‘Racist,’ ‘grooming’: Why parents are trying to ban so many picture books

The books removed from the high school curriculum are displayed on the top row of a table at Mitzi’s Books in Rapid City. Dave Eggers and the publisher McSweeney’s are buying copies for any local high school senior who wants one.MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post

“Dangerous.” “Grooming.” “Reckless.” “Racist.” “Lying.”

All are adjectives that adults applied to children’s picture books as they sought to ban the titles from schools last year. These illustrated texts, intended for the youngest readers, are a surprising focus of the historic spike in efforts to restrict literature in classrooms and K-12 libraries, according to a first-of-its-kind Washington Post analysis of schoolbook challenges.

The discontent with children’s picture books overwhelmingly centers on titles with LGBTQ characters and storylines, which were targeted in 75 percent of such challenges, The Post found. The top motive, cited in 64 percent of the picture-book complaints, was a wish to prevent children from reading about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, nonbinary and queer lives. The next most-common reason was books’ “inappropriate” nature, cited in 44 percent of challenges, and the third most-common reason was that books were “anti-police,” a charge included in 25 percent of challenges.

“This book . . . opens up conversations that lead to grooming and does not separate education from moral beliefs,” an Idaho woman wrote in a filing against “Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and the Rainbow Flag.”

A Pennsylvania woman alleged that the book “Julián Is a Mermaid,” featuring a boy who dresses as a mermaid, will “confuse a child . . . to use drag clothing and makeup.”

And a man in Virginia wrote that the book “A Place Inside Of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart,” which explores a Black child’s reaction to the police killing of a girl in his hometown, has “very dark and sinister parts,” including the fact “law enforcement is depicted as villains throughout this work.”

The Post requested and analyzed roughly 2,500 pages of book challenges filed in more than 100 districts nationwide throughout the 2021-2022 academic year. Picture books made up nearly 10 percent of all the titles challenged in the 1,000-plus complaints, The Post found. The free expression advocacy group PEN America, too, concluded that more than 300 picture books were challenged at school in the 2021-2022 school year.

“Part of me is like, ‘Wow, people are really putting all this emphasis on picture books?'” said Kaylani Juanita, who illustrated “When Aidan Became a Brother,” which features a transgender protagonist. The title was the second most-challenged picture book identified by The Post. “They’re treating these books like weapons.”

It is unsurprising that political topics du jour are shaping a debate about kids’ books, said Carol Tilley, an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who researches children’s print culture. She pointed out that, in the 1950s, adults in Alabama crusaded against “The Rabbit’s Wedding,” which told the story of a black and white rabbit getting married.

“That didn’t play well in segregationist states at the time,” she said. “I think that you see a long pattern: Concerns tend to mirror whatever the big social changes are at any particular time.”

As conflicts rage over what and how children should learn about race, gender and sex at school, public opinion seems split. A late-2022 Post-KFF poll found that more than 70 percent of adults feel it is inappropriate for teachers to discuss trans identity in kindergarten through fifth grade, while slightly more than half of adults also believe the topic is inappropriate for grades six through eight. At the same time, 77 percent of Americans say they are “extremely” or “very” concerned by book restrictions in schools, according to a March poll from Fox News.

It is also the case, said Skidmore College professor Catherine Golden, who teaches a class on 19th-century children’s literature, that objections are surging because the number of visual-rich picture books portraying what it’s like to have gay parents or be transgender has exploded.

“Picture books are now taking these LGBTQ issues on,” she said. “And the picture makes it easier to jump on it, the picture makes it easier to criticize, because it visualizes something that people might see as objectionable.”

Parent challengers argue some picture books must be banned to spare children uncertainty, mental health problems and racist beliefs.

Reading about gender identity will yield “social isolation, violence, hypersexualization . . . reduced economic opportunities, anxiety, depression, lack of self identity, and so much more,” wrote Sashell Dragich in Florida’s St. Johns County School District. Dragich, who did not respond to requests for comment, was objecting to “Peanut Goes for the Gold,” a book about a nonbinary guinea pig by Jonathan Van Ness, star of the Netflix series “Queer Eye.”

Sylvia Loosveldt in Washington state wrote in a challenge that Ibram X. Kendi’s “Antiracist Baby Picture Book” should be pulled from schools because it “is teaching young students to become racist” by “telling young children they should look at others only on the basis of skin color.”

Loosveldt said in an interview that she became aware of “Antiracist Baby” when a librarian friend with the Kennewick School District flagged its presence in two elementary schools. She read the book and grew disturbed, especially by an image of a White kid climbing a complete ladder while a Black kid climbs a ladder that is broken at the top. Loosveldt, 64, is retired but said she spent more than three decades teaching kindergarten and first-grade, so she knows firsthand the stakes of what goes into children’s books.

“Those kids just believe everything that you tell them,” she said. “If teachers tell you you can be any gender you want, or that you’re bad because you’re White, kids are going to believe you.”

Picture-book creators, meanwhile, range from bemused to heartbroken to defiant. Illustrator Juanita said, “at this point, I’m just so filled with disappointment and rage.” Zetta Elliott, author of “A Place Inside of Me,” said she believes adults’ fixation on certain kinds of picture books reflects a discomfort with darker moments in American history, especially episodes of racism and police brutality.

“It flows from a certain group of parents who are afraid of having difficult conversations,” she said. “But this idea that adults should not be permitted to help children interrogate difficult subjects is just ludicrous.”

And Rob Sanders, author of “Pride,” the book about assassinated LGBTQ rights activist Harvey Milk, said he is unsurprised: He expected the title would draw complaints as soon as he penned it in 2015. He was inspired to write the book when he saw the White House illuminated in rainbow colors the night after the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, paving the way to legal recognition of same-sex marriage. A schoolteacher, he wanted his students to understand how the rainbow flag came to represent LGBTQ rights.

Immediately after Sanders’s book was published in 2018, a parent in his class complained the title was inappropriate, preventing Sanders from reading it to his students for weeks. Similar complaints have boiled up regularly across the country since, he said.

Sanders said he has two messages for adults who dislike his books: First, parents should never make reading decisions for other people’s children. Second, he said, reading books about LGBTQ people will not turn young students gay, bisexual or transgender.

“Look at me. I’m almost 65, I grew up reading only books that featured parents who were heterosexual and characters who experienced the world in gender-normative ways,” Sanders said. “Those books did not make me straight.”

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Worry over depictions of race, police

After books depicting LGBTQ lives, titles drawing the most objections were those that dealt with race or policing – or both.

Twenty-five percent of challenges against picture books targeted titles that have characters of color or grapple with racism. In addition to the 25 percent of challenges calling picture books “anti-police,” 12 percent of challenges alleged picture books were “racist,” making that the seventh most-common reason cited. Another 8 percent of challenges asserted picture books promoted “critical race theory” – a conservative catchall term for teaching about race deemed politically motivated – making that the ninth-most-common reason.

In Nebraska’s Wauneta-Palisade Schools, Vanessa Fanning filed to remove “The Undefeated” – a Caldecott Medal-winning poem by Kwame Alexander about Black America – due to her concerns that the book sends an “anti-police message” and because it “insinuates white lives do not matter.”

The book “divides children into two groups,” wrote Fanning, who declined to comment. “Those who look like the pictures and those who were ‘responsible’ for those racial injustices. It keeps racism alive.” She added that the book “probably would make a child of a police officer uncomfortable.”

In New Jersey’s Westfield Public Schools, a challenger – whose name school officials redacted – wrote in a filing that “Our Skin: A First Conversation About Race,” by Megan Madison and Jessica Ralli, lies to children. The challenger quoted a line from the book stating that “Racism is . . . the things people do and the unfair rules they make about race so that white people get more power.”

“Racism is not something that only white people do or are capable of,” the challenger wrote. “As a Jewish American, I have personally experienced racism based on my Jewish ethnicity, despite my skin color being what most would describe as ‘white.’ ”

And in Texas’s Prosper Independent School District, another anonymized challenger sought to eliminate “When Wilma Rudolph Played Basketball,” a biography of a Black sprinter who overcame childhood polio to win Olympic medals and become the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s. The book “opines prejudice based on race,” the challenger wrote, pointing to page 15, which depicts Rudolph as saying of segregationist America, “There’s something not right about all this . . . White folks got all the luxury, and we black folks got the dirty work.”

The book’s author, Mark Weakland, said in an interview that the quotes on page 15 come from Rudolph herself: They are words she spoke.

Elliott, the author of “A Place Inside of Me,” agreed that the subjects evoked in that title and other children’s books she’s written – including America’s history of lynching, gun violence and brutality perpetrated by police against Black citizens – are thorny. But that’s why her work is necessary, she said: There are millions of Black and brown children in the United States whose families and communities do not have a healthy relationship with police.

“So what do you do with this complicated relationship Black people have to the United States?” she said. “I wanted to write something that would give a child an opportunity to honor all of their emotions.”

Other reasons for challenging picture books varied.

An adult in Texas’s Plano Independent School District took issue with “Skippyjon Jones,” by Judy Schachner, which tells the story of an adventurous kitten who sings, “My name is Skippito Friskito. / I fear not a single bandito. / My manners are mellow, / I’m sweet like the Jell-O, / I get the job done, yes indeed-o.”

“This book promotes negative stereotypes towards Mexicans and the Spanish language,” wrote the complainant. “Throughout the book -O is added to the end of the word to sound like Spanish.”

Elsewhere in the same state, an adult in the Lamar Consolidated Independent School District objected to Colin Hynson’s book “You Wouldn’t Want to Be An Inca Mummy!,” part of a series which showcases some of the less wonderful aspects of ancient societies.

The book “talks about child sacrifice . . . as if to be sacrificed is a ‘great honor,'” the challenger wrote. It “makes these subjects glamorized or they try to make it appealing. . . . It introduces topics that children should not need to think about during elementary years.”



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