Unfurling The Book Banner Lies: Book Censorship News, June 2, 2023

Kelly Jensen


Kelly is a former librarian and a long-time blogger at STACKED. She's the editor/author of (DON'T) CALL ME CRAZY: 33 VOICES START THE CONVERSATION ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH and the editor/author of HERE WE ARE: FEMINISM FOR THE REAL WORLD. Her next book, BODY TALK, will publish in Fall 2020. Follow her on Instagram @heykellyjensen.

This week, book banners showed up to the Douglas County Public Library board meeting in Colorado to protest books in the system’s collection. It is not the first time they’ve done it, and it’s also not the first time counter protestors have shown up to push back. None of this is news nor is it all that interesting; at this point, it’s pretty standard, even if there are still folks choosing to ignore this is happening in their own back yards at their public library.

What is more interesting than that, though, is looking at how these crisis actors are presenting their message and courting people to their cause. Propaganda works when an uninformed public — usually folks who aren’t engaged in the inaccurately named “culture wars” online — sees it and is appalled by what is presented. Good propaganda works because it’s convincing and presented in such a way as to appear authoritative. But y’all, this isn’t even close to good, and the book banning bigots do not even care. By presenting their false narratives in the most outrageous manner, they’re able to stoke anger and fear in new ways…and it is working.

But let’s break down what is truth here and what is spin (spoiler alert: it’s all spin). The purpose of sharing this is twofold: first, exposure matters since too many folks who care about the First Amendment Rights of all and the freedom of access are putting their heads in the sand and not looking at this stuff and second, this will help in your own talking points with friends, family, board meeting members and attendees, educators, and legislators, debunking fact from fiction.

Because sorry, that’s your job, too. You can’t not look and pretend it is not happening.

To see the full image, you’ll need to click through to the second tweet in this thread:

The background of the poster is our first sign this is going to be about fear mongering: it’s the Pride flag. Even better, it’s almost the entirely inclusive Pride flag; it’s missing the intersex inclusive element, introduced in 2021.

Layered immediately on top of the flag is the problem identified by the book banners. It reads “Child’s Porn @ Douglas County Library.” There is no such thing as “child’s porn.” Pornography is created and distributed for those 18 and older. Anything that would be called pornography and attempt to be distributed to anyone under the age of 18 would be deemed obscene and would never 1. make it through the publishing ecosystem, 2. let alone be printed, 3. or be distributed in any capacity. For a public library to retain funding and their status as government organization, no pornography would be collected, cataloged, and distributed, period, let alone “child’s pornography,” which does not exist.

More simply, “Child’s Pornography” would not be covered by the First Amendment Right of Freedom of Speech.

Top of the misleading poster

Beside the misleading, factually incorrect concern on the poster is a phrase that might be easy to miss. It reads “The weak and confused are easy to control.” Who are the weak and confused? The poster does not explain who that might include, but if we want to make the leap and assume it’s minors, then that is also factually incorrect. Let’s come at this in two ways: by experience and by science.

Anyone who has ever worked with young people knows that they will not do something they are not ready for. This includes reading. If a kid does not want to read a book, whether assigned in the classroom or sitting on a public library shelf, they simply won’t. Kids are excellent self-censors. If they’re not ready for the book or they’re not engaged with it, they’ll just stop reading.

I know. I cite a librarian there, and the rest of the stories in that New York Times carousel include authors and other so-called “indoctrinators.” So let’s move to the science part of the argument.

Kids are not “weak and confused.” Indeed, children are resilient humans. This is because their minds are still developing and with the support of caring adults in their life, they can overcome hardships and strengthen the neurological muscles that help them thrive. But the key here is needing a stable adult in their lives who believes in their capacity to do this; calling children “weak and confused” may not be the best indicators of what these adults believe of children.

If your frame of mind is that children are weak and confused, it won’t matter what they are or are not “exposed” to. Your belief in who they are absolutely undermines any potential they have for developing resiliency, self-awareness, self-esteem, and every other positive quality that are waiting to be shined and honed.

As a parent, your literal job is to set the limits and boundaries of what your “weak and confused” are and are not allowed to do. If you can’t make a trip to the library with them one where they do not peek at books you don’t like or you are unable to keep them from attending an event at the library where there might be a drag queen storytime, sounds like you’re not upholding your end of the “parental rights” bargain here. Maybe you just need to do your parenting work a little better.

And if your signaling here is in reference to Jesus being a shepherd for the “weak and confused,” per the Bible, if you’re putting yourself in the role of Jesus, seems like you know what you need to do already. Jesus put queer people on Earth too, and he gave them the capacity to make art. Wild, eh?

middle of the douglas county fear mongering poster.

Moving down is the first — only? — truth on this flier is the time, date, and location of the Douglas County Public Library Board Meeting. People are being encouraged to attend to “stop propagandizing our children.” What exactly is the library propagandizing to children? The non-existent “child’s porn?”

Or do you mean the list of books helpfully listed along the left side of the poster? The ones which each have a title and an age rating? Don’t those age ratings do precisely what you expect them to do and “rate” the content of the books for appropriateness? So where’s the propagandizing?

Is it the set of images from Gender Queer? Two pages from a 250 page graphic memoir, pulled out of context and made to look far more salacious than they are within the comic? Because this is a dream sequence between two consenting adults, not “propaganda.” You’d know that if you read it, but we already know that hasn’t happened.

bottom of the douglas county fear mongering poster.

Over half of U.S. teenagers have sex before the age of 18. Pictured on the right is This Book Is Gay, recommended for ages 14 and up; included are images of physical body parts. Imagine a teenager preparing to have their first sexual experience and knowing anatomical terms for themselves and their partners! Imagine them being informed of how to keep themselves safe!

Of course, it is two pages in a 320 page book. But context doesn’t matter, does it?

Speaking of context: the quote on the left is an excellent example. This is a song from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Notice the ample use of “…” to omit what the poster maker doesn’t want you to know! But it is worth noting this is a real song, sung by this very real choice.

And it’s complete satire.

After the song’s YouTube debut in 2021, the Choir received numerous death threats from across the country, and the song became a right-wing talking point for weeks, prompting their think tanks to declare the implicit message despite claiming they understand it to be satire or tongue in cheek.

Nothing more really needs to be said here, other than the poster makers did a bang up job conflating a satirical song from a gay choir with books that have age ratings on them with “child’s pornography” and “propagandizing children” at the public library.

As for the images? The individual beside the lyrics is a member of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, while the drag queens in the back are just that: drag queens. One of them came from Adobe Stock!

All of this is to say that literacy is a real issue across the country, and the book crisis actors are taking deep advantage of it to push their christofascism upon as many as possible. Books like those listed on the side of the poster, as well as comics like those included on the poster, are incredible tools to help fight misinformation and this deep issue of illiteracy.

Douglas County has never held a drag queen story time. But what it has held are meetings featuring a lot of white people showing up and screaming at board meetings in 2023.

But even if the library had held Drag Queen story time, I feel a hell of a lot safer letting my “weak and confused” child spending an afternoon with the drag queens than I do with the angry cis white people. The drag queens bring books. Who knows what the white people are packing, but it looks far more dangerous.

Book Censorship News: June 2, 2023

This is the shortest book censorship news roundup in over a year. Thank you, Memorial Day.

  • “We’re not banning books. We’re trying to clean things up a little bit,” Cold Harbor District representative Steve Ikenberry said during a May 9 School Board meeting. He named 17 books he said should not be available in schools. I’ll admit the phrase “clean things up a bit” is a new way to pretend it’s not book banning (Virginia). Also how little do you have to do in your role as a county supervisor that you’re telling the school board what to do about 17 books?
  • Thursday night will be when Newtown, Connecticut schools determine whether or not to ban Flamer and Blankets and it’s not looking good for the books.
  • Two board members in Newtown have resigned ahead of the vote.
  • Brandon Schools (Manitoba, Canada) will be keeping LGBTQ+ books, despite a small, vocal group stealing their philosophies from south of the border.
  • Books will not be banned in Rockwell Falls Public Library (NY), despite “concerns” from the community. You know the story isn’t original.
  • This is how you show up to your school and library board. Even when there are rumors of protests, when you show up in support, the crisis actors don’t (Wenatchee, Washington).
  • “The Fort Worth Public Library [TX] removed an LGBTQ reading challenge from its Mayor’s Summer Reading Challenge after city leadership received complaints.” But I thought this was not about getting rid of LGBTQ books? I’m so confused what this is all about if it’s not anti-LGBTQ and not book banning. (This is sarcastic — we know what it is about).
  • Book crisis actors in Fremont, Nebraska, now want to revise the book selection policy at the public library since they’re not getting their way with the book challenges.
  • “Under Orange County’s new policy, people who want to challenge a book, submit a form outlining why a book should be removed, and meet with a school administrator or principal. If they can’t come to an agreement about what to do with a book, the book is reviewed by a five person district-wide literacy council.” I’m sure there will be no issues with this, especially in Florida.
  • In Ketchikan, Alaska, the city council plans to decide whether a couple of YA nonfiction books can remain in the public library’s YA section or need to be moved. The meeting was to happen this week but was postponed. Again: it’s the city council deciding, not actual professionals in the field. Again: it’s the public library.
  • Three novels are under fire at Beavercreek Schools — Juliet Takes a Breath, Identical, and Impulse — while a biology textbook is current being challenged in Bellbrook Schools — it mentions biological things, of course (Ohio).
  • Autauga-Prattville Public Library (AL) continues to be facing book challenges from the local bigots.
  • “The Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District [AK] got more than 300 applicants for a new library committee that will review dozens of challenged books in Alaska’s second-largest school district. But instead of using a random lottery selection, as district officials announced last month, each member of the seven-member Mat-Su school board will choose one person to help review a list of at least 56 volumes.” This is not going to go well. Especially given this district’s history.
  • Sold is under fire in Berkeley County, South Carolina, schools.
  • A nice story to read about a group forming in Wyoming to oppose book bans and censorship.
  • If you haven’t been keeping up with the drama at Liberty Lakes, Washington’s, public library, here’s the whole story. It began over wanting to remove Gender Queer then the board voting themselves in charge of collection development before the mayor put the kibosh on it. This is how public libraries being taken over are having it happen — it’s not “just” school libraries.
  • “The School Committee in Ludlow, Massachusetts, is scheduled to vote next month on a controversial proposal that could significantly alter the types of books and media allowed in the district’s libraries. It could also take away significant decision-making from librarians.” Remember, it’s not just the states you love to hate on.
  • The latest proposal in Virginia Beach, Virginia schools to create a list of “lewd” books in middle and high schools so parents can opt their kids out.
  • Students who shouldn’t have to are being forced to rally behind the teacher who assigned Angels in America for reading in an advanced drama class — a parent complained because it explores the AIDS epidemic (CA).
  • The Central Arkansas Library System is suing the state over their new law that would criminalize librarians for doing their jobs.
  • In Crawford County, Arkansas, a group of adults have filed a lawsuit against the library and its relocation of LGBTQ+ books for teens.
  • “In the midst of ongoing attempts across the country to censor certain literary topics in schools — and in some cases public libraries — the Livingston Township Council has unanimously adopted a resolution affirming the township’s support of the Livingston Public Library [NJ] and the freedom of all readers to select their own material.” More of this please!
  • The fuller story of book challenges happening at Caro Area Public Library (MI). Let me reemphasize it’s the PUBLIC LIBRARY.
  • Recall the Wyoming public library board considering letting PATRONS create “trigger warnings” on books? Where anyone could just tag anything they want however they want at the public library? The vote is postponed.
  • “I take exception to the May 25th commentary by Mr. Paul Miller labeling the exclusion of LGBT-themed books from Samuels Public Library [VA] a violation of the First (“Free Speech”)Amendment of the Constitution. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from restricting the right of the press and of individuals to write and speak freely. That has nothing to do with local public libraries where making decisions to exclude or include books is the right of library staff, directors, and boards.” Tell me you don’t know how the First Amendment works, Dick.
  • The Upside of Unrequited will remain on shelves in Flagler Schools (FL). The statistic than more than half of the books don’t survive the challenge process should concern the hell out of anyone who cares about First Amendment rights.
  • Over the school year, Spotsylvania County Public Schools (VA) yanked 14 titles from shelves, which amounted to 108 books.
  • Getting news about book censorship from the high school newspaper and not regional or local papers is a reminder of how much the media cares. Roseville High School (CA) sees parental complaints about books in the library and materials used in the classroom.
  • In Los Angeles, California, parents burned a Pride flag and have been protesting events, including one related to reading a book about queer people. This has resulted in a trans teacher being removed from the school for their safety.
  • “The proposed policy states that no materials in the elementary school libraries should contain explicit written description of sexual acts or nude intimate parts, implied written description of nude intimate parts, visual or visually implied depictions of sexual acts or simulations of such acts and visual depictions of nude intimate parts or implied nudity.” The panic over this is so out of line. There are absolutely no books like this in any elementary library (Ludlow, Massachusetts).
  • In Winnipeg, Manitoba, It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris and Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan were examples cited by right-wingers who want the books and books like them banned in public libraries (this article requires an email address, but it is not paywalled).