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Book selection in Virginia schools isn’t uniform, but experts say diversity is key

books on wooden shelves
Book selection in Virginia schools generally start with the librarian, meaning collections practices aren't consistent statewide. (Photo: Engin Akyurt)

*Ian Stewart contributed to this report

The current debate around schools removing books from their libraries is nothing new. For years, books about parts of the Black experience in America, including “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Beloved” and “The Color Purple'' have been pulled off school shelves, according to a list maintained by the The American Library Association. Books that tell LGBTQ+ stories are also disproportionately censored and challenged in school libraries.

During the recent gubernatorial campaign, books about racial and LBGTQ+ identities became a talking point for Republicans in places like Spotsylvania and Henrico.  A group called “No Left Turn in Education” has even created a list of books they want banned from schools. The list is broken into three categories: “Critical Race Theory,” “Anti-Police” and “Comprehensive Sexuality Education.”

In Hanover County, “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez and “I Am a Gay Wizard” by V.S. Santoni are under review as well as “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe. That book has also been removed from Goochland County Public Schools’ libraries along with “Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender, and “Juliet Takes a Breath” by Gabby River.

Other books that recently came under fire in Spotsylvania County included:  “33 Snowfish,” by Adam Rapp and “Call Me By Your Name” by André Aciman. There, two school board members objected to the books which contain LGBTQ+ themes. They suggested the books be banned, and one said they should be burned though he later walked that back.

While the school board initially voted to ban the books, on Nov. 16 they rescinded their decision, according to the Metro Weekly.

How do books end up in Virginia public school libraries?

According to the Virginia Department of Education, the details of book selection falls under local school boards’ authority.

“There are a lot of things schools do [including book selection] that aren’t micromanaged by state guidance,” said a VDOE spokesperson.

Margaret Baker, executive director for the Virginia Association of School Librarians, says there are several layers to new book selection.

First, she says school librarians will evaluate which books they have already. They’ll give preference to books that align with the instructional needs of teachers as per the state Standards of Learning.

Then, Baker says student and teacher input are taken into account as well as awards such as the Newbery Awards or the Caldecott Medal. Baker used to be a school librarian in Waynesboro Public Schools but has been retired for a decade.

“We always ensured equity of the materials and that it reflects the students and the student interests,” Baker said.

Lastly, a list of books the school librarian wants to order are presented to the school administration for approval. Based on the school’s budget, approved books are then ordered.

Hanover and Richmond Public Schools both follow this model, with librarians determining what books and materials make it into classrooms. Both districts have policies that say selected works should contain “a wide range of views on issues so that students may develop the practice of critical reading and thinking.” And both utilize outside resources when selecting materials, such as “Booklist,” “The Horn Book Magazine,” “Publishers Weekly” and the “School Library Journal.”

Henrico County Public Schools’ policy is vague, saying in part “The responsibility for the selection of instructional materials is delegated to the professionally-trained personnel employed by the school system.”

What happens – and what is supposed to happen -- when a specific book is challenged by a parent?

Virginia law requires all school boards to adopt policies and criteria clearly outlining “the basis upon which a person may seek reconsideration” of materials as well as the procedures for doing so. 

The policies and practices vary from district to district, Baker says, but when she was a librarian, that process started with her.

“They [parents] would have a discussion with the librarian,” Baker said. “If they still feel like the material needed to be reviewed, then they would meet with the school administrator.”

If a parent wasn’t satisfied after meeting with the school librarian or administration, the parent could fill out a form to initiate a formal review process. Baker says the administration would then form a committee of parents and school employees to review the book and issue a decision.

If the parent still isn’t satisfied with the committee’s decision, they could then take their complaint to the district’s central office staff, where another committee would review the material and issue a decision.

In Waynesboro, Baker says the last and final group involved in reviewing disputed content would be the school board.

Several districts in Central Virginia have a similar procedure in place. All book or material challenges must be brought first to the teacher then the principal. If the challenge needs to move up the chain, the superintendent is next in line.

Parents must fill out specific forms which are then reviewed by committees who read the material, reach out to experts and eventually rule on what happens to the book. The committees are made up of teachers, school board members and principals. Parents also get the opportunity to address the committee and can appeal if the ruling doesn’t go in their favor. Ultimately, school boards make the final decisions.. 

Books that are removed may eventually reach school shelves however. In Henrico for instance, after four years, any banned or removed material can be considered for reintroduction into schools.

Christine Emeran, program director of the youth free expression program at the National Coalition Against Censorship in New York, says schools shouldn’t be removing books from library shelves prior to a formal review of the disputed material.

Her organization sends letters to superintendents in school districts – including in Virginia --  to remind them of their obligation as professionals to respect policies even when they are unpopular with parents. In 2019, the NCAC sent a letter to Hanover County’s superintendent urging the district to make the book “PRIDE: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag” available to all students.

The organization also encourages schools to keep books on the shelves while they're being reviewed if that's included in their policies.

“Are challenged works removed pending the outcome of these challenges? They should not be, because that privileges the personal opinions of the challengers over the professional judgment that put the books in the classroom or library in the first place,” Emeran said.

The book “Gender Queer” is currently under review in Hanover County at the request of the school board in response to “citizen concerns.” A county spokesperson added that since the school board requested the review, no special complaint form needs to be filled out by parents.

In an email, the spokesperson said "the review of the book, which only one school possessed a copy of and no student had checked out in the brief time it was part of the school’s collection, is ongoing."

The district’s policy allows “challenged materials” to continue being used until the challenge has been resolved.

Emeran says her organization’s goal is to ensure that the educational and literary reasoning be as objective as possible when making decisions about content so that no one person’s, or group's, beliefs or viewpoints take precedence in that process.

“All voices should be heard and respected, including parents,” Emeran said. “And during the review, there should be a mechanism to ensure that the improper motives, such as viewpoint discrimination, do not infect the process.”

Emeran says it’s one thing for a parent to opt their own child out of certain classroom discussions or materials, but it’s a totally different thing to request material be removed so that no other children in the school can access it.

“By banning or censoring the book from others, it might provide a view that invalidates the lived experience of others that are in that community,” Emeran said.

Why is it important for school libraries to include diverse, challenging books?

Lynsey Burkins is an elementary school teacher in Ohio and chair of the Build Your Stack initiative with the National Council of Teachers of English. It’s focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. 

Burkins says books should reflect students’ lived experiences across human cultures and says teachers should cultivate a collection of books that represents multiple lived experiences instead of centering on one. She referenced Rudine Sims Bishop’s 1990 essay “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors.” 

“You want a collection of stories [that] not only mirror students’ lived experiences, but also exist as windows into experiences that they may not have been in or may want to know more about,” Burkins said.

According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, only 10% of children's books published in 2018 depicted African American children, only 7% included Asian or Pacific Islander children, 5% Latinx and 1% American Indian children.

Beyond that, Burkins says librarians and teachers should be mindful to include books that not only project a diverse group of cultures but also the diversity within cultures to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and biases.

Students who are given access to books that respect the questions, challenges and emotions of childhood and adolescence read with greater interest and investment, according to research.

“You don't want students to see themselves in your library or classroom library that just shows them in their struggle or their oppression. You want to humanize all experiences,” Burkins said. “There are pieces of history that are hard. But there are also joyful pieces. And there are also ways that humans just exist in the world.”

She says she’s using a variety of different books in her own classroom library to include the lived experiences of students with disabilities. In one book, “I See, You See,” a boy and his sister go on a walk.

“He happens to use a wheelchair, and she uses her legs, but they're looking at the world and all the things they see on their walk,” Burkins said. She calls that an example of incidental diversity, because the book shows a person who is marginalized in other contexts — just living his life.

She uses another book, “We Move Together,” to teach about all of the different ways that people move and a third book about dancing to show kids dancing in different ways.

“It’s not necessarily about ability, but you see it in the book,” Burkins said. “But it’s joyful.”

Burkins says without access to a variety of stories, students may not have the opportunity to open up a book that could be life saving for them.

“We're finally getting authors of color, authors of multiple religions, authors of different language origins. And I think that's what's being contested,” Burkins said. “We’re getting authors who don't just identify as cis-gendered, and we're getting authors that are part of the LGBTQIA community. And we need all these authors so that we can have stories from their voices. And I feel like now that the publishing industry is finally publishing these stories, we're seeing pushback.

“There are children every single day, who are actually living the experiences that are in these books. This is their lived experience. They don't get to get shielded [by] developmentally appropriate,” Burkins said. “And what if that book, in some way, was the affirmation of their existence? What if that book spoke to their soul, the situation that they're in? But then there are people who are saying, ‘we need to take that away.’”