School boards across the nation are prohibiting certain books from classrooms due to their sexually explicit or otherwise controversial content. Parents who advocate for these book bans say that they aim to protect their children from graphic topics, leaving educators scrambling to defend variety within classrooms and libraries. As the wave of book bans reaches Virginia, public schools are being forced to consider the balance between students’ exploration and protection through literature.
While book bans have caught national attention in states such as Florida and Tennessee, Virginia public schools have experienced restrictions as well. Within the past few months, Madison County High School removed 21 titles while Spotsylvania County Public Schools prohibited 14 books. Both policies were developed in response to Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s mandate to ensure that parents will be notified if sexually explicit material is taught in the classroom.
Albemarle High School Librarian Erica Thorsen said many acclaimed selections like Shakespearean plays and literature curated for Advanced Placement English classes contain sexual content. Thorsen said Youngkin’s new policy will result in procedural changes in public schools, presenting new challenges for high school teachers and librarians.
“Before a teacher potentially teaches a book, they have to get parent permission,” Thorsen said. “And then [the policy] extends to library books. If a student checks out a book for a class assignment, we also then have to notify parents that your child has checked it out.”
Thorsen said that students may also check out books to explore inner conflicts that they are not ready to share with their families — such as sexuality and gender identity — potentially altering how students interact with the library. Literature should be appropriate to the age group being taught, Thorsen said, but high schoolers are experiencing a “time of self-exploration” and should be allowed a wider variety of literary resources.
Many school librarians — such as Charlottesville High School Librarian Anne Ernst — have proactively changed their library policies to prevent advocacy for book bans. With resources from the American Library Association, Ernst revised school policy to “get ahead of” dissent towards certain titles by organizing parent notification systems within course syllabi and providing alternative reading assignments.
Additionally, Ernst said that local parents are not the only concerned citizens rallying for book bans. In fact, some of the loudest voices in support of book bans do not live in the areas in which they advocate.
“We have a lot of [advocacy] groups, like [Moms for Liberty], who are reaching out and getting people to go to the school boards and start these protests,” Ernst said. “You don’t even have to be from Virginia to make a school board comment.”
The Moms for Liberty is an organization that defends the preservation of American values and the rights of parents.
Media Studies Professor Bruce Williams elaborated on the historical context for the recent book banning movement, suggesting that it has been driven by local citizens determined to defend their communities against the nationalization of politics — as national political issues take precedence over local political issues in the media, residents feel more ready to defend their communities from national ideals with which they do not agree.
Williams used University Founder Thomas Jefferson’s idea that everyone should be a yeoman farmer — a man who farmed his own land — to explain how the nationalization of politics has polarized the country. Just as Jefferson believed that every man is entitled to his own share of land, he thought that democracy relies on the consent of the governed.
“The idea is that for democracy to work, everyone has to have a stake in it,” Williams said. “When politics was local, you could see what the issues were. Jefferson said that’s how a roughly equal democratic society has to operate, but we’re a long way from that now because the focus of local media has never been weaker than it is right now.”
The expansion of media has provided consumers with access to national debates, clouding out community issues and redefining the role of the local public-spirited citizen, as Williams said.
“Now, national politics have visited school board meetings and towns and cities where they have never really been an issue,” WIlliams said. “You have people encouraged by this national media conversation to begin to object to things they find objectionable in public libraries and in schools.”
This is not the first time book bans have swept the nation. Williams said that during the 1950s, anti-communism movements motivated similar efforts. Schools reevaluated their libraries to ensure that their books represented patriotic values, stripping catalogs of anything even remotely sympathetic to communist ideals.
Attempts at classroom censorship forces the reevaluation of the role of books in young people’s education. English Professor Victoria Olwell said that books are essential resources for young people to develop their own organic opinions and participate in important conversations.
“[Book bans] are battles that are waged in the service of young people but in which they have very little voice and power,” Olwell said. “But young people are already agents, actors in their own communities, and they deserve to have the resources to be thoughtful actors.”
Ernst further elaborated on how students’ independence and curiosity nurture their education. In fact, book bans work to foster students’ curiosity about books and book bans, sparking casual conversations about intellectual property.
“In the counties where they're experiencing challenges, students are showing up to school board meetings and they're letting people know [what they think],” Ernst said.
As advocates of all ages continue to battle over censorship, one thing is for sure — the threat of book bans has inspired community members, including Ernst and those too young to hold voting power, to engage in conversations about education and literature, encouraging the locality to show agency in the face of the nationalization of political issues.