Charlotte-area residents who’ve filed formal complaints about literature in public libraries are mostly seeking to ban books that address sex, sexuality, gender identity, racism and/or social justice, records Axios obtained show.
Yes, but: Most of those taking issue with certain books publicly haven’t filed formal complaints about them.
Why it matters: While some parents want more say in the content their children read, others fear that if book bans are successful, marginalized children will lose the opportunity to see themselves reflected in literature.
- Representation encourages a sense of belonging among children, says Davidson College English Professor Shireen Campbell, and without it, they may feel isolated.
- “Books that provide queer characters as well as straight of all kinds are more likely both to provide a mirror … for themselves, and a window for others to gain empathy and understanding,” she wrote in a follow-up email.
- Although outright book banning isn’t happening in Charlotte, in other parts of the country, schools and libraries are bowing to outside pressure to remove certain books.
“Books are being weaponized in this broader culture war struggle,” Campbell tells Axios.
Context: Axios obtained records from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library and Gaston County Public Library for the forms that citizens fill out when they are concerned about a book, as well as the responses to them, dating back to 2020.
What we found: Community members challenged four books at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, four books in CMS libraries and two books and one movie in the Gaston County library in that time period. Neither of the county libraries took any action restrict the materials.
- “Banning books is not a practice to which the Library subscribes,” Marcellus Turner, Charlotte Mecklenburg Library CEO and chief librarian, told Axios in a statement. “Instead of banning an item because of its viewpoint, we seek to offer additional titles that cover several viewpoints.”
Of note: At CMS, the concerns were about a wider range of issues. For instance, a committee at Park Road Montessori recommended the removal of one title, “The Twin Towers” by David Abbott, as a result of a complaint about its portrayal of the Muslim faith.
- And they swapped “Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life” with a newer version of the book, The “Super Squee” edition, which “cleaned up” some of the language from the previous edition, says Kimberly Ray, director of digital learning and library services for CMS.
State of play: Both CMS and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library say the number of formal complaints filed in recent years has remained relatively steady, despite the national climate. Instead, they’ve seen an influx of informal concerns from customers or parents.
- Gaston County did not make library officials available for an interview.
The big picture: Nationwide, there were 781 attempts to ban or restrict library resources in the first 10 months of 2022, per the American Library Association, the most since the organization began tracking such cases more than 20 years ago.
Groups like the conservative Moms for Liberty, which has chapters nationwide, are leading the way. They’re pushing for what they describe as parental rights. They’ve also gotten involved in school board races, and some places, their members have been elected.
Of note: Moms for Liberty did not file complaints in local libraries, despite its members making headlines and reading passages at school board meetings.
Brooke Weiss, chairperson of the group’s Mecklenburg County chapter, says her organization has a list of 26 books that they are ready to challenge.
- But she believes the formal complaint system is inefficient because it’s on a school-by-school basis. In other words, even if a school decided to take a book off the shelf, that decision wouldn’t apply to any other schools.
How it works: Complaints at CMS libraries are reviewed by a school’s media advisory committee, which comprises the assistant principal, teachers, the librarian or designee, two parents/community representatives and, in middle schools and high schools, two students, per CMS policy. They have 20 days to read and make a decision.
- The committee considers the passages in question with the overall merits of the book. It gives special consideration to books that deal with topics like religion, sex education and profanity.
- Individuals can appeal the school committee’s decision to a central committee, then to the superintendent and then to the Board of Education.
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library has a similar process. After a statement of concern is filed, Harold Escalante, assistant director of collections and access, says his team evaluates the request and looks at whether the book has been reviewed in major publications or library magazines, whether peer libraries carry it and other criteria.
What they’re saying: Ray says there’s excitement in the schools around the shift to incorporate more inclusive and diverse materials.
But there’s also nervousness among educators, because when there are concerns about that content, they are often aired in public.
- “Everybody’s kind of feeling the stress of, we don’t want to be the one that has that book that gets called out or on the news,” she says.
- Still, it’s important for libraries to carry books that grapple with uncomfortable topics because it can help parents explain those issues to their children, Escalante says.
The other side: Weiss pushes back against those who claim her group wants to ban books. She’d like to see a rating system, similar to what’s used for movies or video games, and for access to certain books to be restricted. Parents could opt in to allow their children to read them.
- Moms for Liberty met with CMS officials to discuss the rating system proposal, but it would require the school board to write a new policy, the Observer reported.
- But, she says if the school system doesn’t work with her to change the policy, she’ll file the formal complaints.
- “We have not been given a seat at the table: we’re called ugly names, we’re completely dismissed,” Weiss says. “So if I am continued to be ignored, then I’ll do it.”
The bottom line: Whether or not books are actually removed as a result of complaints, the fear of backlash could have a “chilling effect,” causing librarians to think twice about buying books that some consider controversial, Campbell says.
- “Because if you don’t have much money to spend on the books for your town library or your school library, and you know that certain that certain kinds of content is going to bring you a headache, you might just not buy it,” she says.
Here are the books that parents and community members complained about:
Of note: Most wanted the books removed entirely, while others asked for things like warning labels.
Charlotte Mecklenburg Library:
- “An ABC of Equality” by Chana Ginelle Ewing, a picture book that introduces social justice concepts to young children.
- “Love, Violet” by Charlotte Sullivan Wild, a picture book about a young girl who has a crush on her classmate Mira.
- “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness”, a picture book about racism by Anastasia Higginbotham.
- “The Truth About COVID-19” by Joseph Mercola, an osteopathic physician who the New York Times called the “most influential spreader of Coronavirus Misinformation Online,” and Ronnie Cummins.
Gaston County Public Library:
- “Amazing You! Getting Smart About Your Private Parts”, a picture book by Gail Saltz to teach children about their bodies.
- “Who is RuPaul?” a biography by Nico Medina about television-personality RuPaul.
- Of note: Someone also filed a complaint about a film, “Message in a Bottle,” in particular its use of the word God.
- “Knock Knock: My Dad’s Dream for Me” by Daniel Beaty, a story about a boy grappling with a father who becomes absent. The individual was concerned about the portrayal of Black men leaving their children.
- “The Art of Racing in the Rain” by Garth Stein, a story about a dog and his owner who is a race car driver. The complaint, which centered around a chapter where the dog was observing his owner have sex with someone, was appealed all the way to the Superintendent, who upheld the decision of the committee at Butler High School not to remove it.
- “Dork Diaries: Tales From a Not-So-Fabulous Life” by Rachel Renée Russell and “The Twin Towers” by David Abbott (mentioned above).
Axios’ Alex Sands contributed to reporting.