Books on sex, race and gender have Arkansas censors all hot and bothered lately.

Any librarian can tell you book banning never goes completely out of vogue. Even in quiet years they field occasional gripes about ribald DVDs or the more comprehensive guides on sex education in the young readers’ section.

This past year, however, was far from quiet. Book banning, in both public schools and public libraries, is having a moment. Uproar over Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s masterpiece “Beloved” was arguably a deciding issue in the 2021 Virginia governor’s race. Texas conservatives are in hot pursuit of “pornography and other obscene content” in school libraries, with plans to criminally prosecute whoever put it there.

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Here in Arkansas, members of groups like Moms for Liberty in Northwest Arkansas, Safe Library Books for Kids in Jonesboro and Back to Basics in Conway are emailing, organizing and showing up to library and school board meetings to make their case for excising books about gender, sexuality, puberty and racism from any shelves children or teens could happen upon.

Consider the position of the Arkansas-based book banning group Safe Library Books for Kids with empathy, and you’ll find some genuine anguish at the root of their campaign. Afraid that children who read about sex, gender nonconformity and drugs will have sex, gender bend and use drugs, these parents and grandparents are trying to lock it all down.

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“If they are reading the inappropriate books being supplied by librarians in schools and public libraries, how can we expect them to then be ‘good.’ They won’t be, and that creates a shift toward evil for society,” one of the group’s four moderators lamented on their Facebook page, which has attracted more than a thousand followers since it started up in September of 2021. The page chirps and burbles throughout the day with gotcha-style alerts about books to look out for and notices about upcoming library board meetings. (Group moderator Deanne Copeland politely declined to be interviewed for this story, and other group leaders didn’t respond to messages.)

One of the complaints that poured into the Craighead County library system about a Pride Month display in the children’s section.

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Their arguments don’t land for parents who would rather their kids learn about sex and drugs from books than from some guy behind a gas station. And when accusations of pedophilia enter the chat, as they inevitably do, it’s easy to roll your eyes and tune out.

And arguments from groups like Conway’s secretive Back to Basics that keeping books on racism in school libraries is the gateway to revolution and the downfall of the American way seem pretty far-fetched.

But this new wave of book banners in Arkansas and across the country is both loud and legion, with deep-pocketed backers, organizational know-how and the discipline to cause real headaches for defenders of First Amendment freedoms. In December 2021, the National Coalition Against Censorship put out a statement against the barrage of attempts to pull books from classrooms and school libraries. The list of co-signers, which includes authors, publishers, the American Civil Liberties Union and many others, is longer than the statement itself.

“The law clearly prohibits the kind of activities we are seeing today: censoring school libraries, removing books — and entire reading lists — based on disagreement with viewpoint and without any review of their educational or literary merit. Some would-be censors have gone even farther, threatening teachers, school librarians, authors and school board members with criminal charges and even violence for allowing students access to books,” they said.

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Those censors are turning up the heat in community libraries, as well. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom reports demands to scrub content from library shelves in 2021 eclipsed any other year in decades.

Arkansas case studies

Anyone in Craighead County with a library card won’t be at all surprised at the soaring uptick. A 2021 Pride Month display in the Jonesboro Library’s children’s section, with its seemingly anodyne books about two penguin dads and a bear who felt more like a bunny, set off a months-long battle over what content the library should offer, and where they should keep it. Tempers flared, lines were drawn, opposing Facebook groups sprung up. A political tug-of-war erupted over an open seat on the Craighead County library board, a vacancy that in normal times wouldn’t draw much notice. The nascent Citizens Defending the Craighead County Library mobilized to defeat a proposal to give the library board the chore of micromanaging what books and displays the library offers. So far no books have been pulled out of circulation, although some got shuffled to new spots. And library Director David Eckert, wrung out from standing firm against the onslaught, announced in November he was skipping town to take a job in Waterloo, Iowa.

Citizens Defending Craighead County Library
Citizens Defending the Craighead County Library kept up a robust social media presence during the recent heated debates over book bans.

What happened in Craighead County is simply a new chapter to an old book. Works that drove defenders of morality to red-faced fits in the past warrant nary a rise anymore, a reflection of changing times. Holden Caulfield’s suicidal tendencies and juvenile raunch kept “The Catcher in the Rye” on banned book lists through the ’80s and ’90s, but cause few headaches for librarians today. Kate Chopin’s “The Awakening” met immediate scorn upon release in 1899, and the attacks didn’t let up for decades. But now? Adultery is a yawner after the Trump era, and anyway, who cares if a fallen woman flings herself into the sea?

Book banners have always drawn down on content that reflected society’s anxiety flashpoints at the time. Judy Blume sat in the hot seat in the ’80s, when her books about the lived experiences and sexual curiosity of pubescent girls made parents squirm. J.K. Rowling came along in the ’90s to rile parents who feared their ensorceled children would turn their backs on the church. Today, though, Blume’s and Rowling’s largely white, heterosexual, economically secure book characters who never scrape with police get a free pass, even as they’re getting their periods or practicing witchcraft.

Patty Hector, now the director of Saline County Libraries, weathered a few waves of censorship over her three decades in the library business in California and Arkansas. She notes a couple of key differences today. The furor over books about gender and homosexuality is a new development, largely because those books didn’t exist a decade ago. The same goes for books by and about the hardships and systemic racism people of color experience in the 21st century.

“There were very, very few (if any) books on LGBTQ or race issues for most of my career,” she said.

The boogeymen have changed, and so has the strategy, Hector said.

“People who challenged books weren’t organized until Focus on the Family came along. That has changed greatly.” Now, Hector said, she and other librarians are seeing a lot of form emails and cut-and-paste talking points from groups mobilizing to bury schools and libraries under mounds of complaints.

“I respect anyone who has an issue with a book they’ve read, and I will read it and talk to them about it. But if an organization tells you that this list of books is bad … you’re going to have to read it yourself and tell me what it is that’s wrong with it before I can consider your challenge. It should be personal, not the opinion of some politician in another state,” she said.

Outside influences

There’s no question people from outside of Arkansas are influencing the censorship debate in The Natural State. In Conway, people who came out in October for a meeting of the Back to Basics group reportedly watched a video by a Heritage Foundation fellow and conservative darling whom The New Yorker accused of inventing the controversy over critical race theory. In it, foreboding music plays as Chris Rufo argues that schools are fomenting both racial tension and Marxist revolution by indoctrinating children.

Critical race theory has become a buzzword among conservatives like Chris Rufo, who want to gloss over the country’s racist foundations.

 

Tiffany Justice, a former Florida school board member and founder of the new group Moms for Liberty, echoed Rufo’s call for schools to focus on the basics and leave the rest up to parents. Arkansas had only one chapter of Moms for Liberty at the beginning of December, but Justice said three more were coming on line before the end of 2021, with the goal of advocating for parental rights. In Arkansas, school boards set policy on what students have access to. Justice said members of Moms for Liberty will play the long game, building relationships with their board members, rather than just showing up for occasional meetings.

A member of the new group Moms for Liberty speaks at a school board meeting in Fayetteville.

The group will push schools to home in on reading, writing and math, and ditch what Justice calls social-emotional learning, which she explained as both education as therapy and a vehicle for manipulating children’s identities. Public institutions are pushing parents aside and giving minors access to content on pedophilia, bestiality and incest without parents’ knowledge, she said.

“I’m shocked at the things being found in youth books,” she said, “instances of rape and incest and really pedophilia.”

It’s at this point where we veer over the line into QAnon conspiracy territory, or perhaps it’s where we drill down to the meat of the matter, depending on your point of view. “This is not normal literature. Something’s going on here,” Justice said. “There’s a concerted effort to sexualize our children at a very young age, and parents are very concerned about that.”

Turn off this spigot of information and young people are more likely to be chaste, she argues. “If we don’t want 12-year-olds having sex all the time, we should stop talking to 12-year-olds about sex all the time.”

Standing sentinel

Claims that books in schools and libraries are the gateway to pedophilia or communist revolution don’t fly with the likes of John McGraw, director of the Faulkner County Library System. A soldier in a quiet army of First Amendment defenders, McGraw said libraries serve the community by offering content for everyone. He cites Mark Twain’s quote: “Censorship is telling a man he can’t have a steak just because a baby can’t chew it.” And McGraw promises that if you look hard enough through the shelves, “there’s something for everybody to get pissed about.”

The goal isn’t to irritate, but to make sure the needs and interests of every person in the community are represented and addressed, he explained. “We’re not buying books just because it would be amusing to us for our enemies to be gnashing their teeth.”

If the debate is really just about kids reading books their parents don’t like, the solution is simple, he said. Parents can monitor what their children check out. If you don’t like it, don’t read it. “Nobody’s putting a gun to your head and making you read ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’”

If you’re placing bets on who will win this fight over what belongs on library shelves, I’d go with the librarians. They’re well-informed, experienced in fending off the book banners, and fierce when it comes to protecting access to information.

“It’s bad enough that we have to self-censor because we can’t buy everything published, but to only buy what appeals to a small segment of the community? And all other opinions are not represented? Have a library filled with stuff that’s safe and offends no one?” Saline County Library Director Hector said, incredulous. The recent dust-up over LGBTQ and racism content might be a little different from censorship attempts she’s weathered in the past, but libraries hardly ever remove books from shelves, and she doesn’t expect that to change. It’s censorship, far more than any books and curriculum about systemic racism, that threatens the health of the nation. Fighting about it, though, is good, all-American fun.

“It’s not too grandiose to say that libraries are the last great bastion of democracy, is it?” Hector mused. “And that a democracy without dissent is not a democracy.”

Arkansas’s Most Wanted

Long gone are the days when parents targeted Judy Blume books over chaste anecdotes about menstruation and breast development. And the ebbing of a satanic panic that gripped the country at the turn of the century means even sorcery and witchcraft get a pass. Materials by and about LGBTQ, Black and brown people are what’s clogging up those banned books lists these days, although sex education, that old chestnut, continues to set Southern mamas’ hands to wringing.

Here are some of the titles Arkansas’s would-be book banners are fretting about.

It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris and Michael Emberley

Among the best sex education books out there for families pushing beyond heteronormativity, “It’s Perfectly Normal” is public enemy No. 1 for the group Safe Libraries for Kids. The cartoon drawings of naked people and the frank information about oral and anal sex, masturbation and homosexuality have some people shook.

Wait, What? A Comic Book Guide to Relationships, Bodies, and Growing Up by Heather Corinna, Isabella Rotman, Luke Howard

This illustrated book works hard to reassure anxious young minds that masturbation is fine and normal, and that everyone’s genitals look pretty weird.

Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out

Real stories about young people coming to terms with their identity and sexuality. Sometimes fairly young kids have sexual experiences, and a few anecdotes are included herein.

George by Alex Gino

A fictional children’s book about a transgender girl struggling to establish her identity with family and friends, this book has ruffled feathers since its 2015 release.

The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas

Black people suffer systemic racism in the form of police brutality. Banners object to the anti-police sentiment.

How to be an Anti-racist by Ibram X. Kendi

Schoolchildren will not read this or any other books about systemic racism in the United States if the Conway-based group Back to Basics or Arkansas’s four chapters of Moms for Liberty have anything to say about it. They classify such works as indoctrination.

Jacob’s New Dress

This children’s book about a boy who likes to wear dresses drew complaints this year from Arkansas parents uncomfortable with gender nonconformity.

And Tango Makes Three by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson

Gay penguins in New York City (of course) attack the institution of family by hatching an egg and raising their daughter together. This was one of the books included in the Jonesboro Public Library’s 2021 Pride Month display.

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe

The memoir of a nonbinary, asexual writer with nonconforming pronouns.

What’s Happening to Me? by Alex Frith and Susan Meredith

Run-of-the-mill book on puberty, or a pornographic masturbation fest? Clearly the latter, one Arkansas grandfather said. “The attack on our children is relentless and we MUST STAND AGAINST THE EVIL FORCES THAT TRY TO DESTROY OUR YOUTH!!”