Last month, Carroll County’s Board of Education temporarily removed 56 books from the district’s school libraries after complaints about inappropriate content. An analysis by Capital News Service (CNS) found that a high proportion of the titles being reviewed were written by female, LGBTQIA+ and non-binary authors and featured LGBTQIA+ characters and characters of color.
CNS collected data about the authors and content of the 56 books being challenged from author websites, publisher websites, book synopsis and other online sources.
There are 43 different authors of the 56 books being challenged. The data collected by CNS shows a majority, 67%, of the authors are female. Despite only accounting for less than 2% of U.S. adults according to Pew Research Center survey data, non-binary authors make up 12% of the book authors.
LGBTQIA+ writers and illustrators make up 28%, despite the LGBTQIA+ community representing only about 7% of the U.S. adult population, according to Pew Research Center.
Many of the titles up for review also include diverse characters.
According to the CNS analysis, of the 56 books temporarily removed, at least 25 contain LGBTQIA+ characters and at least 16 include characters of color.
The challenges were driven by Moms for Liberty, a conservative group focusing on parents’ rights that, according to The Washington Post, has been responsible for a surge of book challenges across the United States in recent years.
Moms for Liberty’s Carroll County Chair, and mother of five, Kit Hart has attended various school board meetings to speak about the issue of having books in school libraries that have what the group deemed “graphic sex” content.
“The only criteria that we used to identify these books was that they contained very graphic sex or rape, that was the only criteria that we use, it wasn’t anything else,” Hart said.
Hart said there is already a mental health crisis in the U.S. and the group wants to help identify some of the factors which could be contributing.
“We believe that this type of material can be very upsetting and problematic to students, and it’s not developing any kind of literacy that they need, and it can really damage their mental health,” Hart said.
Moms for Liberty points to the website BookLooks.org when evaluating books. It provides detailed reports of what they consider objectionable content and ratings for specific books. Some of the concerns listed in the reports include “alternate sexualities” and “alternate gender ideologies.”
BookLooks also lists various types of “controversial commentary” that they believe children and young adults shouldn’t have access to, including themes about race, culture, politics, religion, abortion and more.
Out of the challenged books, 28% contain LGBTQIA+ themes, and 14% include non-binary themes, according to BookLooks.
A book that discusses both sexuality and gender ideology is “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson, who is a queer Black man. He wrote a series of essays about his “trials and triumphs” growing up in New Jersey and Virginia. With 86 challenges, it was the second-most challenged book in the country in 2022, according to the American Library Association (ALA).
Some parents, like Carroll County resident and mom of two Pamela Hohlbein, worry the removal would result in children having limited access to diverse voices and perspectives.
“At the end of the day, these book bans are affecting kids, who are not really kids anymore. They’re teenagers, they’re young adults. They need to learn about the world, not just this little Carroll County bubble that everyone seems to think is protecting the kids,” said Hohlbein. “But when they get off into the real world, and they don’t know about other cultures, and they don’t know how to interact with the LGBTQ community or the BIPOC community, it’s really going to harm them in the long run.”
Hart said she agrees that students should be exposed to different people, cultures and lifestyles in their reading but does not see why sexual content has to be included in some works.
“Just don’t include that sexual content in the books. … They should be able to be exposed to all different kinds of people without being exposed to sexual content at the same time,” Hart said.
According to BookLooks, some 96% of the books challenged in Carroll County include forms of sexual content, with 38% discussing sexual assault.
One of these books being flagged for containing sexual assault is “A Stolen Life: A Memoir” by Jaycee Lee Dugard, who wrote about her experience of abuse and survival after being kidnapped and held in captivity for 18 years.
Wendy Novak, a Carroll County resident and mom of three, said that books written by survivors of sexual assault about their experiences helped her understand what her own child went through, which she also spoke about at the September Board of Education meeting.
“I have a 25-year-old that was sexually assaulted, and for me, and I know it’s true for other people, reading books by survivors helps to understand what my child went through,” Novak said. “These books are available in high schools. They’re not available in middle or elementary schools, but they’re available at the age range that is unfortunately very likely to be assaulted.”
Some members of the Carroll County Public School’s Board of Education have expressed support for the removal of the books.
Carroll County Board of Education members Steve Whisler and Tara Battaglia both signed Moms For Liberty’s “Parent Pledge,” which states that they will “honor the fundamental rights of parents including but not limited to the right to direct the education, medical care, and moral upbringing of their children.”
Whisler was also a speaker at Moms for Liberty’s “Giving Parents a Voice Townhall” held in Silver Spring on Sept. 26, where he spoke about how much he values parental involvement.
The issue of book challenges exists beyond Carroll County. According to national data collected by the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, in the first 8 months of 2023, 1,915 unique titles were targeted.
According to the ALA, the number of unique titles challenged has increased by 20% this year from the same reporting period in 2022, which saw the highest number of challenges since the ALA started collecting the data 20 years ago.
The ALA found the recent rise in title challenges is often driven by a single person or group challenging multiple titles at a time.
In the first eight months of 2023, 11 states reported cases of a challenge to?100 or more books, compared to six during the same reporting period in 2022 and zero in 2021, and that “9 in 10 of the overall number of books challenged were part of an attempt to censor multiple titles,” according to the ALA.
It doesn’t seem likely the challenges will slow down soon. In nearby Harford County, Board of Education Vice President Melissa Hahn called out six books for being inappropriate for students at a recent board meeting.
In Carroll County, the school district’s reconsideration committee will continue to review up to five books per month. According to The Baltimore Sun, school officials have decided to retain five of the books in high school libraries, including “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, “Tilt” by Ellen Hopkins, “The Sun and her Flowers” by Rupi Kaur, “Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture” by Roxane Gay, and “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, though the books have not yet been returned to shelves as the decision is open to appeal. “Slaughterhouse Five,” an anti-war novel long considered a classic of American literature, has been permanently removed from middle school libraries in the county.
Dylan Manfre contributed to this story