OKLAHOMA CITY — Spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, battles over access to books have increased across Oklahoma as a debate rages over which books are appropriate in school libraries and classrooms.
Supporters of efforts to remove books say they are making sure there is “age-appropriate material” available to children. They say parents who are more involved in their children’s learning have “sounded the alarm” about questionable materials that students have likely had access to for years.
But critics say the movement appears to be a “backlash” against traditionally marginalized communities like LGBTQ+, Black, Hispanic and Native American at a time of social upheaval and rising social anxiety. They said it has also resulted in teachers and librarians being forced to censor access to books.
Norman’s Heather Hall, who owns Green Feather Book Co., the city’s only independent bookstore, said the controversy is being fueled by “political rhetoric” and a response “based simply on fear.”
“People are very vulnerable to this right now, partly probably because of the way the economy is going and partly because of the advancements and freedoms for people who are LGBTQ+,” Hall said. “That was a massive portion, I think. And the ongoing conversations around race in this country. I think all of these things kind of come together and kind of create a perfect storm to crush ideas.”
According to Hall, world leaders have circumvented the creation of traditional “banned book lists” by instead creating “guidelines” that have led to the unofficial banning of certain books.
“We’re no longer open and having a list, we’re hiding it,” Hall said. “It’s a very, very, very fine line between an actual ban and being unavailable.”
Hall said counties are now asking teachers to remove certain books from their shelves that may now be deemed controversial by students or parents.
In response to a controversy over access to books in his community, State Assemblyman Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, authored a new law that he says empowers local school boards to decide which book purchases make the most sense for their communities. Previously, there were no guidelines in state law, and leaders have turned to the American Library Association, he said.
He said a librarian in his legislative district told him she had the money to buy just 100 new books each year.
“There were some who tried to present this as a measure to ban books,” Hilbert said. “And it really isn’t. This is about prioritizing what you are going to buy…that best meets the academic needs of the students for their academic success and also within community standards.”
Hilbert said parents appear to be more engaged in their children’s education than they have been in a long time, perhaps because they have taken on a more daily role as educators in 2020 and 2021. Parents are now asking questions, attending school board meetings and demanding better student outcomes, he said.
While Hilbert said his bill referred to “acquisition of content,” other bills that didn’t move forward focused on content exclusions. He said the issue of access will continue to be a topic of conversation.
“I think we need to continue these conversations to figure out how to do this right,” Hilbert said. “And also what makes sense for school districts to have clarity too.”
Former Norman Public Schools teacher Summer Boismier was embroiled in a controversy over access to books earlier this year when she said district leaders were advising teachers to either remove texts or temporarily restrict access until the district determined whether some books might violate a new state law banning the teaching of critical race theory.
“Prior to my termination, I saw teachers boxing up their classroom libraries and wheeling these books into the school library, not for display on shelves but for storage until we could figure out what this means for reading choice and access to information in our schools ‘ Boismier said. “These images of teachers wheeling carts full of books from the classroom library to storage are burned into my brain.”
Instead of removing books from her classroom, the high school English teacher decided to direct them to the Brooklyn Public Library’s website with butcher paper and a message that reads “Books the state doesn’t want you to read” and a QR code cover.
Boismier said she wasn’t sure if owning a copy of the best-selling children’s book Captain Underpants could be obnoxious. The book was banned in places
“As an English teacher and someone who loves to read, I can now tell you that there is no way I will waste a single second trying to figure out which stories will offend which person, when, on which day,” Boismier said. “I have more important things to do.”
Her decision sparked a parental complaint and unleashed a firestorm of national controversy. Some Oklahoma Republican lawmakers have called for her teaching license to be investigated or revoked. State Secretary of Education Ryan Walters accused her of allowing “access to prohibited and pornographic material,” even though she didn’t grant access to a specific book, only a library.
Boismier later retired from teaching and has since accepted a position at the Brooklyn Public Library. She insists she has not broken any laws and plans to keep her teaching license in Oklahoma, saying Oklahoma leaders have not started the process of revoking her.
Boismier also said that when he looked at the question of prohibition or censorship from a historical perspective, there was always some sort of attempt to prohibit or censor what people have access to.
“None of what’s happening is new, but what’s new is the use of the internet and social media to spread information, to spread disinformation, to spread misinformation,” Boismier said. “These book bans and censorship efforts at least seem more organized than in the past.”
She also said the country appears to be in a moment of increasing “social upheaval” and with it “elevated social anxiety”.
Instead of a person objecting to a book, some politicians cite legislation that would seek to censor or ban, she said. Groups calling themselves “grassroots” are really anything but, Boismier said.
“We can see using the moral panic of the book ban as a kind of catalyst to play out those tensions of the pandemic and then everything else,” Boismier said.
Oklahoma Secretary of Education Walters insists state officials haven’t banned books, but that they have banned “pornography” and “indoctrination” in certain ways.
“The radical elements of the Democratic Party who have been spreading lies about banning these books,” Walters said. “You’ve dismissed ridiculous classics and said you don’t know now if you could teach that in class. And it has caused teachers to worry about something that really isn’t true.”
Walters said he’s “cried out” some books like Flamer and Gender Queer, but only because it deals with the graphic representation of sex.
He said libraries in Oklahoma should have good literature, but it must be age-appropriate, and he said he often hears from constituents about what kind of sexual content is being taught to children in young classes.
Walters said that when he traveled across the state, his parents gave him books or showed him snippets of what was in them.
“It’s just wild to think that these are in some elementary schools,” he said.
Walters credits parents with “sounding the alarm” on the matter and said they have become more aware of what their children were reading during the pandemic.
“I think it’s a great thing that there is so much more involvement in their children’s learning and curriculum because, again, I don’t think anyone knows better for children than their parents,” he said.
Janelle Stecklein reports on the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach them at [email protected]