How conservative Facebook groups are changing what books children read in school
That spreadsheet has now become a blueprint for conservative groups, which have adopted it as a guide to challenging books in school districts and in some cases successfully removing them from schools.
Anti-book-ban activists claim the groups aren’t objective and are doing harm. Laney Hawes is a mother in Keller Independent School District in Tarrant County, Texas, where 41 books were recently pulled after lobbying from Facebook parent groups. She claims that she and her other parents are open for discussion and compromise, but that conservative parents won’t bend.
” We are not all going to agree on the appropriate content for our children. However, I have to make those decisions for my children and it isn’t my right to do that for other children,” Hawes, who runs several Facebook parent groups opposing local book bans, says. “These books share stories of the most marginalized people. And oppression, marginalization, and violence can be gritty, uncomfortable, violent, and, unfortunately, sexual. But it’s so important we don’t quiet them.”
Conservative activist Michelle Beavers doesn’t agree. She was at her Florida junior high school for a meeting of the school advisory committee. Last year, she found a carousel that contained books that she described as “pornography .”
” “It was disturbing to my,” Beavers said. She wanted to find books like this at her child’s school, but felt it was too difficult for her to do so alone. She says that these books were easy to spot as they are graphic novels. However, you need to read other books. That’s a problem. It takes work.”
So Beavers created BookLooks, a site that gathers adult volunteers to rate and review children’s books. According to the site, ratings are meant to be a quick guide for parents who want to find out what is objectionable between book covers. Books are rated on a scale from 0 to 5, with 5 being inappropriate content, including sexual assault and battery. In between are markers that indicate the amount of parental guidance suggested based on drug use, alcohol abuse, violence, and profanity. Books that get ratings of 4 (“no child under 18”) and 5 are often flagged to be pulled off shelves, Beavers says: “These are explicit books. You can see them at your local library or bookstore. Not school
Different conservative groups have different ways of assessing books found in schools. Some, such as LaVerna from the Library ,, post screenshots of “offensive” passages so that volunteers may rate them. Others, like Safe Library Books For Kids — Arkansas , parents, share tips on where to find content they might object, such as how to target memoirs or coming-of-age novels and how to search for specific words. Beavers works with both to identify titles. (Facebook didn’t respond to a request to comment. )
Conservative activists are becoming increasingly powerful in determining what books are on school shelves. Districts in Texas have begun to require parent approval for books; in Utah, parents not only have the power to control what books their child checks out but have equal standing with educators to challenge and review books for inclusion in the library at all.
This policy in Utah is one of the first successes stories for conservative parent groups. BookLooks does not track parents’ use of reviews for school policy challenges. However, Utah Parents United is listed on the site as a “guardian” and helped get the state to implement the current system. Beavers herself has testified at her local Brevard County school district, successfully challenging 19 books for review in May.
But those challenges aren’t coming without a fight, on Facebook and elsewhere. The Florida Freedom to Read Project is one organization that opposes book bans. It claims rating systems like BookLooks ignore the fact teachers and librarians are trained to recommend books based on a child’s interests, development, and maturity. However, publishers and editors currently assign materials into age ranges.
They [conservative rate and review groups] want to limit what is available for everybody else, but these rating system are done by people with no expertise,” Stephana Ferrell, co-founder of FFTRP, said. “We wouldn’t do an opposing system. A different rating system is not necessary
Groups such as Ferrell’s are concerned about ratings that are ignoring marginalized communities. “Those reviewers who focus only on controversial topics in order to limit access to books with whom they disagree reflect a bias,” Deborah Caldwell Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, stated in a statement.
“Pornography” scare stories
Many parents in the conservative groups say pornography is one of their major concerns. Beavers, for example, cites an oral sex scene in Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, a coming-of-age graphic novel, as the reason why she was spurred to action. Gender Queer has been banned in many schools across the country.
We are asking for books to review and be up against pornography laws, and judging what would work in a school setting,” she said. Her group’s views on what constitutes pornographic are not always in line with the laws. On August 30, a Virginia court dismissed claims that Gender Queer and another book, A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas, were obscene. Liberal groups now have grounds for challenging the bans on the book in other states, as a result of this dismissal.
Ferrell says FFTRP’s work was founded when conservative activists began lobbying to remove Gender Queer from her local district. She and her cofounder purchased books to distribute locally to librarians. They also gave away books featuring diverse voices.
To her, the fight is about quality education for her children. She says that most parents want their child to have more access, not less. “I really worry about the future of children’s education because of this.”
I’m a journalist who specializes in investigative reporting and writing. I have written for the New York Times and other publications.