School books about Martin Luther King Jr. are too “divisive,” claims a conservative group at the center of a Tennessee book ban battle. A story about the astronomer Galileo Galilei is “anti-church.” A picture book about seahorses is too sexy.
As the school year resumes, simmering fights over school books have returned to a boil. In some schools, like in Pennsylvania’s Central York School District this week, students have beaten back bans on books about racism. But elsewhere, like in Tennessee’s Williamson County School District, the battle is ongoing, bolstered by new state laws that ban the teaching of certain race-related topics. At the heart of that fight is a conservative group, led by a private-school parent, that has a sprawling list of complaints against common classroom books. Many of the books are about race, but other targets include dragons, sad little owls, and hurricanes.
Registering its website in late 2020, the group “Moms For Liberty” is one of a series of conservative education groups to spring up in the wake of 2020’s racial justice protests. The group is currently involved in battles against in-school mask mandates, as well as a particularly heated fight over school books in Tennessee’s Williamson County.
In June, the group’s leader, who does not have children in the district, authored a letter to the Tennessee Department of Education, complaining that the district’s curriculum violated a new state law against the teaching of some race-related subjects in public schools. (That law, one of multiple enacted over the past year on state and local levels, faced strong criticism, with opponents warning that it would impede teaching about racism in American history.) The MFL letter specifically took issue with curriculum items about Martin Luther King Jr., Ruby Bridges, protests during the Civil Rights Movement, and school segregation.
Nora Pelizzari, director of communications for the National Coalition Against Censorship, told The Daily Beast that, while attempts to censor specific school books are a regular feature of local politics, the NCAC has seen a recent uptick in efforts like the MFL’s.
“We are seeing what appear to be coordinated efforts to challenge books, not purely based on the content of the individual book, but based on the fact that they teach history from a particular viewpoint,” Pelizzari said. “There’s a politicized approach to challenging books. We’re also seeing entire lists of books being challenged, as opposed to individual titles.”
With school back in session, the Williamson County feud has been renewed, Reuters reported this week. And the scope of the proposed book ban is even broader and loonier than MFL’s June letter suggests.
Accompanying that letter is an 11-page spreadsheet with complaints about books on the district’s curriculum, ranging from popular books on civil rights heroes to books about poisonous animals (“text speaks of horned lizard squirting blood out of its eyes”), Johnny Appleseed (“story is sad and dark”), and Greek and Roman mythology (“illustration of the goddess Venus naked coming out of the ocean...story of Tantalus and how he cooks up, serves, and eats his son.”) A book about hurricanes is no good (“1st grade is too young to hear about possible devastating effects of hurricanes”) and a book about owls is designated as a downer. (“It’s a sad book, but turns out ok. Not a book I would want to read for fun,” an adult wrote of the owl book in the spreadsheet.)
Reached for comment, the Williamson County MFL chapter told the Daily Beast that the list represented a collection of complaints about books in the district. “There are 31 books that our parents have expressed concern about,” the group’s leader wrote in an email. “Some books should be removed entirely. Some books are objectionable only because of how they are presented via the accompanying teacher's manual. And yes, some books would be better suited to a higher grade level due to their age inappropriate content.”
In addition to broadsides against books about King and Bridges, the list takes a dim view of multiple books about Native Americans. One, The Rough-Face Girl, is deemed inappropriate because it includes an illustration of the protagonist bathing “with her hair covering her chest.” The book First Nations of North America: Plains Indians is also a no-no, because it “paints white people in a negative light.”
Multiple books that contain Spanish or French Creole words receive warnings from the group for potentially “confusing” children. An article about crackdowns on civil rights demonstrators, meanwhile, is deemed inappropriate for “negative view of Firemen and police.” A fictional book about the Civil War (given to fifth graders) is deemed inappropriate, in part due to depictions of “out of marriage families between white men and black women” and descriptions of “white people as ‘bad’ or ‘evil.’”
At one juncture, the group implores the school district to include more charitable descriptions of the Catholic Church when teaching a book about astronomer Galileo Galilei, who was persecuted by said church for suggesting that Earth revolves around the sun.
“Where is the HERO of the church?” the group’s spreadsheet asks, “to contrast with their mistakes? There are so many opportunities to teach children the truth of our history as a nation. The Church has a huge and lasting influence on American culture. Both good and bad should be represented. The Christian church is responsible for the genesis of Hospitals, Orphanages, Social Work, Charity, to name a few.”
MFL’s Williamson County chapter also takes issue with a picture book about seahorses, in part because it depicted “mating seahorses with pictures of postions [sic] and discussion of the male carrying the eggs.”
The Daily Beast reviewed the text in question via a children’s story time YouTube channel.
Readers looking for a Kama Sutra of seahorse sex will be disappointed. Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish In The Sea contains nothing more risqué than watercolor illustrations of two seahorses holding tails or touching bellies (never—heavens—at the same time).
The passage that “describes how they have sex” reads: “they twist their tails together and twirl gently around, changing color until they match. Sea horses are faithful to one mate and often pair up for life. Today Sea Horse’s mate is full of ripe eggs. The two of them dance until sunset and then she puts her eggs into his pouch. Barbour sea horses mate every few weeks during the breeding season. Only the male sea horse has a pouch. Only the female sea horse can grow eggs.”
MFL recommends the book be reserved for older children, up to grade eight.
Pelizzari noted that moral panics about school books seldom originate with the students who read them. In many cases, like Pennsylvania’s Central York, she said, students are on the frontlines of fighting back against book bans.
“Students are not initiating these challenges,” she said of proposed book bans. “Students are frequently complaining when they are not allowed to read things they think they should be allowed to read. Students very often stand up for themselves, much like the students in York stood up for themselves. That is a prime illustration of just how savvy and sophisticated students are.
“Students can handle a lot more than people often give them credit for.”
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