by Sandi Sonnenfeld
Last week, in response to a single complaint, the Wappinger Central School District Board unanimously voted to ban Maia Kobabe’s Gender Queer, an illustrated memoir that grapples with the hardships of coming out, and the confusion and trauma of being nonbinary. Gender Queer is among the most commonly banned books by school boards, even though the American Library Association awarded it with a 2020 Alex Award, which recognizes books originally written for adults that could have “special appeal” for teenagers, particularly those struggling with their sexual identity.
The school district only had one copy of the book, which has now been removed from the John Jay High School Library. Banning a single copy of a single book may not seem like a big deal, nor even something to care about.
However, Gender Queer is only the tip of the iceberg. Books turning up on the most banned list include Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, George by Alex Gino, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. In February, a school board in Tennessee made front-page headlines when it banned the inclusion of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum, which helps students better understand the impact of the Holocaust on Jews and the barbarous cruelty resulting from discrimination and hate.
As a published author, devoted book lover, and life-long Democrat who believes that our First Amendment rights, along with the right to vote, are the most important guarantees of a fully functioning democracy, I’ve been following the alarming rise in book banning across the country with deep sorrow and tremendous dread.
What particularly caught my eye in the MidHudson News article about the Wappinger Central School Board’s decision was the parent Pat Whalen who requested the book be banned, claiming it was age-inappropriate. Whalen requested the book be banned on behalf of “concerned parents and grandparents and Moms for Liberty.”
That she did not request the book be banned to protect her child or in the name of children, in general, is telling in that she seems to care more about parents’ rights than about the kids themselves. Even more telling is that Whalen cites Moms for Liberty, a national conservative organization founded in Florida in January 2021 which boasts more than 70,000 members. Moms of Liberty has close ties and alliances with a variety of politically conservative groups and individual politicians, including Ron DeSantis, the vice-chair of the Florida Republican Party (who is married to Bridget Ziegler, one of Moms for Liberty’s original founders), conservative Florida PACS, FOX talk show executives, Florida state representative Randy Fine, and the Koch-funded Heritage Foundation. Within weeks after the organization was founded, the co-founders appeared across a host of right-wing conservative media channels including Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, Breitbart.
It’s not surprising that Whalen referenced Moms for Liberty in her statement, given that of the ten Moms for Liberty chapters based in New York, three of them are in the Mid-Hudson Valley, including chapters in Dutchess, Orange, and Putnam Counties.
Moreover, the call for Wappinger’s School Board to ban a sole copy of a book that had never been “officially” signed out by any students is not a random act. Calls to censor the teaching of certain ideas and books has been a clarion call among Republican lawmakers and activists since Trump first outlawed federal agencies from discussing “divisive” topics such as critical race theory (CRT).
Indeed, it was an adviser to Trump, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo, who recommended that conservatives use that term to rally political support, saying that CRT is “the perfect villain” and a useful “brand category” to build opposition to progressives’ perceived dominance of American educational institutions.
Since January 2021, citing objections to “critical race theory,” 41 states, including New York, have introduced bills or taken other steps to restrict the teaching of certain concepts or books relating to race, sexual identity, or social injustice. Fourteen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues. But even in states that have no plans to enact such legislation, activists groups like No Left Turn, Moms for Liberty, Parents Defending Education, and the conservative thinktank The Goldwater Group are arming parents and other community members with templates targeting school boards, training on how to disrupt school board meetings and long lists of books that they demand be removed from school curriculums or libraries.
A recent lawsuit challenging Oklahoma’s new law restricting the teaching of critical race theory alleges that the approved reading list only allows books by white authors. And a recent analysis of the 850 books Texas lawmakers want banned revealed that 62% feature LGBTQ+ characters or situations.
How to Stop Book Bans in Dutchess County
Because conservative political groups have been so successful in empowering parents to aggressively lobby school boards and have formed highly organized, well-funded efforts targeting thousands of school boards across the nation, anti-censorship organizations like the National Coalition Against Censorship, PEN America, the Authors Guild and the ACLU have been overwhelmed trying to respond to each book challenge. As nonprofit organizations they simply do not have enough financial and human resources to address so much book banning going on at once.
As such, it is up to those of us who do not want other parents dictating to our children what we can or cannot read, to take action—and fight for a better, well-rounded education for students and protect free speech for all.
If you do not want New York to enact proposed A8253 bill that not only bans the teaching of critical race theory in public schools but any curricula that “require students to take part in a course that teaches individuals to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress due to the individual’s race or religion; or require students or faculty to learn or study the 1619 Project,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times initiative that explores the history of slavery and discrimination in America, which recently has been edited and published for school children, send an email, text or call your state representative and senator.
Also do not wait until your local school board actually bans books and resources. Contact your local school board now and let them know you are against censorship and support New York State’s diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.
To save time and to provide you with effective language about the deleterious effects of book banning, you may want to draw on the Authors Guild’s Stop Book Bans Toolkit, which provides sample templates and details on how you can contact your local school board, state lawmakers objecting to Bill A8253 or submit a letter to the editor to your local newspaper, such as the MidHudson News or the Southern or Northern Dutchess News, decrying book bans.
Sandi Sonnenfeld sits on DDWC’s Executive Committee. She is the author of the award-winning memoir, This is How I Speak, and regularly publishes short stories, personal essays andjournalism articles.