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The battle over books in Pa. communities | FOX43 Reveals

People are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades. FOX43 Reveals what both sides are saying about the controversial issue happening in our communities.

YORK COUNTY, Pa. — Book ban efforts are spreading across the country, including in Pennsylvania communities. As a result, books are disappearing from schools and public libraries. Parents and national groups are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades. FOX43 Reveals what both sides are saying about the content making parents angry and why people are fighting for these books to stay available to students.

From the big screen to the small print, book banning has become a part of pop culture. It is highlighted in movies like “Field of Dreams” or “Donnie Darko” and emulated in classic books such as the 1953 novel “Fahrenheit 451.” The controversial concept is nothing new, but the rate at which efforts are flaring up across the country marks a new chapter in the history of attempted book bans.

School districts in several states, including Pennsylvania, are banning books that mostly deal with race and sexuality. One book repeatedly drawing fire is Gender Queer, a memoir by Maia Kobabe that explores gender identity and grapples with how to come out to family and society. The Young Adult graphic novel is often targeted because it contains sexually explicit photos and dialogue.

“We don’t want pornography in the classrooms. We don’t want this divisive oppressor-versus-the-oppressed content in the classrooms. There’s no reason for it. On the upper grades, there’s no problem as long as it’s facilitated and it’s an open discussion for both sides,” said Veronica Gemma, a parent and former Central York School Board member.

FOX43 Reveals spoke with many parents behind the efforts in Pennsylvania. They said this is an issue of parental control and they feel that they are being vilified for wanting a say in their child’s education. A group called No Left Turn in Education put FOX43 Reveals in touch with Gemma when we reached out to the organization for an interview.

“The phrase ‘book ban’ needs to go away because nobody is trying to ban books. Parents want more oversight of what their children are learning in the classroom. They want more transparency into curriculum because a lot of the books and materials being used in the classroom are becoming more inappropriate. There’s more of a political agenda coming into the classrooms,” Gemma added.

Parents are turning to national organizations like No Left Turn in Education to learn how to write letters to lawmakers, speak publicly at school board meetings and approach teachers to learn more about what is in the curriculum. The group keeps a list of books it says are used to “spread radical and racist ideologies to students,” including Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” and children’s book “Chocolate Me” by Taye Diggs and Shane Evans.

Parents are pulling titles from the list and asking their school districts if they are on library shelves. Teachers and librarians argue these lists go too far and are nothing more than censorship. But the battle over books is moving in on Pennsylvania communities.

Central York School District had prohibited teachers from using a list of materials—books, articles and films—that focused on issues like diversity and racism until the board could conduct a thorough review of the materials. Most of the materials were written or created by people of color. Following widespread criticism, national media attention and multiple protests, the Central York School Board voted Sept. 20 to lift the ban.

In November, a man confronted the Elizabethtown Area School Board with a copy of “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews. The man called for the resignation of the superintendent because the book, which is made for readers ages 12 through 18, contained a line about oral sex. Kristy Moore, a Lancaster County public school teacher who lives in Elizabethtown, was at that school board meeting with her young daughter.

“It was very vulgar, but if you read the entire book, it really has nothing to do with the overall message of the book. Pulling that one line, it’s dangerous because I’m sure in almost every book in our library you could find one line, one part that somebody is going to find offensive. That doesn’t mean that we should take it off the shelf because we would end up having no more books on the shelves,” Moore said.

Teachers are worried about what this rise in book banning will mean for the education of future generations. Younger generations are becoming increasingly more diverse and students are in search of better representation. Librarians, teachers and parents said removing books about racism or LGTBQ characters can be harmful to students who see themselves in the main characters.

“There are some really great authors out there and I feel like a lot of them are voices that are not typically heard. They are voices of people of color. They are voices of the LGBTQ community and the fact is we have students in our class who they relate to,” Moore added. “When we deny that to those children, I think it’s not fair. It limits everyone’s understanding of someone else’s life experience.”

The Elizabethtown Area School District temporarily pulled the book “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl” from school library shelves to investigate. District officials ultimately determined some of the allegations were not true and the book is back on school shelves. The tactics behind this book ban effort were something not seen before by school officials.

A school district spokesperson tells FOX43 Reveals that contesting a book starts with the teacher, not the school board—which is a governing body. The school district does have a system in place to prevent students from checking out certain books without parental consent.

“Once we are able to vet the books, several of those books do get flagged. They’re dealing with contemporary issues that our students can relate to and there may be some vulgarity and some other topics that may be perceived as more in adult nature. A parent really at the beginning of the year gets to say, ‘I’m good with my child having every book or I don’t want my student having books that are flagged,’” said Troy Portser, Director of School and Community Information for the Elizabethtown Area School District.

The American Library Association (ALA) tracks book ban efforts across the country and found 43 percent of attempted book bans happen at public libraries. The ALA said it saw an unprecedented volume of challenges in the fall of 2021. More than 330 books were targeted in that three-month period.

Librarians say pulling titles violates a student’s right to choose what they want to read. They feel that parents forget they are experts in their craft and tell FOX43 Reveals that cultivating their collections is an extensive process.

“We look at what’s being taught in the curriculum and we’re looking at who our students are, their diverse backgrounds, making sure they see themselves in the books that we put on the shelves and that they can see and learn about other cultures and other people,” explained Laura Ward, president of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association (PSLA).

As library shelves become more diverse, the divide within school districts is growing deeper. Gemma told FOX43 Reveals that no teacher or librarian has been able to change her mind about any of the books she is concerned with. When asked if she has read the books, Gemma replied “yes, I’ve reviewed and read several of the books.” 

She believes school districts should create a curriculum committee made up of teachers, school administrators and parents to openly discuss material that is being taught in the classroom.

“There is such division and once we bring people together like I described in the curriculum committee, at the school level, I think that we can have better conversations,” Gemma said.

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