The backstory on a U.S. book-ban blitz and an unlikely target: A book about cute babies
The case of Everywhere Babies involves censorship, hypocrisy, and details distorted in the fog of culture war
As a target for a book ban, this seemed an unlikely candidate: a book about babies, about how adorable they are, a book inspired by a grandmother's love.
The story of how it was attacked takes unexpected twists.
It's a tale of censorship, hypocrisy, and distorted facts, details lost in the fog of an all-consuming culture war spreading across the United States.
A popular children's book, Everywhere Babies, found itself on a list of 58 books targeted for banning from school libraries by a Florida conservative group.
The book's author was stunned last week when the issue made national and international headlines and she heard about it from The Washington Post.
"It's so out of the blue," children's writer Susan Meyers later told CBC News in an interview.
"I think it's extremely upsetting. Really upsetting."
This 2001 book was inspired by the birth of Meyers' first grandchild, and how all the boy's grandparents gazed lovingly at him.
What the book shows
Meyers decided to write Everywhere Babies after witnessing Christmas nativity scenes: she based it on images of adults gathering around babies.
A prominent artist was hired to illustrate these scenes and she drew all sorts of families: young parents, old parents, light-skinned and dark-skinned.
In a couple of images there are two men or two women with a baby. Artist Marla Frazee says she never specifies whether they're sisters, brothers, friends, or spouses.
But she says she wanted families with same-sex couples to feel included.
"That was by design," Frazee said in an interview.
"I wanted to make sure, as well as I possibly could, that any child looking at the book would find some semblance of their own family. … I wanted them to read the book and think, 'That's what we're like. That's what our family is like.'"
Now she's disturbed this controversy is happening two decades later, with same-sex marriage legalized seven years ago in the U.S.
A culture war envelops schools
The pace of book-banning has accelerated, says a study by the literature and freedom-expression group PEN America. It counts 1,145 books banned across the U.S. over a nine-month period in 26 states, defining bans as student access to previously available books being restricted, diminished, or completely removed.
Most banned books dealt with race, sex, and sexuality, and, unlike most book-bans of the past, these were prompted primarily by calls from elected and state-level officials.
In this new political culture war, Florida is a central battlefield.
- Florida's 'Don't Say Gay' bill part of Republican drive to limit talk of sex and race in U.S. classrooms
Governor Ron DeSantis is considered a contender for the Republican presidential nomination and some of his opponents view his moves as an effort to win national attention.
In just the last few weeks the state has passed laws that restrict teaching about sexual identity before Grade 4 (dubbed by critics the "Don't Say Gay" bill); allowed parents to sue school boards that fail to address their complaints about inappropriate material; forbidden the teaching of concepts that make people feel guilty about their race or gender; and created new oversight rules for school boards.
When Disney complained about one of these bills the state targeted Disney with another law: It cancelled a tax-free district around Disneyworld, and did it so quickly it might not have considered the unintended fiscal fallout: a major debt-rating agency now warns of potential liabilities for regular Florida taxpayers.
Enter the book brouhaha.
In the northwestern corner of the state, on the border with Alabama, school officials in Walton County received a list from a conservative group of 58 books deemed inappropriate for schools.
Those school officials say they're still trying to figure out the legal implications of Florida's new laws.
There are diverging interpretations of what happened next but the county says some of the media and national reaction has been over the top.
The targeted books in Florida
"I'm just a little disappointed in the misinformation," Walton County schools superintendent Russell Hughes told CBC News.
"We don't ban books."
Based on the debate in the comments on the county Facebook page, not all area residents agree with that characterization of what the school district did do.
The basic details, however, are not in dispute.
A conservative group called Florida Citizens Alliance, a small-sized organization by the standards of American politics, compiles an annual list of allegedly pornographic or age-inappropriate books that violate state rules about what belongs in schools.
Some of the 58 selections are unsurprising. The erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey is described in the report as: "Great instructional material for newlyweds. [But not for people] younger than that."
Some are literary gems. Beloved by Toni Morrison is included for mentioning slaves having sex with farm animals; The Kite Runner and The God of Small Things for describing sexual abuse.
A few are illustrated books meant for younger kids, like Tango Makes Three, the story of gay penguins, and Everywhere Babies.
The list went to Hughes, the schools superintendent, a Republican who was elected to the position.
Superintendent: 'It was not removed'
Hughes is popular: he won the Republican nomination and general election in 2016, then ran unopposed and was re-elected four years later as his county's schools vastly overperformed the state averages in a number of criteria including improvement.
In an interview, Hughes said he didn't want problems. Especially not now, with all the uncertainty about new state laws.
"I'm not gonna take a chance of my staff members being in trouble," Hughes said.
So he asked for a review and learned that among the books on the list 24 were in his schools' libraries, 34 weren't.
He ordered the 24 pulled off library shelves and asked staff to review them to see whether they violate state rules.
What happened to Everywhere Babies?
Nothing happened, Hughes said. It wasn't on any of the library shelves in his county schools in the first place, he said.
"So it was not removed," he said.
He's frustrated with how the news spread nationally, after a Democratic candidate for statewide office tweeted the full list of 58 books being targeted.
BREAKING: My home county, Walton County, Florida has moved forward on banning 58 books from Walton County Public School Libraries. <br><br>Here is the list: <a href="https://t.co/IDjnq0XKNP">pic.twitter.com/IDjnq0XKNP</a>—@DWUhlfelderLaw
Nuance often goes AWOL in a political skirmish. And in current debates about censorship, so does consistency.
American political discourse has been rife lately with complaints about censorship, from right to left, with each side selective in its outrage, said the author of a new book warning about threats to our free-speech traditions.
Free speech: Right, left, hypocrisy
In The Constitution of Knowledge, author and journalist Jonathan Rauch warns that we're losing the ability to speak to each other and breaking the model that has enabled democracy to grow.
"I'm very worried," Rauch said in an interview.
Conservatives are currently mounting a free-speech crusade, even as they celebrate Florida for targeting Disney and restricting classroom discussion.
A current cause célèbre on the right is billionaire Elon Musk's attempt to take over Twitter and reform it after it censored stories during the 2020 election.
The same conservative media that last spring was up in arms over book-censorship and ran days and days of segments about Dr. Seuss's estate ceasing publication of books with racially offensive imagery now applaud news from Florida.
Liberals have a spotty record here too: they now decry censorship in American classrooms but were less vocal during the last election.
During the campaign, Twitter censored posts about the business dealings of President Joe Biden's son; it even suspended the New York Post's account. Facebook banned and then un-banned posts about unproven theories regarding the origins of COVID-19.
How censorship backfires
Rauch describes the phenomenon as increasingly radicalized politics where people on the left and right use any available weapon to attack unwanted speech.
In his view, the right uses tools it controls: state legislatures, or the media bubbles that restrict truths about vaccines (they help) and about the last U.S. election (Donald Trump truly lost).
He accuses the left of using its own cultural institutions, like academia, to bully dissenters into silence, and creating a false appearance of agreement on ideas like defunding the police and gender identity.
His book suggests ways to push back on these tendencies. That includes the challenge of setting standards for social media that allow free speech, while discouraging lies.
"If we don't push back … we could lose this battle," Rauch said, expressing his fear of democratic erosion. "We could look a lot more like Hungary."
One way to undermine censorship? Illustrate that it can backfire. Just ask the author of Everywhere Babies.
News of the ban-list pushed sales of Meyers' old book to No. 1 on the bestseller list of Amazon's children's activity books, and to No. 21 for children's books overall.
"It has the exact opposite effect when you ban a book," she said.