RICHMOND — Authors and librarians have felt the pressure of recent book challenges in Virginia, and think the system for book challenges could be better streamlined.
When author Rosiee Thor discovered their book was challenged in a Virginia public library, the news was frustrating.
Their book “Fire Becomes Her” now sits among over 100 titles that have been challenged in the state, and initially through school libraries. Thor’s book, however, was recently challenged at Samuels Public Library in Warren County. A challenge “is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group,” according to the American Library Association.
Thor’s book, published last year, is young adult fiction. The 17-year-old main character is described as “a politically savvy teen [who] must weigh her desire to climb the social ladder against her heart in a world where magic buys votes,” according to a description by the publisher Scholastic Press.
“It’s anti-wealth and anti-voter disenfranchisement, with women in power suits and a relentless stream of puns,” Thor previously described.
Thor is not aware of the specific challenge against her book, other than a blanket description used to describe all the books on the list as “pornographic.” The book includes “no sexually explicit content whatsoever,” Thor stated.
“I am left to assume the people making these challenges have either not read my work, believe depicting LGBTQIA people simply existing is pornographic, or both,” Thor stated.
Number of book challenges increases in Virginia
At least 23 school boards throughout the state have removed books off the shelves in the past few years, according to a 2022 Richmond Times-Dispatch report. School boards have cited a recent policy allowing parental challenges of instructional material to continue challenging book titles, according to a Virginia Mercury report.
Last year, 182 books were challenged in Virginia, according to the ALA. In nearby Pennsylvania, over 300 titles were challenged. No other state compares to Texas, where over 2,300 books have been challenged. Most books are challenged for sexually explicit content, in addition to LGBTQ books and ones that contextualize racial issues, according to the ALA.
Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, introduced a bill that passed last year, which tasked the Virginia Department of Education to create model policies concerning instructional material with sexually explicit content. This policy created a system for notifying parents of certain class materials and giving them the chance to opt out.
Books are defined as “instructional” if needed for an assignment or “extracurricular educational program,” according to the policy. Library material is not required to be labeled as instructional.
The VDOE sent a memo in June as a clarification to the library guidelines. The department stated parents can see and opt children out of library services, or particular topics.
But, instructional materials are decided by the local school board, according to the memo.
Librarian describes impact of challenges
Recently, some school districts have decided that all library books fall under this blanket category of instructional materials, according to Nathan Sekinger, a middle school librarian and president of the Virginia Association of School Librarians. VASL was founded in 1975 and is the state affiliate of the national American Association of School Librarians.
The standards for sexually explicit content in instructional material can include sexual arousal or interest in dating, Sekinger said.
“That’s every romance novel that might be in a middle school or high school library,” he said.
Now librarians are examining their entire collections — sometimes tens of thousands of books — to vet their collection based on a tighter criteria, Sekinger said.
“It’s an impossible task,” Sekinger said. “To read 16,000 books to be ready on the first day of school based on that criteria.”
Libraries have VDOE guidelines to determine the appropriateness of a book, Sekinger said. There is a selection policy, a weeding policy and a challenge policy. But a challenge policy depends on how a school district implements it.
If a school district decides to ignore their own policy, there is not a process for reinforcement, Sekinger said.
Often a challenge is issued on an informal basis, according to Sekinger. A parent or guardian may feel uncomfortable with a book and will get a hearing after speaking with the administration.
“They’ve moved to some other system where they’re just going to rule based on what the school board is saying,” Sekinger said. “Or they’re going to kick it up to the superintendent and let that person decide or they’re just going to yank the book out without any sort of challenge policy at all.”
Librarians choose titles through a process that is based on professional reviews and district policy. Parents can decide if their child can use an alternative textbook to the required instructional material for as long as Sekinger can remember.
“Understand that we are certified professionals,” Sekinger said. “We are following professional guidance already and there is a challenge process in place that school librarians do not object.”
Advocacy groups and book challenges
Some advocacy groups believe policies limiting access to sexually explicit content in schools is best practice.
Moms for Liberty, a parental rights group with chapters in most U.S. states, lobbies government leaders. The Fauquier County chapter has successfully lobbied its school board for “library check out notifications,” Jaimie Hinkle stated in an email.
Hinkle is the Fauquier chapter chair. She emphasized that the national organization does not take a stand on this issue. Hinkle believes there is “zero effort” to ban books taking place in Virginia, she stated.
“There is an effort to curate and maintain a collection of age appropriate books for our school libraries,” Hinkle stated.
Faquier parents can now opt their children out of instructional and library material. This opt out of sexually explicit content does not remove the titles from school libraries in Fauquier. It gives parents the option to bar their child from accessing the titles, Hinkle stated.
“Parents are the arbiters of appropriate content for their children, and honest discourse and disclosure between parents and schools are the only productive way forward,” Hinkle stated.
“Lack of understanding”
The lack of understanding of a librarian’s role puts their expertise into question, Sekinger said. School board members, politicians and in some cases, families, skew the conversation due to an ignorance of the role of a librarian, Sekinger said. Many don’t know these libraries have policies in place to ensure the books are age appropriate.
Librarians have advocated for a VDOE librarian supervisor, according to Sekinger. VASL supports the reintroduced Right to Read Act in Congress. The bill states all children have the right to access and choose to read culturally diverse and inclusive materials. It would require libraries to implement nationally recognized professional standards of practice and details conditions for “effective school libraries.”
“Book bans aren’t good for anyone — not the authors, not the readers, and not our community at large that benefits from having engaged, empathetic, educated people among us,” Thor stated.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.