OKLAHOMA CITY — Spurred in part by the COVID-19 pandemic, fights over book access have been on the rise across Oklahoma as a debate rages about what books are appropriate in school libraries and classrooms.

Supporters of the efforts to remove books say they are ensuring “age-appropriate material” is available to children. They say parents, who have become more engaged in their children’s learning, have “sounded the alarm” about questionable materials that have likely been accessible to students for years.

Critics, though, say the movement seems to be a “backlash” against traditionally marginalized communities including LGBTQ+, Black, Hispanic, and Native American in a time of social upheaval and growing social anxiety. They said it’s also resulted in teachers and librarians being forced to censor access to books.

Heather Hall, of Norman, who owns Green Feather Book Co., the city’s only independent bookstore, said the controversy is fueled by “political rhetoric” and a response that “is just fear-based.”

“People are very susceptible to it right now in part because of probably the way that the economy is going and in part because of the advancements and freedoms for people who are LGBTQ+,” Hall said. “That’s been a massive portion, I think of that. And the ongoing conversations around race in this country. I think all of those things kind of come together and create kind of a perfect storm for the quashing of ideas.”

Hall said state leaders have sidestepped the creation of traditional “banned book lists” by instead creating “guidelines” that have led to the unofficial banning of certain books.

“We’ve gone from being open and having a list to hiding it,” Hall said. “It’s a very, very, very fine line between it being actually officially banned and it just not being available.”

Hall said districts are now telling teachers to remove certain books from their shelves that could now be considered controversial by students or parents.

In response to a controversy about book access in his community, State Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, authored a new law that he said empowers local school boards to decide what book acquisitions make the most sense for their communities. Previously, there were no guidelines in state law, with leaders deferring to the American Library Association, he said.

He said one librarian in his legislative district told him she has the money to purchase only 100 new books each year.

“There were some that tried to frame this as a book banning measure.” Hilbert said. “And it’s really not. This is about prioritizing what you are going to purchase … that best meet the academic needs of students for their academic success and also within the community standards.”

Hilbert said parents seem more engaged in their children’s education than they’ve been in a long time, perhaps because they took on a more daily role of educator during 2020 and 2021. Parents are now asking questions, attending school board meetings and demanding better student outcomes, he said.

While Hilbert said his bill was about “content acquisition” other legislative bills that failed to advance focused on the exclusion of content. He said the issue of access is going to continue to be a topic of conversation.

“I think we've got to continue to have those conversations, to figure out how to do that properly,” Hilbert said. “And also, what makes sense for school districts, so they have clarity as well.”

Former Norman Public Schools teacher Summer Boismier found herself embroiled in a controversy earlier this year over book access when she said district leaders advised teachers to either remove texts or temporarily restrict access until the district could determine if some books might violate a new state law that prohibits the teaching of “critical race theory.”

“Prior to my resignation, I saw teachers boxing up their classroom libraries, and rolling those books down to the school library not to be displayed on shelves, but to be put in storage until we could figure out what does this mean for reading selections and access to information in our schools,” Boismier said. “Those images of teachers rolling carts full of classroom library books down to storage are burned in my brain.”

Rather than removing books in her classroom, the high school English teacher decided to cover them with butcher paper and a message that read “Books the state doesn’t want you to read,” and a QR code to the Brooklyn Public Library website.

Boismier said she wasn’t sure if having a copy of the bestselling children’s book “Captain Underpants” might be offensive. That book has been banned in places

“As an English teacher, and someone who deeply enjoys reading, I can tell you right now that one thing I’m absolutely not going to do is waste even a single second trying to figure out what stories are going to offend what person, at what time, on what day,” Boismier said. “I have more important things to do.”

Her decision generated a parental complaint and ignited a firestorm of national controversy. Some Oklahoma Republican lawmakers called for her teaching license to be investigated or revoked. The state’s secretary of education, Ryan Walters, accused her of providing “access to banned and pornographic material,” although she did not provide access to any specific book, only to a library.

Boismier later resigned from her teaching job and has since taken a job with the Brooklyn Public Library. She insists she violated no laws and plans to keep her Oklahoma teaching license and said Oklahoma leaders have not begun the process of trying to rescind it..

Boismier also said when looking at the issue of banning or censoring from a historical vantage point, there’s always been some sort of effort to ban or censor what people have access to.

“None of what’s happening is new by any means, but what is new is the use of the internet and social media to spread information, to spread disinformation, to spread misinformation,” Boismier said. “These book bans and efforts to censor, they seem at least more organized than they have in the past.”

She also said the country is arguably in a moment of increased “social upheaval” and with that comes “increased social anxiety.”

Rather than one person objecting to a book, some politicians are spearheading legislation that would attempt to censor or ban, she said. Groups calling themselves “grassroots” are really anything but, Boismier said.

“We can see kind of the use of the moral panic of book banning as sort of a catalyst to that, playing off these tensions of the pandemic and then everything else as well,” Boismier said.

Walters, Oklahoma’s secretary of education, insists state officials haven’t banned books, but said they’ve banned “pornography” and “indoctrination” in a specific way.

“The radical elements of the Democrat Party that have pushed lies about these books being banned,” Walters said. “They’ve thrown out ridiculous classics, saying now you don’t know if you could teach this in class. And it’s caused teachers to be concerned about something that’s really not true.”

Walters said he’s “called out” a few books like “Flamer” and “Gender Queer,” but only because he’s concerned with the graphic depictions of sex.

He said Oklahoma libraries should have good literature, but it needs to be age-appropriate, and he said he hears often from voters about what kind of sexual content is being taught to kids in young grades.

Walters said as he’s traveled the state, parents have given him books or shown him excerpts of what’s in them.

“It’s just wild to think that these are in some grade schools,” he said.

Walters credits parents with having “sounded the alarm” on the issue and said they became aware of what their children were reading during the pandemic.

“I think it’s a great thing that there’s so much more engagement in their kids’ learning and curriculum because again, I don’t think anybody knows better for kids than their parents,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhinews.com.

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