By Dr. Steve Tetreault
In June 2021, the Texas Legislature made national headlines when it passed House Bill 3979. This bill bans teaching that includes any materials that might lead a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”
Then in October 2021, a Texas state representative sent a list of 850 books to the state Education Agency with questions about which of the books were in school libraries and how much money had been spent to procure them. This combination of efforts was seen by many as specifically targeting materials featuring non-white, non-heterosexual, non-male authors.
These actions have been followed by an insidious nationwide increase in very loud and dramatic book challenges by community members during local school board meetings. These challenges often use the same wording as each other and focus on the same books, even when they happen half a continent away from each other.
The attacks are generally focused around some key topics and titles. One area under attack: books by Black or other non-white authors, especially those with content that includes discussion of the experience of being a non-white person in past, present, or future America. Another: books by LGBTQIA+ authors, or books about the experience of being LGBTQIA+ in a heteronormative society.
Many would conclude that these calls to restrict materials and resources available in schools are an attempt to prevent students from engaging with topics that might offer new perspectives or challenge systems that have been firmly entrenched for decades, if not centuries.
One of the key functions of public education is to provide students with new knowledge, new perspectives, and new ways of seeing the world. All educators want their students to learn. But there are many who have come to see this mission as dangerous.
An ever-increasing number of lawmakers are using the issue of the appropriateness of school materials to push the view that what children learn in school is dangerous. Texas is once again leading the way, with Gov. Greg Abbot pushing to institute a “Parental Bill of Rights” that includes as a measure the permanent revocation of licenses and retirement benefits for any educator who is “convicted of providing minors access to pornographic material.” In a state where nearly any book not focused on cisgender heterosexual relationships is considered “pornographic,” this is a very troubling statute. If you or someone you know hasn’t yet had a book challenge in their district, give it time.
New Jersey is often considered firmly ensconced on the “liberal East Coast.” So it may come as a surprise to learn that there are currently half a dozen districts where educators and school libraries are being challenged by community members—and that number is rising.
This despite the fact that New Jersey law requires the inclusion of the studies of the Holocaust and genocide, LGBTQ+ topics, diversity and inclusion, social-emotional learning, African-American history, and, most recently, Asian American and Pacific Islander history.
Laws and NJ Student Learning Standards as supports
New Jersey has laws and learning standards that require certain topics be covered in schools. Since 1994, New Jersey has required the inclusion of instruction about the Holocaust and genocide in K-12 curriculum. In 2002, the state established the Amistad Commission. Its purpose is to “[ensure] that the Department of Education and public schools of New Jersey implement materials and texts which integrate the history and contributions of African Americans and the descendants of the African Diaspora.”
An LGBTQ requirement mandated in 2019 includes the provision that “a board of education shall adopt inclusive instructional materials that portray the cultural and economic diversity of society including the political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, where appropriate.” The Diversity and Inclusion in Curriculum requirement states, in part, that as of the 2021-22 school year, all districts must “highlight and promote diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance.”
In addition to these requirements, the New Jersey Department of Education requires districts be aligned with the “Quality Single Accountability Continuum” (QSAC). Since 2005, QSAC compliance has been in place to “ensure that school districts are providing a thorough and efficient education for all students.” And QSAC requires districts to address the provisions listed above.
New Jersey Association of School Librarians
The New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL) has been helping school librarians in the state deal with these challenges. NJASL created a “Book Challenge Handbook” that covers the many relevant laws, standards, precedents and policies directly related to providing students with grade-appropriate resources and assistance.
School librarians, particularly, have a vocational mission to encourage literacy, teach research skills, encourage evaluation of sources, and stand up for every student’s right to read. But attempts to censor topics and ban books from school libraries are not only bad for school librarians. Censorship is bad for students, for schools, and for teachers.
As problematic as public challenges to a school’s literacy resources are, they often lead to a quieter threat. The phrase “silent censorship” refers to ways educators and districts might remove books, or not even buy them if they worry their choices might result in a challenge.
This conflict avoidance is often disguised as an attempt to remain neutral. Unfortunately, when there are people who oppose knowledge, equity, diversity, inclusion and freedom of thought, schools and their educators cannot be neutral.
Limiting students’ access to materials in the name of preventing any discomfort they might encounter by reading is not good for students. It’s not good for the education profession. It’s not good for our society. That’s why it’s imperative that every educator be aware of such challenges and offer support to colleagues within and outside of their district who may be facing these censorious attacks.
Because representation matters
Jonathan Evison is one of several authors whose work has made “the list.” His post on how the attack on his novel, Lawn Boy, has affected his life is moving. The book reminds us of the confusion of adolescence, of figuring out who we are and who we might become. Many students would benefit from knowing they’re not alone in their feelings and self-explorations.
Evison’s book, intended for mature readers, reminds us that representation matters, especially in school materials. School libraries allow students to explore, to discover who they are, and to learn they are not alone. This is one of their most important functions.
Book challengers often tout their efforts as a way to prevent students and parents from feeling uncomfortable. As award-winning author Kekla Magoon said during a presentation at AASL 2021, “We mustn’t try to run away from discomfort or keep it from our children.” And as New Jersey school librarian Martha Hickson points out in her post for the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF), “ultimately, no book is the perfect fit for every reader, especially works that tackle difficult topics reflecting real-world circumstances. But one reader’s objection is not a license to restrict all other readers from the book.”
Dr. Steve Tetreault is an educational technology trainer and school library media specialist in Holmdel. He represents the Monmouth County Education Association on the NJEA Editorial Committee and is an NJASL Member at Large. He can be reached at DrTLovesBooks@gmail.com.
Join a regional response team
NJASL and the New Jersey Library Association (NJLA) have begun recruiting librarians, educators, and other members of the public concerned with these challenges to intellectual freedom from a variety of locations across the state to act as “regional response teams.”
The idea is to gather people who are familiar with a specific area who are willing to get involved in local book challenge situations. This might be via letter writing campaigns to local school boards. It might be by attending school board meetings to offer their professional knowledge.
Whatever level of comfort a volunteer has, NJSAL hopes they will offer it in support of their local colleagues and community.
To join a regional response team, visit bit.ly/librrt.
Resources and related articles
Visit the New Jersey Association of School Librarians at njasl.org. You’ll find valuable information, important links and other useful.
Some of particular interest include:
Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance)
“Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students“
learningforjustice.org Use the search function to find the above title.
The Adventures of Library Girl!
“A Proactive Approach to Book Challenges,” by Jennifer LaGarde
Examples to Emulate
“Fighting a Challenge to the Collection With a Coalition of Advocates” by Peter Bromberg bit.ly/35tegN4
“Gearing up for the Challenge: Tips for Tackling Censorship,” by Martha Hickson
New Jersey Association of School Librarians (NJASL)
“Book Challenge Handbook: Resources and Suggestions for Preparing and Managing School Library Controversies” bit.ly/NJASL-challenge-handbook