Challenged books in Maryland county largely written by women, feature LGBTQ characters


WESTMINSTER, MD. — Last month, Carroll County’s board of education temporarily removed 56 books from the district’s school libraries after complaints about inappropriate content.

An analysis by Capital News Service found that a high proportion of the titles being reviewed were written by female, LGBTQ and nonbinary authors, plus featured LGBTQ characters and characters of color.

CNS collected data about the authors and content of the 56 books being challenged from author websites, publisher websites, book synopses and other online sources.

There are 43 different authors of the 56 books being challenged. The data collected by Capital News Service shows a majority, 67%, of the authors are female. Despite only accounting for less than 2% of U.S. adults, according to Pew Research Center survey data, nonbinary authors make up 12% of the writers.

LGBTQ writers and illustrators make up 28%, despite the that community representing only about 7% of the U.S. adult population, according to Pew.

Many of the titles up for review also include diverse characters.

According to the analysis, of the 56 books temporarily removed, at least 25 contain LGBTQ characters, and at least 16 include characters of color.

The challenges were driven by Moms for Liberty, a conservative group focusing on parents’ rights that, according to The Washington Post, has been responsible for a surge of book challenges across the United States in recent years.

Moms for Liberty’s Carroll County chair and mother of five, Kit Hart, has attended various school board meetings to speak about the issue of having books in school libraries that have what the group deemed “graphic sex” content.

“The only criteria that we used to identify these books was that they contained very graphic sex or rape,” she said. “That was the only criteria that we use. It wasn’t anything else.”

Hart said there is already a mental health crisis in the U.S., and the group wants to help identify some of the factors that could be contributing.

“We believe that this type of material can be very upsetting and problematic to students, and it’s not developing any kind of literacy that they need, and it can really damage their mental health,” she added.

Moms for Liberty points to the website when evaluating books. It provides detailed reports of what they consider objectionable content and ratings for specific books. Some of the concerns listed in the reports include “alternate sexualities” and “alternate gender ideologies.”

BookLooks also lists various types of “controversial commentary” that they believe children and young adults shouldn’t have access to, including themes about race, culture, politics, religion and abortion.

Out of the challenged books, 28% contain LGBTQ themes, and 14% include nonbinary themes, according to BookLooks.

A book that discusses both sexuality and gender ideology is “All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto” by George M. Johnson, who is a queer Black man. He wrote a series of essays about his “trials and triumphs” growing up in New Jersey and Virginia. With 86 challenges, it was the second-most challenged book in the country in 2022, according to the American Library Association.

Some parents, like Carroll County resident and mom of two, Pamela Hohlbein, worry the removal would result in children having limited access to diverse voices and perspectives.

“At the end of the day, these book bans are affecting kids, who are not really kids anymore. They’re teenagers. They’re young adults. They need to learn about the world, not just this little Carroll County bubble that everyone seems to think is protecting the kids,” she said. “But when they get off into the real world, and they don’t know about other cultures, and they don’t know how to interact with the LGBTQ community or the (Black, Indigenous and people of color) community, it’s really going to harm them in the long run.”

Hart said she agrees that students should be exposed to different people, cultures and lifestyles in their reading but does not see why sexual content has to be included in some works.

“Just don’t include that sexual content in the books. … They should be able to be exposed to all different kinds of people without being exposed to sexual content at the same time,” she said.

According to BookLooks, some 96% of the books challenged in Carroll County include forms of sexual content, with 38% discussing sexual assault.

One of these books being flagged for containing sexual assault is “A Stolen Life: A Memoir” by Jaycee Lee Dugard, who wrote about her experience of abuse and survival, after being kidnapped and held in captivity for 18 years.

Wendy Novak, a Carroll County resident and mom of three, said that books written by survivors of sexual assault about their experiences helped her understand what her own child went through, which she also spoke about at the September board of education meeting.

“I have a 25-year-old that was sexually assaulted, and for me — and I know it’s true for other people — reading books by survivors helps to understand what my child went through,” she said. “These books are available in high schools. They’re not available in middle or elementary schools, but they’re available at the age range that is, unfortunately, very likely to be assaulted.”

Some members of the Carroll County Public Schools’ board of education have expressed support for the removal of the books.

Members Steve Whisler and Tara Battaglia both signed Moms for Liberty’s Parent Pledge, which states that they will “honor the fundamental rights of parents including but not limited to the right to direct the education, medical care, and moral upbringing of their children.”

Whisler was also a speaker at Moms for Liberty’s “Giving Parents a Voice” Town Hall, held in Silver Spring on Sept. 26, where he spoke about how much he values parental involvement.

The issue of book challenges exists beyond Carroll County. According to national data collected by the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, in the first eight months of 2023, 1,915 unique titles were targeted.

According to ALA, the number of unique titles challenged has increased by 20% this year from the same reporting period in 2022, which saw the highest number of challenges since the association started collecting the data 20 years ago.

It also found that the recent rise in title challenges is often driven by a single person or group challenging multiple titles at a time.

In the first eight months of 2023, 11 states reported cases of a challenge to 100 or more books, compared to six during the same reporting period in 2022 and zero in 2021, and that “9 in 10 of the overall number of books challenged were part of an attempt to censor multiple titles,” according to ALA.

It doesn’t seem likely the challenges will slow down soon. In nearby Harford County, board of education vice president Melissa Hahn called out six books for being inappropriate for students at a recent meeting.

In Carroll County, the school district’s Reconsideration Committee will continue to review up to five books per month. According to The Baltimore Sun, school officials have decided to retain five of the books in high school libraries, including “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, “Tilt” by Ellen Hopkins, “The Sun and her Flowers” by Rupi Kaur, “Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture” by Roxane Gay, and “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut, though the books have not yet been returned to shelves as the decision is open to appeal. “Slaughterhouse-Five,” an anti-war novel long considered a classic of American literature, has been permanently removed from middle school libraries in the county.

Capital News Service's Dylan Manfre contributed to this story.

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