Moms for Liberty (M4L), an astro-turf group that is probably not actually many moms and definitely not about liberty, has moved on. While they didn’t seem too afraid of a deadly virus that killed almost 6.5 million people around the globe—as evidenced by their increasingly dramatic and dangerous anti-mask and anti-vaccine protests at school board meetings across the country—they are positively terrified now of a new danger to our children, a danger posed by a perhaps unlikely source…books and libraries
Over the last few days I’ve been getting some pretty horrible private messages from M4L members with disturbing images and hateful accusations. It all seems to be a part of coordinated campaign intended to attack, demonize, and intimidate teachers and librarians in public schools in our state—a curious approach for a group supposedly dedicated to supporting education.
For example, one M4L person made a social media post last night with the header, “WARNING GRAPHIC”, claimed that “Mitchell Robinson thinks children should have these books at their disposal”, and then expressed her support for my opponents in the upcoming general election for the State Board of Education. One of the commenters on the post went on to say, “I’m sure they enjoyed this since they are professional sex groomers.”
Another M4L member sent me similar images in a private message, and asked if I “support this book and for what age groups if so.”
Let’s be clear—the issue here is not porn in school libraries. Groups like M4L are using this “manufactured crisis” as an excuse to demonize LGBT kids and teachers, accuse teachers of being pedophiles and groomers, and weaken the reputation of public schools among the members of their low-information voting base. This is nothing more than a classic, if lazy, attempt at distraction and reframing—straight out of the “loaded question” school of dirty tricks (i.e., “So, when did you stop beating your wife?”).
At the risk of injecting too many facts into this dialogue, let’s talk about books in school libraries and sex education in our schools.
First, I have yet to hear about any child being forced to read a book s/he found offensive—or about such a book being used for a required assignment. Further, the vast majority of the books these folks are identifying are not actually *in* school libraries—they are only available through online digital content providers like OverDrive/Sora—which schools only use because of cuts to school and library budgets. Cuts supported by the groups pushing these dishonest claims about school libraries.
And it’s not very likely the people calling in to school board meetings are “finding” these books in their local school libraries—it appears they are getting them, and very specific instructions about the exact pages with the most graphic content they should read aloud to school board members during “public comments” sessions, from lists of “problematic books” produced by groups like Moms for Liberty.
How do we know this? Because Moms for Liberty recently shared a list of 41 books they demanded be removed from school libraries, including classics such as Slaughterhouse-Five and The Kite Runner. (So as not to drive more “hits” to these lists I am not providing the links here—they are easily searchable should you choose to view them.)
In March, the Brevard (FL) County chapter of Moms for Liberty provided a local school district with a list of 10 books the organization says violate a Florida statute against providing obscene materials to minors.
- “Damsel” by Elana K. Arnold
- “Forever” by Judy Blume
- “Lucky” by Alice Sebold
- “Monday’s Not Coming” by Tiffany D. Jackson
- “Not My Problem” by Ciara Smyth
- “Red Hood” by Elana K. Arnold
- “Sold” by Patricia McCormick
- “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson
- “This One Summer” by Mariko Tamaki
- “What Girls are Made of” by Elana K. Arnold*
Two weeks later, the group submitted 9 additional titles:
- “A Court of Mist and Fury” by Sarah J. Maas
- “Crank” by Ellen Hopkins*
- “Infandous” by Elena K. Arnold
- “Push” by Sapphire
- “The Haters” by Jesse Andrews
- “The Nowhere Girls” by Amy Reed
- “Tilt” by Ellen Hopkins
- “Triangles” by Ellen Hopkins
- “Tricks” by Ellen Hopkins
*The titles above in bold were among those read aloud, in person and over the phone, by Moms for Liberty members to the State Board of Education in Michigan at a recent meeting. Which seems like a pretty big coincidence.
It’s also worth mentioning that many of the books singled out to be removed from school libraries are award-winning prose, poetry, and graphic novels, chosen for the thoughtful way in which they approach and integrate challenging and often difficult themes. Below is a partial list of the regional, national, and international awards some of these texts have won:
- Finalist, National Book Awards 2017 for Young People’s Literature
- New York Times Bestselling novel
- This book received the following accolades:
- Quills Award nominee (2005)
- Book Sense Top 10 (2005)
- NYPL Recommended for Teens (2005)
- PSLA Top Ten for Teens (2005)
- Charlotte Award (2005)
- IRA Young Adult Choices Award (2005)
- Kentucky Bluegrass Award (2006)
- SSLI Honor Book Award (2006)
- Gateway Readers Awards winner (2006-2007)
- Missouri Gateway Readers Award (2007)
- Soaring Eagle Book Award (2008)
- Lincoln Award (2009)
- Green Mountain Book Award (2009)
- Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis Nominee for Jugendbuch (2011)
- Goldener Lufti (2012)
- This book received the following accolades:
- Selected by the New York Public Library as one of 50 Best Books of the Year for Teens in 2016
- Selected by the Chicago Public Library as one of six books on the Best Teen Nonfiction of 2016 list
- Selected by the American Library Association for the 2017 Rainbow List
- Selected by YALSA for the 2017 Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers List
- Selected for the 2017 Amelia Bloomer List of recommended feminist literature
- Selected by The Horn Book as a Love Story for Pride
- Selected by Barnes & Noble as one of 50 Crucial Feminist YA Books
- 2 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list
- Nominated for several awards, including the National Book Critics Circle Award and three Eisner Awards (winning the Eisner Award for Best Reality-Based Work)
- As a musical theatre piece, this graphic novel was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, while winning the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical, the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical, and the Obie Award for Musical Theater. The Broadway production opened in April 2015 and earned an even dozen nominations for the 69th Tony Awards, winning the Tony Award for Best Musical
To be sure, not every one of these resources is right or even appropriate for every student. Matters of age and developmentally-appropriate practice are crucial considerations in matching texts with students’ interests and needs. That’s where the importance of having qualified, certified teachers and school librarians comes into play.
A graphic novel like Maia Kobabe’s Alex Award-winning Gender Queer may not be the right choice for every student, but I’m glad that it’s there for the young adult struggling with their gender identity and sexuality. Similarly, while a book like How to Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi has raised a fair amount of controversy from social conservatives uncomfortable with its unflinching honesty about how institutional and systemic racism has impacted our society, it could be a life-line for black students facing the real-life effects of those racist systems.
These “concerns” about pornographic “content” flooding school libraries are being manufactured by the same groups that fought against children wearing masks and getting vaccinated during a global pandemic, and are now also targeting “content” about anti-racism, trans, gay, and Lesbian students and teachers, and civil and human rights.
Their “concerns” have nothing to do with “protecting children,” and everything to do with advancing a narrow, regressive, restrictive worldview in public education—a worldview that would dangerously marginalize anyone who is not straight, white, cisgender, and Christian.
Every school district in Michigan is already required to have a “sex education advisory board” made up of teachers and parents who are responsible for overseeing the district’s policies on sex education. Parents have the ability to review materials, be informed about class content, and opt out their child from classes if they so choose with no penalty. So most of what these groups are “demanding” is already included in state law—making their demands even more specious.
My wife and I raised two children who went through an excellent public school system. They had outstanding teachers—teachers who were committed to helping our children explore their passions and develop their strengths. Their teachers also challenged our kids with books and ideas that pushed them to think critically and creatively—sometimes causing them to reexamine previously held beliefs, and grapple with uncomfortable feelings as a result.
Far from being some sort of “concern” for us as parents, this is what we all should *want* in our children’s education. Because learning at its best isn’t about being “comfortable”—to the contrary, we learn the most and the best when we are pushed outside of our “comfort zone,” whether it’s practicing a new piece of music that’s beyond our current technical ability; or struggling with a difficult math problem that seems unsolvable; or encountering a book that presents new information, or old information presented in a new and unfamiliar context, forcing you to reconsider your perspective on an important issue or topic.
And that’s just what our teachers and librarians are doing when they select the books and other texts that are available to their students. The process of choosing teaching materials is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding things that teachers and librarians get to do. We agonize over each new composition for our middle school choir, or picture book for our kindergarten students, or history textbook for our AP US History class. It’s an immense responsibility to choose the materials our students use to learn about their world and themselves—and one that all members of the school staff take very seriously.
Moms for Liberty isn’t about *your* liberty, or your child’s education—it’s about their ability to decide what your child’s education should look like. Every parent is free to raise their children as they see fit–but they don’t have the right to determine how other parents raise their kids.