Correction: An earlier version of this story included a photo from the Vail Public Library that featured the book “Lawn Boy” by Gary Paulsen. Paulsen’s book is the story of a 12-year-0ld boy who starts a lawn mowing business. The “Lawn Boy” currently gaining traction on banned book lists is the semi-autobiographical novel by Jonathen Evison that is an entirely different book.
The start of the academic year is less than a week away for Eagle County Schools, which, for many students cues the end-of-summer scramble to finish up summer reading. But while students anxiously cram in what they’re required to read, school districts and legislatures across the country may be more concerned with the titles that are prohibited.
In recent years, book banning has been steadily on the rise nationwide, with 2021 marking a dramatic resurgence in the practice. The American Library Association tracked 729 challenges to library, school, and university materials last year — an all-time high in the organization’s 20 years of data, and more than double the 273 books challenged or banned in 2020.
Overwhelmingly, books targeted in the recent wave of bans engage with topics of race and LGBTQ content. According to the American Library Association, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe was the single most-challenged book in 2021. “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas, Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and “This Book is Gay,” by Juno Dawson also make the top 10.
Currently, there are no school districts with active book bans in Colorado.
Katie Jarnot, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for Eagle County Schools, confirmed that there have been no challenges to books or educational materials since she took on her current position four years ago.
“I am not aware of any challenges that we have had in the 12 years I’ve been in the district,” she added in an email to the Vail Daily.
The school district’s current policy requires administrators to review curricula (including books and other materials that will be taught) every five years. Its text specifically calls for considerations of “curriculum breadth,” “all student populations,” and “educational equity” in this process.
“It is important for school districts to have policies like these in place, so that there is a basis for the selection of curriculum and educational resources and so that any challenge can be addressed in an objective and fair manner,” Jarnot wrote.
In Eagle County, the culture war on book banning has not made classrooms a battleground. But according to Linda Tillson, director of Eagle Valley Library District, book challenges are not unheard of in the county. She reported that the library district typically receives one to two completed reconsideration request forms each year, usually reflecting concern about “sexual content, LGBTQ+ topics, and age-appropriateness.”
Tillson reported that the only challenge that has been approved in recent years removed a children’s book about Thanksgiving that contained an “outdated and inaccurate” portrayal of Native Americans.
Reconsideration forms are standard procedure in libraries across the U.S. as a means to gather input from a concerned patron about a particular resource. Forms generally request information about the contested item, including if the objector has examined the entire resource, what specific concerns the objector holds, and what action the objector suggests the library staff should take (e.g., a reclassification, restriction, or removal of the resource).
Completed forms are reviewed by the library director who, with the counsel of other staff members, makes the ultimate decision on how to address the request. Decisions may be appealed and put to the citizen Board of Trustees for reconsideration.
While book bans are historically rare in the state (especially compared to bordering Kansas with 30 active bans, Oklahoma with 43, and Utah with 11), challenges and controversy are not. In 2001, the Denver Post reported on one parent’s crusade to ban Lois Lowry’s “The Giver” from school classrooms and curricula, arguing that the book’s discussion of suicide and euthanasia were unsuitable for young readers and promoted a disregard for human life that could motivate tragedies like the Columbine shooting.
James LaRue, who worked as the director of the Douglas County Library from 1990-2014, reported that in that time he received 250 challenges to library materials — more than in any other library he’d heard of. The experience motivated him to write “The New Inquisition,” a book exploring modern challenges to intellectual freedom.
In 2016, he left Douglas County to work for the Office of Intellectual Freedom for the American Library Association, where he addressed about one challenge a day. He believes that in this point in his career he’s dealt with over 1,000 challenges.
LaRue, who returned to Colorado to serve as executive director of Garfield County Library District in May, has observed a “shift in the wind” with the practice of book banning: challenges that were once isolated events, brought forward by concerned parents, have been interspersed with more concerted, sometimes political, efforts.
“It’s not just individual people complaining about one book, it’s somebody showing up with 380 books and so it’s far more coordinated and less individual,” he said, “Most of these challenges, you would have to describe as partisan.”
LaRue cited groups like Moms4Liberty and CatholicVote, which have launched campaigns to remove books of controversial subject matter. But the politicization of the issue has also been presented on a legislative scale.
In 2021, 54 bills in 24 states were introduced to ban books on controversial issues such as race, gender, and sexuality. The Colorado House of Representatives considered the “Public Education Curriculum And Professional Development Information” bill last year, sponsored by Tim Geitner, an El Paso County Republican. The bill called for local education providers and school districts to publish a comprehensive list of educational materials used in classrooms PK-12, including the title, internet address, publisher, publication date, and international standard business number for each item. It also stipulated that education providers must provide a copy of any book or resource used in the classroom to parents upon request. The bill was introduced and did not pass.
“New legislation … represents a very concerted attack, not just on a couple books that people are upset about, but trying to suppress whole topics from a public institution,” LaRue said, “it’s a fight for the soul of the institution.”
LaRue reported that he has already received four challenges to Garfield County Library materials since taking on his post with the district in the spring.
“I think that the best route to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is literacy,” LaRue added. “This is an issue worth talking about.”