U.S. parents are attempting to ban books about race in schools. This author experienced it first-hand
American Library Association says the number of book challenges is increasing
Librarians and educators in the United States are seeing more books by people of colour challenged for their content than in previous years — an issue that author Jerry Craft now knows well.
His debut graphic novel, New Kid, tells the story of a young Black kid from Washington Heights, New York, who feels out of place in his upscale school. The book is acclaimed, winning the 2020 Newbery Medal, the Coretta Scott King Author Award, and the Kirkus Prize.
But last October, just before he was scheduled to speak to students virtually at a school in the Katy Independent School District (ISD) in Texas, a parent expressed concern about the book. The talk was postponed and his book removed from shelves.
The parent, who launched a now-deleted petition that received hundreds of signatures according to NBC News, argued New Kid was promoting critical race theory (CRT) — the idea that racism is systemic and is embedded in the U.S. legal system.
"When I was told that it was banned because it taught critical race theory, I had to Google [the term] to find out exactly what critical race theory is," said Craft in an interview with Day 6 host Peter Armstrong.
"I just wrote about what my experiences are."
Craft, who admits he wasn't a reader as a young student, says his books have engaged children who otherwise have never finished a book.
"I know what those kids are going through, that they don't see themselves in books. So I write the books that I wish I had when I was a kid, so I don't want the kids to miss out," he said.
Ten days after its removal from the Katy ISD, the book was reinstated with a spokesperson saying it contained no inappropriate material and Craft's talk was rescheduled. Katy ISD did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Book challenges rising
According to the American Library Association (ALA), which tracks books that have been challenged in school and public libraries across the U.S., titles centred on race — as well as those about gender and sexuality — have become a prime target for parents and advocacy groups.
From September to December 2021, the ALA says it received around 330 book challenge reports. The group expects this year's total could double compared to 2019, when the association received 377 reports. Each report can include multiple titles.
"We have not seen this number of challenge reports come into our office in the 20 years that I've worked here at ALA," said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Critical race theory is at the centre of some of those complaints, she noted.
The term has become a buzzword among politicians and social media users — and critics say conservatives have latched on to the term for the wrong reasons.
The ability for people to mobilize through social media to put pressure on libraries has increased, particularly in the United States.- Jim Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression
Multiple states have tabled bills that aim to limit the teaching of critical race theory in schools, including Texas which passed a law in December. Last fall, Republican State Representative Matt Krause compiled a list of 850 books that he said "might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex."
Craft's book isn't alone in facing backlash for its portrayal of race.
Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds, and All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, as well as Angie Thomas's acclaimed young-adult novel, The Hate U Give, topped the ALA's most-challenged books of 2020 over their depictions of racism and anti-police views.
Wentzville School Board in Tennessee banned several books by Black writers this week, including The Bluest Eye by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison.
Jim Turk, director of the Centre for Free Expression at Ryerson University, says social media is contributing to the rise in complaints — particularly those targeting marginalized people.
"The ability for people to mobilize through social media to put pressure on libraries has increased, particularly in the United States," he said in an interview.
Data on book challenges in Canada limited
Turk says that while opposition to certain titles has not ramped up to the same degree it has south of the border, Canadians would be naive to think it couldn't happen here.
"Canadians of similar viewpoints with the Americans who are raising these issues see ... this in the United States, hear about it on social media or read about it or see it on television," he said.
"They are likely to raise similar kinds of objections to the books here."
There is no comprehensive list or tracking of titles that have been challenged in libraries and other institutions in Canada. The Book and Periodical Council of Canada, as part of its Freedom to Read Week, hosts a selective list of books that have faced opposition.
Turk's Centre for Free Expression is in the process of launching a public database that would include reports about challenges from libraries across the country.
He expects it will launch with a limited set of libraries in the spring and hopes it will provide better information about trends in this country.
For Craft, the U.S. trend toward challenging books signals a desire from some parents to limit the viewpoints their children are taught in school.
He hopes, instead, parents will "let kids be kids" and provide them the opportunity to expand their minds.
"Schools should shape the curriculum to meet the needs of the kids, as opposed to forcing kids to embrace a curriculum that does not embrace them. That's what the problem is."
Written by Jason Vermes. Interview with Jerry Craft produced by Laurie Allan.