The movement to remove ‘pornographic’ books from school libraries, explained

ORLANDO, Fla. — Alicia Farrant never thought she’d be fighting to remove books from her local school system.

The Orlando mother of five calls herself a book lover. She believes they impart valuable lessons to children and teens. School district matters and board meetings weren’t even on her radar.

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Then, she came across a list of books passed on by a friend that were described as sexually explicit, even pornographic, and commonly found in schools.

She checked them out from a library.

“There’s not just one or two pages. The vast majority of these, it’s like tons of inappropriate content,” she said, pointing to a book sitting next to her. “The entire storyline is just about a girl losing her virginity — sexual acts.”

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The rush to remove

Farrant doesn’t like to use the term “book banning” because she’s only trying to remove them from school libraries, but it’s one of the terms used by academics. It’s also nothing new. First Amendment debates surrounding books have been around as long as the civil rights movement, according to the National Council of Teachers of English.

Book banning has ebbed and flowed throughout the decades. The most recent movement began in early- to mid-2021, around the time Farrant and many other parents became involved in school board decisions over masking.

“Book challenging really follows whatever is causing anxiety in society,” Dr. Emily Knox, a researcher and professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said.

Due to the shifting conversations around race and sexual identity, Knox said she was not surprised that parents were challenging an increased number of titles from their district libraries, though she was careful to separate the two into different movements.

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Some parents are honed in on books that some perceive as racist or teaching “critical race theory,” the name of a graduate-level academic law program that has become synonymous with any effort to reform how race and racism is taught in schools. Knox said that trend increased after the protests following George Floyd’s death last year.

“There were protests all over the country, often in very small towns, and they were led by youth,” she said. “I think that probably caused some anxiety among parents (wondering) where had their children learned about this idea of protesting.”

The movement that Farrant became an advocate for was centered around sex and sexual identity. Some advocates have pushed for removing any novel that discusses subjects certain groups view as taboo. In past years this was divorce. More recently, targets include gay relationships or marriage and transgender children.

Farrant does not consider herself that extreme, even if she does not personally agree with the content of those books. Her view, and the opinions of other Central Florida parents, is based on sex alone, that anything that wouldn’t be OK for students to discuss loudly in the hallways shouldn’t be found on library shelves.

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Some books, like “Tricks,” the novel she considers the most offensive still on the shelves and the one she pointed to earlier, are full of descriptions of sexual acts and rape. Other books, like “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah, she takes issue with only because it can be found in middle schools, not just high schools.

“Tricks” was given an age rating of 14 to 18 years, while “Born a Crime” is rated appropriate for children 11+.

Debate surges

The first signs that the movement was coming to Central Florida happened at an Orange County School Board meeting in October.

As parents packed into the room to discuss masking, one man stood up and complained about the novel “Gender Queer.” He read a passage from the book. Board Chairwoman Teresa Jacobs asked him to stop.

When he kept going, she asked an officer to escort him from the room, telling the audience that she believed it was too inappropriate for a publicly broadcast meeting as well as the library shelves.

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“Gender Queer” has been removed, school district staff report, and it is the only book that has undergone a formal challenge this school year. The book, which depicts oral sex acts, is rated appropriate for teens and adults 15 or older.

It was also removed from Brevard County shelves and was the only book flagged so far this year, officials said.

Flagler County Schools have or are currently reviewing four books, including one that deals with race. One of the books was the subject of a marathon school board meeting Tuesday night, when parents spoke for hours about the award-winning novel “All Boys Aren’t Blue.” While some supported keeping it in the school, the majority wanted it gone.

“You can speak about these subjects without … explicit sexual acts,” one man said.

District officials said they order books in bulk from a distributor that works with schools to supply age-appropriate content. In at least Orange County’s case, not every book is individually reviewed before it gets put on a shelf, leaders have explained.

Knox said there were several arguments for keeping the books on the shelves, one of them being that children already had access to explicit content in schools already through their phones and the internet.

However, she focused on the fact that teens search for characters and experiences they can connect with and relate to in books, and the pages provided a safe space for them to work through their problems internally.

“The best thing to do is really to think about who might be harmed if these books are removed,” she said. “It’s less about the book, than the idea that there are people who actually might need these books; that these books speak to them in a particular way.”

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Knox acknowledged that the debates were full of nuance and complications, such as when pictures were involved, like in “Gender Queer.” She said there was no middle ground to this debate — either the books were banned, or they weren’t.

“It’s actually not about the book so much,” she explained. “It’s more about how do we think about the school? How do we think about our local community, and what values do we want the school to have?”

When it comes to sex, she said books are a way for children to explore the subject safely, even if parents don’t want to think about it. She disagreed with assumptions that she said some parents made: that books can lead teenagers toward less desirable behavior. She said often, the books act as mirrors on a person’s prior experiences or thoughts.

She said the tricky thing about teenagers is that experiences can differ across age groups, even between a freshman and a senior. In a high school library, denying one group access to a novel was denying all of them.

She also addressed another of Farrant’s concerns, that some books were too dark and disturbing for teenagers. Farrant believed that if a book tackled a heavy subject like mental health, it should offer teens a lesson, a path forward or hope.

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“Our work should reflect society as we know it,” Knox said. “What is hope for ... one person is not necessarily hope for another person. Sometimes the way out is … to learn about someone whose life was very dark and did not have a way out.”

Knox wrapped up her interview by saying she was pleased that parents were getting involved in their community, even on a topic she disagreed with.

Farrant, who runs an Instagram page she named “Rise Together,” knows her opinion is more conservative than others and that some parents will disagree with her views. She said she simply wanted a standard to be implemented that didn’t dictate book availability by subject, but rather by the appropriateness of the content.

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While some parents may consider that to be a very nebulous and opinion-driven solution — who decides which parents’ opinions define the line that’s drawn — she believes it’s a clear outcome.

“Anything that is sexually explicit, sexually arousing, anything of that sort ... we don’t need that,” she said. “There are thousands of books out there that do not contain this kind of material.”

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