Hull looks for books for her students at a public library in Lancaster County, Pa. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Kyle GranthamKyle Grantham
LANCASTER, Pa. – Samantha Hull was on vacation when she got the call about the missing books.
Eight titles had melted away seemingly overnight, a panicked school aide told Hull, from the shelves of an elementary school in one of the 22 districts Hull oversees as co-chair of a group representing school librarians in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster and Lebanon counties. The books included titles such as “In My Mosque,” which instructs children about Islam; “A Place Inside of Me,” which explores a Black student’s reckoning with a police shooting; and “When Aidan Became a Brother,” whose main character is a transgender boy.
Hull, 33, couldn’t understand it: None of those books had been formally challenged by parents, even though she knew that activists across the country were targeting books featuring discussions of race, gender and LGBTQ identities for removal. The growing national furor had already arrived in Hull’s corner of Pennsylvania: Parents at a high school in Lancaster County, she said, had requested the elimination of “Gender Queer,” a memoir about being nonbinary, and “Lawn Boy,” a young-adult novel that includes a description of a sexual encounter between two boys.
Slowly – over months of meetings, investigations and secret conversations with fearful librarians across her counties – she came to understand the disturbing reality. Administrators, afraid of attracting controversy, were quietly removing books from library shelves before they could be challenged.
“There’s two battles going on at once,” Hull said, referring to parallel pushes from parents who want titles stricken and from school officials who are removing books preemptively. “And it’s been really difficult to fight both of those.”
Interviews with librarians in eight states and nearly a dozen districts revealed similar stories that paint what they describe as a bleak picture of their profession, as they fret about and fight against American schoolchildren’s shrinking freedom to read.
School book bans are soaring: Although the vast majority of challenges go unreported, the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom counted 330 incidents of book censorship in just the three months from September to November 2021 – marking the highest rate since the association began tracking the issue in 1990. The questioned texts have mostly been “books about LGBTQ people and race and racism,” according to the National Coalition Against Censorship, and many removals sprang from challenges launched by White, conservative parents spurred on by pundits.
Meanwhile, state legislators are advancing bills that would restrict what children can access in school libraries – some of which also suggest penalizing librarians. A member of the Idaho House is advancing a bill that threatens librarians with a $1,000 fine and up to a year in prison if they lend explicit materials to a student under 18.
In Tennessee, a bill proposes to prohibit school libraries from offering books defined as “harmful” to minors. “I don’t appreciate what’s going on in our libraries, what’s being put in front of our children. And shame on you for putting it there,” Republican state Rep. Jerry Sexton told a group of Tennessee librarians early this month. An Oklahoma lawmaker last week compared librarians to cockroaches.
And for some, professional consequences have already arrived: An assistant principal of a Mississippi elementary school was fired this month for reading the picture book “I Need a New Butt!,” which jokingly describes the adventures of a child who searches for a new posterior, to a class of second-graders.
Far less well understood, though, has been a backdoor campaign by wary administrators to remove books. The scope of that effort is impossible to estimate, given its secretive nature, but – in one example – a Nebraska librarian said three of the six book battles she’s been guiding this year have dealt with removals carried out by school officials working outside the bounds of book-challenge procedures.
All of this is having an effect: Librarians in many places are starting to self-censor. They are refraining from recommending or reading aloud certain titles to students, from displaying certain books on prominent shelves – and even from ordering certain kinds of reading material in the first place.
Although Hull has remained an outspoken advocate for keeping all kinds of books in schools – and has spent much of the past year fighting for books in meetings with various Lancaster and Lebanon school officials – even she is feeling the chill. In the current climate, she said, she would not be willing to order a copy of “Gender Queer” for any of her libraries.
Over the course of the 2021-2022 school year, according to Hull and several librarians who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, there have been formal challenges of six books across the 22 school districts in Lebanon and Lancaster counties. Meanwhile, at least 24 books have been pulled temporarily or permanently from the shelves by officials, without public announcement or explanation – including the children’s books “All Are Welcome,” “It Feels Good to Be Yourself” and “Families, Families, Families!”
A spokeswoman for Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13, the educational agency that oversees and provides services to the 22 districts, said, “we are unable to offer any details about this topic” because “we are not involved in [districts’] selection of local curricular resources including local library collections.”
Hull said she has recently been having trouble sleeping, consumed by thoughts about what she views as a war on books. She worries most about the consequences for the next generation of Americans. If book banning continues, she warned, “there will be absolutely no progress for our society.”
“When these students – who weren’t exposed to other realities, to people who are different, who have different life experiences than them – when they have children,” Hull said, “we will be right back where we were, fighting the same fight.”