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Virginia schools pull books from libraries

Books in a school library. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)
Books in a school library. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

The Richmond Times-Dispatch recently published an investigation that revealed 23 Virginia school districts have pulled books from school libraries over the past two years, amid a historic level of book banning across the country. RTD Reporters Jess Nocera and Sean McGoey spoke with VPM News education reporter Megan Pauly about their findings. Below is a transcript of their conversation, which has been edited for clarity. 

Pauly: Nationally, books that are challenged in schools often address LGBTQ themes, issues of race and racism, or include sexual encounters. What were some of the reasons books in Virginia were challenged?

McGoey: So books that are being challenged in Virginia are being challenged for almost all of those exact same reasons. LGBTQ issues were one of the most common things that we saw. I sent out public records requests to every school district in the state to get this information, and what we got back from each district was a little different. So not everybody shared the reasoning behind why some of these books were being challenged. But it wasn't exactly rocket science to look at what's being opposed, and what some of the common themes are. And it really is those things that you mentioned…it's sexualities that are not heterosexuality, it's issues of race, there's also a lot of books that parents are opposed to particularly maybe in lower grade levels just for inappropriate language.

Pauly: According to your reporting, “Gender Queer,” an autobiographical graphic novel by a nonbinary and asexual author was the most challenged book in Virginia, having been removed from the shelves of five school districts, including Hanover County. Why was this book challenged and ultimately removed, and were similar reasons cited for other books with LGBTQ themes that were also pulled?

McGoey: Yeah, “Gender Queer” is this autobiographical novel about someone who comes to terms with the fact that they are not like the people that they see around them. And part of that journey is discovering a certain type of sexuality that they were not necessarily aware of, and that involves a lot of experimentation along the way. And this drew ire from parents in several school districts across the state, because they're saying these are really detailed depictions of sexual activity. And with the added wrinkle, because it's a graphic novel, these are actually visual representations. Some parents are even claiming that this makes it a form of pornography that's being given to their kids. And that is actually something that we see a lot with books that deal with sex and sexuality, and especially LGBTQ issues, that are being seized upon. We even hear the sort of the national buzzword du jour of grooming being associated with some of these books. So yeah, that is something that happens a lot.

Pauly: I understand school districts are supposed to have a formal review process in place when books are challenged. What are the review processes in place in the districts where titles are ultimately pulled from library shelves?

Nocera: So a common process that I've seen in doing this research, and when I spoke with the librarians is that a complaint is filed, normally by a parent, and then a committee is set up and they read and review the book. But in some cases – it's kind of becoming a trend – sometimes parents just speak out about a book title at a school board meeting. Sometimes they do follow up with the complaint, sometimes they don't. And the book is just taken off the shelf before the committee actually sits down and reads it when in reality, the books are supposed to stay on the shelves while the committee reviews them and then the decision is made whether or not to take it off.

Pauly: And which books – any in particular – were pulled before the review process?

Nocera: In Henrico County, “Out of Darkness.” All eight copies were immediately pulled for review. Did all eight copies need to be pulled? I don't know, I don't know how large their committee was. In some cases, the school district said, ‘well, we needed to pull them all off so that the committee could read them.’ I don't know if that was the situation here. But in the end, all eight copies were put back on the shelves. In Fairfax County, both “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy” were banned. And then they ended up being brought back after two separate committees deemed that these books were not inappropriate.

McGoey: And even once a committee has decided, it's not necessarily final. Fairfax County actually decided to keep both “Gender Queer” and “Lawn Boy,” which were two of the most banned books in America according to a study by Penn-America. Their [Fairfax’s] committees decided to keep those two books on the shelves, but the parent who initially challenged them is actually appealing the decision. So they're back under review. So, you know, this process is often long and kind of messy.

Pauly: Did you get insight into what went into making the decision after the review, about do we keep this on the shelves? Or do we take it off?

McGoey: In a couple of cases, we actually did get some notes from the review process. And in the case of a book like “Gender Queer,” the committee determined that the complaint that this is pornography being given to children was unfounded and that there actually was some genuine value to having this book about what can be really uncomfortable self-discovery, you know, having that available, so that kids can get different perspectives on other sorts of experiences besides their own.

Pauly: Some librarians I've interviewed for my own stories believe that while parents have the right to decide what their own children read, they disagree that all parents have the right to choose what every child can read. What's been the reaction from school librarians and other community members you've spoken with about their reaction to these books being pulled from library shelves?

Nocera: I've received the same type of reaction that you have in your reporting. Every single librarian I spoke with said, the parent has the right to decide what their individual child or children can and cannot read. But they don't have the autonomy to decide that for all children. But that is kind of what was playing out…you just have parents trying to speak for all children and say, this book isn't good for all children. I did speak with a librarian up in Arlington, where in early April, they hosted a wake-up and read event, it was a week-long, every single day at one of their library branches. The community was welcome to come in, grab a cup of coffee and actually pick up a copy of some of these banned and challenged books. And what the librarian told me was that people stuck around, and they wanted to actually talk about the books, and it was more than just coming in, grabbing a book, and leaving. People were already starting that dialogue right there amongst themselves. 

Pauly: Any additional reaction from community members? I mean, do you anticipate protests or walkouts?

Nocera: When I did speak with Zetta Elliott, she was telling me how another one of her books had been banned in York, Pennsylvania. And then students actually protested that and the book went back on the shelf. So I'm curious to see if something like that plays out somewhere here in Virginia. I mean, I think we're already seeing kids step up in other ways to find their voice and share it. You know, earlier this week, there were all the walkouts about Roe v. Wade. So I think it's only a matter of time to see kids responding to this as well.

Pauly: Thank you for your excellent reporting on this issue. 

McGoey: Thanks.

Nocera: Thank you. 

Below’s a list of all of the book titles that have been removed from Virginia school library shelves, according to McGoey and Nocera’s reporting. Books that were kept in libraries following a review or moved to different grade levels are not included below, but can be found in RTD’s statewide map of books pulled for review. 

  • “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe (removed by Chesapeake City Public Schools, Goochland County Public Schools, Hanover County Public Schools, Loudoun County Public Schools)
  • “Felix Ever After” by Kacen Callender (removed by Goochland County Public Schools)
  • “The Sun Is Also a Star” by Nicola Yoon (removed by Gloucester County Public Schools) 
  • “Juliet Takes a Breath” by Gabby Rivera (removed by Goochland County Public Schools)
  • “Milk and Honey” by Rupi Kaur (removed by Madison County Public Schools)
  • “Poet X” by Elizabeth Acevedo (removed by New Kent County Public Schools)
  • “If I Ran the Zoo” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Poquoson City Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools, Suffolk City Public Schools)
  • “I Saw It on Mulberry Street” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Poquoson City Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools)
  • “McElligot's Pool” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Poquoson City Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools)
  • “On Beyond Zebra!” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Poquoson City Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools)
  • “Scrambled Eggs Super!” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Poquoson City Public Schools, Stafford County Public Schools)
  • “Julian Is a Mermaid” by Jessica Love (removed by Powhatan County Public Schools)
  • Crank by Ellen Hopkins (removed by Powhatan County Public Schools)
  • “#MurderTrending” by Gretchen McNeil (removed by Powhatan County Public Schools)
  • “The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” by Lil Miss Hot Mess (removed by Shenandoah County Public Schools)
  • “These Witches Don't Burn” series by Isabel Sterling (removed by Shenandoah County Public Schools)
  • “American Gods” by Neil Gaiman (removed by Shenandoah County Public Schools)
  • “Meet Cute Diary” by Emery Lee (removed by Shenandoah County Public Schools)
  • Several other graphic novels (removed by Shenandoah County Public Schools)
  • “Witchcraft” by unknown author (removed by Smyth County Public Schools)
  • “Call Me by Your Name” by Andre Aciman (removed by Spotsylvania County Public Schools)
  • “Check Please” series by Ngozi Ukazu (removed by Stafford County Public Schools)
  • “Dear White People” by Justin Simien (removed by Stafford County Public Schools)
  • “Dear White America” by Tim Wise (removed by Stafford County Public Schools)
  • “The Cat's Quizzer” by Dr. Seuss (removed by Stafford County Public Schools)
  • “When Aiden Became a Big Brother” by Kyle Lukoff (removed by Roanoke County Public Schools)
  • “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (removed by Wythe County Public Schools)

Editor's Note: This story was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.