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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Conservatives Are Ramping Up Their War on Books

From September to November alone, Republicans challenged more than 330 unique books—a record twice as many as the entire year before. And the fight continues.

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Attendees of a Virginia School Board meeting to discuss whether “sexually explicit” books should be banned at county schools in November 2021.
Attendees of a Virginia School Board meeting to discuss whether “sexually explicit” books should be banned at county schools in November 2021.
Photo: Peter Cihelka (AP)

They’ve already tried to ban grade school classics, like To Kill A Mockingbird and The Bluest Eye, for reasons like causing “white discomfort.” And now, conservatives’ fight over what books should be a part of the public school curriculum or available in libraries is not only enduring, it’s evolving—with more and more modern selections deemed too “divisive” or “sexually explicit” for young people to read.

According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, from September to November alone, more than 330 unique books were challenged — a record twice as many as the entire year before. While book banning is anything but new, a recent surge—masterfully timed to coincide with the emergence of critical race theory (CRT) conflict—has seen scores of books either removed from libraries and schools or disputed in state legislatures.

Among a handful of others, the latest embattled book is Lawn Boy, a coming-of-age novel about a Mexican American teen coming to terms with his identity and increasing class consciousness. The book—which was not a part of any curriculum and simply available for checkout at libraries—became the subject of a police investigation in Texas after a parent claimed it encouraged pedophilia, and it keeps coming up in legislatures all over the country.

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The book banning effort is clearly well coordinated. According to organizers on the frontlines, the people behind the movement to pull titles off shelves are the usual suspects: conservative think-tanks like Heritage Action For America, the Independent Women’s Forum, the Goldwater Institute and right-wing activist Christopher Rufo, who’s also gleefully accepted credit for the critical race theory conflict and directed harassment at sex education teachers.

Since 2019, Katie Paris, creator of “Book Ban Busters,” a campaign launched by the left-leaning grassroots network of suburban parents “Red Wine & Blue,” has worked to keep the books in question accessible to students. In a recent interview with NPR, she called the onslaught of censorship an “orchestrated effort” by the Right to whip up their base at the expense of kids’ educations.

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“It’s all part of this attempt to pit parents against educators in public education and to use race and education as a status threat to suburban white voters,” Paris told Jezebel. “They have been successful at convincing the Republican Party that this is the way to win back voters in the suburbs that they’ve really lost a lot of ground with in the last couple of election cycles.”

According to a recent New York Times poll, most parents say they’re happy with the education their children are currently receiving. But a much more vocal minority, in this case, is making headway by being the squeakiest wheel.

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“They find a handful of parents who will go and complain to a school board and that created two things: 1. a misperception in the national media and 2. a misimpression that caught local school boards flatfooted,” Paris said. “There wasn’t anyone organized on the other side. It caused this reaction where a lot of these school boards, rather than following their policies and going through a review process with these complaints, just sort of got scared and started pulling books off the shelves because they’re in a defensive posture.”

Now, Paris and the thousands of suburban organizers in Red, Wine and Blue say they’re playing offense, holding weekly training events for parents and later this month, a national mobilization day hosted by Stella Parton — yes, sister of American icon, Dolly Parton. Even Imagination Library, Parton’s program that gives free books to children, recently came under fire by Kentucky politicians who asserted it needs “safeguards” to ensure children are receiving appropriate content.

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As for Red, Wine and Blue, Paris said the growing network is bound to what will very likely be all war and very little peace in the months ahead.

“Ultimately, what we come back to is that even if this is a small minority of people who are genuinely concerned about the books that are available in their school libraries, it is absolutely their right to have their child not read those books,” she said. “But it is not their right to take an opportunity away from other kids who may really find value in them.”