In March, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Senate Bill 81, signed by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and now a new law that makes it a crime for librarians to provide access to books that are deemed “harmful to minors.” The law comes after a wave of book challenges by groups like Saline County Republican Women and Moms for Liberty (a member of which was caught on tape last year fantasizing about shooting an Arkansas school librarian for refusing to remove books that present LGBTQ+ characters in a positive light). Now, these groups are working to defund public libraries and have successfully pressured some library systems to remove diverse and inclusive books from the children’s section.
What’s all the fuss about? Are these books actually “X-Rated,” as a huge new anti-library billboard in Saline County claims? Use our handy summer reading list to judge for yourself.
Picture Books for Young Readers
Worm Loves Worm, by J.J. Austrian, illustrated by Mike Curato
Two worms fall in love and decide to get married, but their insect friends have questions: How will the worms exchange wedding rings if they don’t have fingers? How will the guests be able to tell the bride from the groom when the worms look identical? In the end, the worms teach us that love really isn’t that complicated and traditions can be updated to fit our needs. Common Sense Media, a parent resource for evaluating books, movies, video games and other content aimed at children, gives this book five stars and says, “It’s an excellent book to start a conversation about same-sex marriage, but it works just as well as an introduction to wedding celebrations or as an example of how creativity, individuality and unconventionality can make a big event even more special.” Saline County Republican Women had this book removed from the children’s section of the public library because “gay marriage books aimed at children are inappropriate” and because they view the book as “anti-Biblical.”
The Talk by Alicia D. Williams, illustrated by Briana Mukodiri Uchendu
This Coretta Scott King Author Honor-winning children’s book tells the story of Jay, a young Black boy who loves hanging out with his friends, spending time with his grandma, riding in his dad’s car and getting measured by his mom with pencil marks on the wall to mark his growth. As Jay grows, the adults in his family begin to warn him about how others will judge him based on the color of his skin. To protect him, his parents teach Jay how to behave in public and how to interact with police, but Jay just wants to be a kid. Publisher Simon & Schuster describes this book as “a gently honest and sensitive starting point for this far-too-necessary conversation, for Black children, Brown children, and for ALL children.” The extremists who had it pulled from library shelves in Saline County said the book is “not an appropriate topic for little children and PRODUCES racism,” and they claim it is part of a “Critical Race Theory agenda.”
Jack Not Jackie, by Erica Silverman, illustrated by Holly Hatam
Older sister Susan can’t wait for the day that her younger sister Jackie will be old enough to play Susan’s favorite games, but as Jackie grows up, Susan realizes that her younger sister prefers to play with mud and bugs, likes ties better than tutus, wants to cut off her long hair and wants to be called Jack instead of Jackie. This is a book about a family loving and accepting their child regardless of gender identity or personal expression, so right-wing activists in Saline County found it objectionable and had it removed from the children’s section.
Bathe The Cat, by Alice McGinty, illustrated by David Roberts
Why was this charming picture book deemed too salacious for kids? Well, it’s not due to the story. As a family rushes to prepare for a visit from grandma, a mischievous cat rearranges the chore list on the refrigerator to delay getting a bath and, in the process, sends the family on a wild ride full of zany mixed-up housework (“Sarah, scrub the lawn! Dad, you feed the mat! Bobby, sweep the baby! I’ll vacuum the cat!”). The problem, apparently, lies in the illustrations, which feature a family with two happy, loving gay dads. In Arkansas, showing same-sex parents in a positive light is enough to get a book pulled from library shelves.
Books for Middle Readers
Transphobia, Deal With It and Be a Gender Transcender, by J. Wallace Skelton, illustrated by Nick Johnson
This informative book aimed at students in middle school uses comics, lists and quizzes to teach kids about transphobia. In challenging this book, the Saline County Republican Women have claimed that it is “leading some kids to go even further and identify as dogs and cats.”
Flight of the Puffin, by Ann Braden
From award-winning author Ann Braden, this story about four middle schoolers who aren’t what their families want or expect them to be showcases the power of compassion, hope, kindness and courage. It includes a nonbinary character, and the author is an outspoken gun control advocate, so it’s no surprise that this book has also been targeted for censorship in Saline County.
Books for High School Students
All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson
The Farmington School Board recently slapped an NC-17 age restriction on Johnson’s powerful YA memoir about growing up Black and queer. Johnson tells readers to “Love who you want to love, and do it unapologetically, including that face you see every day in the mirror.” This book is one of the most critically acclaimed and most widely banned YA books on the market today.
Books That Will Help Kids Understand Censorship
The following books haven’t (yet) been removed from library shelves in Arkansas. We are including them on this list because they are a great way to help your child understand current political efforts to censor the content that kids can access.
Ban This Book, by Alan Gratz
When fourth-grader Amy Anne Ollinger tries to check out her favorite book, “From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler,” from her school library, she learns that the book was banned because a classmate’s mom thought it wasn’t appropriate for kids to read. Amy Anne fights back by starting a secret banned-books library out of her locker, and she soon ends up in the center of a battle over who has the right to decide what students can read.
A Night Divided, by Jennifer A. Nielsen
My 9-year-old daughter loved the suspenseful and thrilling story of Gerta and her brother Fritz, who risk their lives to tunnel under the Berlin Wall in order to reunite their family and escape the censorship and oppression of the Stasi, the secret police who control all books, magazines, music and school lessons in communist East Germany. When Gerta’s elderly neighbor is arrested and tortured for distributing pamphlets that say, “If I cannot speak what I think, then it’s a crime just to be me,” Gerta begins to understand the importance of free thought and expression.