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2022 Lawton, Oklahoma Chautauqua June 21 - 25

There's new pressure to ban books at schools

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Attempts to ban books in schools are as old as books themselves. But there's new momentum on book bans now that's driven by conservative activists targeting local school boards. Nomin Ujiyediin of member station KCUR in Kansas City reports.

NOMIN UJIYEDIIN, BYLINE: Books about LGBTQ issues and race have spurred more conservative activism against school boards in recent months. It's often the same books that are challenged, like "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison and "Crank" by Ellen Hopkins, because they deal directly with issues of sex, racism, violence and drugs. One group leading challenges calls itself No Left Turn in Education. It publishes lists of books and guides to help activists complain to their school boards. Andy Wells heads the Missouri chapter. He considers books like "The Bluest Eye" to be pornographic and argues they shouldn't be in schools.

ANDY WELLS: That's not their lane to teach my children about sexuality. That's my job. That is a parent's job.

UJIYEDIIN: Two other books he objects to are "All Boys Aren't Blue" by George M. Johnson and "Fun Home" by Alison Bechdel - both memoirs written by LGBTQ authors. In North Kansas City, the books were pulled from school libraries after a local conservative group complained at a school board meeting that they had sex scenes. The group says its goal is to empower parents to assert control over school boards. The district ended up putting those books back on shelves after students protested. Sixteen-year-old Aurora Nicol spoke at a school board meeting after the books were returned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

AURORA NICOL: Choosing to pull reality out of curriculum and out of our libraries won't create good citizens. We cannot feel as if we belong here when our voices are silenced.

UJIYEDIIN: The American Library Association says the number of attempts to ban school library books was 67% higher in September 2021 than in September 2020. Deborah Caldwell-Stone leads the association's Office of Intellectual Freedom and sees challenges being more organized and school boards feeling increased pressure.

DEBORAH CALDWELL-STONE: The moral panic that we're seeing has created an extraordinary environment for responding very quickly. Many of the books that are being challenged these days have been on library shelves for years without comment.

UJIYEDIIN: Emily Knox teaches library science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She's studied activists who seek to ban books.

EMILY KNOX: What you see is people unsure if their values are being transmitted to the next generation, and perhaps we can make sure that they are transmitted if we don't have students read these books.

UJIYEDIIN: Knox says people who want to ban books often think books should reflect moral values. But she says libraries are not arbiters of morality. Instead, they're places where people can find information, whether they agree with it or not. Seventeen-year-old Holland Duggan says "All Boys Aren't Blue" has scenes of sex and sexual assault, but they help him feel less alone as a transgender boy and an assault survivor himself.

HOLLAND DUGGAN: Those are situations that teenagers may face, and giving us the education and the tools to deal with those situations properly is really important.

UJIYEDIIN: While efforts to ban books continue across the country, Duggan and others think that's a mistake because so many of those books that some see as controversial reflect teens' realities.

For NPR News, I'm Nomin Ujiyediin in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNWED SAILOR'S "PALLADORA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nomin is a Kansas News Service reporting fellow at KCUR.