Art Spiegelman — in its 8th-grade curriculum spread rapidly on social media last week, renewing national debates about book bans and what students should learn about in schools.
The 10-0 vote by the McMinn County school board cited the work’s profanity and nudity in justifying the removal, along with its depiction of murder and hangings. The novel is based on interviews with Spiegelman’s father, a Holocaust survivor, and depicts Jewish people in drawings as mice and Nazis as cats. (The profanity cited is the repeated phrase, “God d***,” and the nudity refers to illustrations of naked women depicted as mice.)
“...The control of people’s thoughts is essential to all of this.”
By Friday, a hard copy version of the serialized work was listed as Amazon’s #9 top seller. Even with demonstrated support of the book, many historians and educators across the country criticized what the move signals about the state of teaching history in schools.
In Chatham, Rita Van Duinen — Chatham Community Library’s branch manager — told the News + Record that the banning of books isn’t a new phenomenon. America’s first formally banned book, by Thomas Morton, was banned in 1637 by the Plymouth Puritans who did not appreciate the book’s criticism of Puritan customs and power structures.
“We too have been closely following book challenges,” Van Duinen said in an email, “in our area and across the nation.”
The majority of recent challenges over the last year have targeted books about racism or sexuality, especially when the latter feature LGBTQ+ characters.
Ahead of Election Day last year, Republican Glenn Youngkin — now Virginia’s governor — released a 60-second ad detailing a parent’s push to require schools to notify parents of any curriculum containing explicit content and to allow students to opt out of reading the material. The book in question was Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” which depicts the story of former enslaved people after the Civil War in graphic detail.
Last week, a Missouri school district voted 4-3 to ban Morrison’s, “The Bluest Eye,” which details the experiences of a young Black girl living in the wake of the Great Depression — and was removed by Virginia Beach City Public Schools from its libraries last fall.
A superintendent in Haywood County made news this week for removing MLK-themed novel “Dear Martin” from a 10th grade English class last month — without reading it, Popular Information reported, and due to one parent complaint regarding explicit language in the book. The book tells the story of a Black student attending an Ivy League university who becomes the victim of racial profiling. It includes a letter from the protagonist in his diary to Martin Luther King, Jr.
In neighboring Orange County Schools, the board voted on Monday to keep three LGBTQ+ books in its libraries despite public complaints. One of the books, “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” was previously temporarily removed from Wake County Public Library in December; the library is now updating its policy for reviewing challenged books, the News & Observer reported.
The books discussed by Orange County Schools board — “Lawn Boy,” “Gender Queer” and “Out of Darkness” — are national award-winners. The books have also been criticized by parents for their adult language and depiction of sexual situations.
Brenda Stephens, the school board’s vice chairperson and a librarian, said Monday that the board wouldn’t put such books “in the hands of a 6-year-old,” the N&O reported.
“As a librarian, I don’t ban books,” Stephens said. “I try to get books in the hands of as many people as possible, because we need to learn from them, and ... there is so much that can be learned if you read them as a whole, not taking them out of context, highlighting a line or a paragraph here or there.”
Chatham Community Library developed a “request for reconsideration of materials” policy and procedure in response to the recent challenges in Wake County, Van Duinen said. Any library cardholder can request an item be reviewed, a website detailing the process says, but the patron must “read, view, or listen to the entirety of the work” before submitting the form.
“Chatham County Public Libraries staff selects material with great care,” the webpage says, “using established criteria and giving full consideration to varying age groups as well as to differing education and cultural backgrounds of patrons the Libraries serve.”
Ness Shortley, George Moses Horton Middle School’s librarian, said CCS’s librarians will meet this Friday in part to discuss the district’s book challenge policies — following recent national book challenges as well as a change in district supervision of librarians.
“Librarians, and school librarians in particular, are in an interesting position when it comes to book challenges,” Shortley said. “Part of what we’re charged to do is provide resources to students and teachers that encompass a wide variety of viewpoints.
“Book challenges are kind of expected, but they go against, I guess, my position of how I see my job as a school librarian,” she said, “which is to give students access to information so that they can kind of decide for themselves what they think or they believe about different topics — even if it’s stuff that I disagree with personally.”
Parents can decide what their children read, Shortley emphasized, particularly at the younger age levels, “but they don’t get to decide that for other families.”
Shortley stressed that all books in a school’s collection go through a rigorous review process before being added, with attention given to the school’s age group. Sometimes, she will receive recommendations from a fellow district librarian at an elementary school; sometimes she will ultimately pass on adding a book to the middle school, but send it to a high school librarian.
Parents have made informal challenges in the past, Shortley said, but at least at Horton Middle, no challenge has recently reached the level of the school assembling a committee to review the book’s educational value and appropriateness. The school does have a Media and Technology Advisory Committee made up of teachers and administrators to review a challenge if needed.
Many recent book challenges — as reflected by criticism following the banning of “Maus” last week — surround broader debates about what should be taught in schools in the first place.
In Virginia, Gov. Youngkin said last week he has set up a tip line for concerned parents to report incidents of “Critical Race Theory” being taught in schools.
In North Carolina, Republican lawmakers passed a bill last year ultimately vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper that would’ve limited how teachers could discuss race and history in the classroom. The introduction of the bill followed a larger statewide debate on how to teach history, including the passage of new social study standards last year in the state, and bills proposed — some passed — across the country to ban the educational use of "The 1619 Project," Pulitzer-winning project created by Nikole Hannah-Jones as on ongoing initiative from The New York Times to explore the legacy and history of Black Americans and slavery.
Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson also created of a task force last March to collect complaints from parents, students and teachers in public schools statewide about classroom “indoctrination” — including things that Robinson said teach people that “the systems of our Republic and the history of our great American experiment are shameful.”
“We’re not equipping our kids to be critical thinkers by removing things that are hard from their lives,” Shortley said of books about difficult history. “With those books, I think kids are more equipped to handle challenging things than we often give them credit for.”
Last October, Robinson also led parent groups in characterizing several books with LGBTQ+ main characters as “obscene” material that should be removed from schools. At the time, Robinson repeatedly referenced his religious convictions in criticizing the books — including his belief that homosexuality, adultery, fornication and pornography are sinful. Robinson’s explicit use of Christian values in book debates illustrates the more subtle use of family and religious values by some Republicans, like Youngkin and others promoting book bans.
Whether about history or sexuality, most educators see book removals in schools as harmful. Plus, many of the recently challenged books are about or written by Black and LGBTQ+ authors — a factor not missed by many critics.
For Shortley, who serves on the school’s and district’s equity team, collecting books that represent all her students is a hugely important part of the job.
“Those books, for some people, represent the ones that get challenged a lot,” she said. “But as a librarian, it’s a big part of my job is creating a collection that both represents the students we have and also exposes them to the diversity of the human experience in terms of like racial makeup, ethnic makeup, religious makeup, disability status, LGBTQ+ status, socioeconomic status. … Every kid deserves to be able to see themselves in their school and in their library.”
Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.
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