HARRISBURG, Pa. — Concerns about books being perceived as explicit circulating in school libraries and classrooms — and claims that the issue is politically manufactured and a route to censorship — saw heightened interest in Pennsylvania, from school board conference rooms to the state capitol.
A detailed analysis of book bans enacted nationwide in 2021-22 ranked the Commonwealth third nationally for such bans, behind only Florida and Texas.
Advocacy group PEN America found 458 bans — some with dual titles — in place in 11 Pennsylvania school districts.
However, there are 500 school districts in Pennsylvania, and most of the number of banned books belongs to a single district. Take away the bans in York County’s Central York School District and the tally drops to 17 bans from nine different titles in 10 other counties.
But PEN America’s insights go beyond volume. The group sheds light on the types of titles, characters and authors most commonly targeted – LGBTQ people, black people and people from other ethnic minorities. It also documents how local concerns inspired legislative action in different states and that there are organized efforts by politically motivated groups across geographic borders targeting such works.
“I think we’re making certain groups of people feel invisible,” said Aimee Emerson, president of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association and middle school librarian in the Bradford Area School District, of the impact of book bans.
“That’s not generally what we do as school librarians or educators,” Emerson said. “Many of your school librarians are educators first. In our calling we want to serve each student. These book bans and censorship bring up the fact that some people want to ignore certain students.”
In Pennsylvania, separate Republican-proposed bills passed the Pennsylvania Senate in June. They called for parental notification of sexually explicit content in public school curricula and a ban on teaching about gender identity and sexual orientation in elementary schools. The latter proposal has been compared by critics to the Florida bill, dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
A House version of the second bill, introduced by a Republican in September, won a press conference at the Capitol where a Chester County mother who was suing her child’s school district opposed the inclusion of largely LGBTQ-related books like Gender Queer ‘ and ‘All Boys Ain’t Blue’. Portions of both detail sexual encounters between minors.
Both books are memoirs, their authors exploring their personal experiences of growing up queer and, specifically for the latter, black and queer.
Another proposal sought to introduce legislation establishing uniform procedures for all Pennsylvania school boards to follow when considering a book ban, a Democrat countermeasure in the face of local bans and Republican-sponsored bills.
None of the bills will advance further as the legislature is coming to an end. They would need to be reintroduced for testing in 2023-24. Those Republicans would face stiff opposition, as Democrats will retain the governorship and also reverse majority control in the State House.
Even if they had made it through both chambers of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, an LGBTQ ally, would have vetoed them.
PEN America’s study examines coordinated efforts by groups like Moms for Liberty, a new conservative nonprofit focused on parental rights and inspired by local resistance to COVID-19 protocols.
According to the organization, there are 240 local chapters in 42 states, including chapters in 26 Pennsylvania counties.
Rhonda Garman, chair of the York County Chapter, rallied support in school districts in 16 counties, including Central York, against titles she and others deem inappropriate for schools. She said chapters with similar concerns in other parts of the Commonwealth had been working together on the issues.
Garman speaks out against images in illustrated novels such as Gender Queer and Fun Home, another similarly-themed memoir that includes depictions of oral sex and masturbation. She also spoke about Push, the basis for the award-winning film Precious, and its graphic depictions of child rape and incest.
“If I showed this to my colleague, open these books to any page, (Human Resources) will be all over me,” Garman said. “This is sexual harassment.”
Garman has also expressed concern about books on racial justice — which she distinguished from biographies on historical figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. — and how, she says, some portray all white people as bigoted and racist.
Central York’s bans were based on a resource list of potential materials compiled by the district to provide instruction in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and the associated protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
The list was overturned in fall 2020, sparking student protests. It was restored in the fall of 2021, and according to district spokeswoman Nicole Montgomery, all books included on the list that were in circulation at the time the list was delisted remain in circulation.
Formal challenges for school library materials are rare, more so in public libraries. Most of the schools and public libraries contacted for this report said there were no challenges.
Banned Books Week is an annual event that celebrates the freedom of reading. It usually takes place during the last week of September and brings the community to awareness of current and historical attempts to censor books in libraries and schools, said Penny Neubauer, director of the Ashtabula County District Library in Ashtabula, Ohio.
“We prefer to call it Freedom to Read Week,” she said. “Fortunately, we don’t see any pressure here to ban books at the moment.”
The Conneaut Public Library, also in Ohio, celebrated Banned Book Week with exhibits throughout the building, said Amanda Latva, youth services coordinator.
Snyder County Libraries executive director Pam Ross and program and circulation director Mitch Alday said they received no requests to take books off the shelves. In fact, Ross said they have received requests to stock banned or contested books.
“We’ve had a tremendous surge in requests for ‘Maus,'” Alday said, referring to Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, published in 1980 and banned by a Tennessee school board for obscenity earlier that year became nudity.
Gender Queer, the widely cited and most banned book in schools, is another book clients have requested, he said.
A Social Justice Book Club was formed at Susquehanna University to allow the community to discuss issues such as banned books.
The Penncrest School District in Crawford County faced controversy over displaying LGBTQ books at a high school library in 2021. This led to protests and debates over a series of school board meetings.
The book show that sparked the controversy featured half a dozen books, including Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, a 2014 nonfiction account of several teens’ experiences with gender transition, and Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights,” a 2015 history of the gay rights movement aimed at teenagers.
Today, according to Superintendent Tim Glasspool, all of the books are in the library at Maplewood Junior-Senior High School. The district website contains listings of all books in all libraries in the district. None — not even the six in the photo, which sparked outrage from scores of residents and a board member — have made any official complaints, Glasspool said.
“We weren’t given any forms,” Glasspool said. “All this information is there. We try to be as transparent as possible.”
A junior high school teacher in Blair County’s Hollidaysburg Area School District was reprimanded after a district administrator learned they brought a copy of Gender Queer to the school. It was on the teacher’s desk, visible to the students, but not part of the district’s approved curriculum or part of the school library’s circulating materials.
“We have no evidence that the book was read to or shared with students,” Superintendent Robert Gildea wrote in an email to district parents.