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In the battle over books, who gets to decide what's age-appropriate at libraries?

Parents Against Bad Books co-founder Carolyn Harrison (center) talks with people last month outside the public library in Idaho Falls, Idaho, about what she considers obscene books on the shelves.
Kim Raff for NPR
Parents Against Bad Books co-founder Carolyn Harrison (center) talks with people last month outside the public library in Idaho Falls, Idaho, about what she considers obscene books on the shelves.

For months, Carolyn Harrison and a small band of activists have been setting up folding tables with an array of what they call "bad books" outside the public library in Idaho Falls, Idaho. As Harrison, co-founder of the group Parents Against Bad Books sees it, the best way to convince people that the library is stocking inappropriate books is to show them.

"These two books are in the library, if you don't believe it!" Harrison says to one passerby.

"It's very graphic, very detailed," offers Halli Stone, another member of the group.

They point out depictions of what they call obscene sexual encounters, catching many library patrons by surprise.

"Oooh, the graphic pictures!" exclaims one woman. "They're taking away children's innocence. They just don't care."

"No, they don't," Harrison replies.

Halli Stone (center right) of Parents Against Bad Books watches as Donna Park signs a petition during a rally last month outside the Idaho Falls Public Library in Idaho. Stone's group was protesting what they see as obscene literature being available at the library.
/ Kim Raff for NPR
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Kim Raff for NPR
Halli Stone (center right) of Parents Against Bad Books watches as Donna Park signs a petition during a rally last month outside the Idaho Falls Public Library in Idaho. Stone's group was protesting what they see as obscene literature being available at the library.

Another mom, Natasha Stringam, recalls how her 12-year-old son recently came across a book "about a boy kissing another boy and things that really aren't appropriate at that stage of development for children," she says. "These ideas are going to affect our children in ways that maybe aren't good for them."

As conversations unfold, Harrison offers a pen and asks people to sign a petition supporting her proposal to let parents weigh in on book selections, alongside the library staff whose job it is.

Pushing for a new way to select and classify books

It's one of many efforts around the U.S. to change how decisions are made about which books libraries should have on shelves and in which section of the library they belong.

The process of classifying books can be somewhat inconsistent. Books usually get an initial designation from authors and publishers. Then, professional book reviewers usually weigh in with their own age-bracket recommendation, and distributors and booksellers can do the same. But ultimately, local library staff make the final call about the books they buy and where they should go.

Parents Against Bad Books has been setting up a table outside the public library in Idaho Falls, Idaho, to raise awareness about books they believe are inappropriate for young readers. The group is also collecting signatures for a petition that would allow parents to have a say in which books get selected, alongside the library staff whose job it is.
/ Kim Raff for NPR
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Kim Raff for NPR
Parents Against Bad Books has been setting up a table outside the public library in Idaho Falls, Idaho, to raise awareness about books they believe are inappropriate for young readers. The group is also collecting signatures for a petition that would allow parents to have a say in which books get selected, alongside the library staff whose job it is.

Harrison wants to change that process by giving parents a voice in that final decision, along with the library staff. But she says libraries are resistant to the idea.

"They've told us here that 'Oh no, you can't have parents involved. You must have experts choosing books for the children,'" Harrison says. "That makes no sense. Parents are the primary stakeholders for children."

Local libraries push back

For their part, local libraries say parents are already involved, since much of the library staff are parents themselves. They're just not quite on the same page as groups like Parents Against Bad Books, which has so far challenged at least 16 titles, including Flamer, Lawn Boy, What Girls Are Made Of and It's Perfectly Normal. All of those challenges have failed.

PABB also keeps a list of what they call "52 Bad Books." It includes George M. Johnson's memoir, All Boys Aren't Blue, which contains some explicit descriptions of sexual scenes. But as is the case with most books in question, one person's trash is another's treasure.

Halli Stone (left) of Parents Against Bad Books persuades Samantha Neis to sign a petition protesting what the group considers obscene books at the Idaho Falls Public Library.
/ Kim Raff for NPR
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Kim Raff for NPR
Halli Stone (left) of Parents Against Bad Books persuades Samantha Neis to sign a petition protesting what the group considers obscene books at the Idaho Falls Public Library.

"I found it very enlightening," says Idaho Falls Public Library Director Robert Wright. As he sees it, All Boys Aren't Blue is critical to young people's development, especially those struggling with issues around sexual identity.

"To me, it was a story of a young boy who felt maybe different, but the story that came through to me was how much his family supported him and loved him regardless," Wright says.

Anyway, he adds, that book is already in the library's adult section. And a new tiered library card system allows parents to restrict which books their child can check out, for example, limiting them only to the children's collection, Wright says.

Harrison says this doesn't solve the problem, since kids can read any books while they're inside the library. But Wright counters that if parents want stricter controls on what their children see at the library, that's on them to enforce.

A call to label books with age classifications, like movies

To that end, others around the nation are trying another tactic.

A proposal in Washington state would require libraries to use a universal book-rating system, like the one voluntarily used by the movie industry to designate films "G," "PG," "PG-13" and "R."

"We're not asking for anything unreasonable," says Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope, who proposed the plan. "This is a tool to provide parents to be able to tell whether this is appropriate book for your child. I mean, that innocence, once it's gone, it's gone."

In Washington state, Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope has proposed a mandatory book-rating system that would require libraries to put age classifications on books. He says it's inspired by the voluntary rating system used by the movie industry.
/ Kyle Norris
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Kyle Norris
In Washington state, Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope has proposed a mandatory book-rating system that would require libraries to put age classifications on books. He says it's inspired by the voluntary rating system used by the movie industry.

Dozens came to speak both for and against the idea at a recent meeting of the Lewis County Board of Commissioners. Kyle Pratt, a writer and grandparent in Chehalis, Wash., read aloud from the book Let's Talk About It: The Teen's Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human, a graphic novel that contains explicit depictions and descriptions of sexual acts, and is kept in the teen section at the Timberland Regional Library.

"'There is nothing wrong with enjoying some porn, it's a fun sugary treat,'" Pratt quoted from the book, noting, "That's just one book and it's not the worst. There are some parts that I'm not going to be able to read."

Under Swope's proposed plan, librarians would be required to rate books according to criteria that he would set.

"G"-rated books, that are "lighthearted and non-controversial" would be available to anyone, for example, while books with "explicit" or sexual content would be "restricted" to adults only.

Parents Against Bad Books co-founder Tom Harrison grabs a stack of what group members call age-inappropriate books that they checked out from the Idaho Falls Public Library on Oct. 4.
/ Kim Raff for NPR
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Kim Raff for NPR
Parents Against Bad Books co-founder Tom Harrison grabs a stack of what group members call age-inappropriate books that they checked out from the Idaho Falls Public Library on Oct. 4.

Opponents say government-mandated ratings would be unconstitutional

Opponents argue those categories are far too subjective. And they say ratings are already available nationally from multiple websites, ranging from the conservative BookLooks(which was launched by a member of Moms for Liberty though the website is not affiliated with the group) to the more middle-of-the-road approach from Common Sense Media, a nonprofit advocacy group that rates not only books, but also movies, TV shows, games and more.

But those are private groups. And in the case of movie ratings, it's the film industry that's rating itself. Opponents say having the government label books crosses into uncomfortable — if not unconstitutional — territory.

Dozens of people turned out to testify for and against a proposal in Lewis County, Wash., that would require public libraries to classify books according to age categories defined by County Commissioner Sean Swope. He says his plan was inspired by the rating system used voluntarily by the movie industry.
/ Kyle Norris
/
Kyle Norris
Dozens of people turned out to testify for and against a proposal in Lewis County, Wash., that would require public libraries to classify books according to age categories defined by County Commissioner Sean Swope. He says his plan was inspired by the rating system used voluntarily by the movie industry.

"It is not the place for the government to legislate morality," Lewis County resident Lori Lawson told the Board of Commissioners at its recent meeting.

As a mother of nine, she says she understands wanting to protect kids, but as a 25-year military veteran, she says she also understands protecting the First Amendment. "I didn't give up 25 years of my life for certain people to get to decide what other certain people get to do!"

No shortage of other ways to shortcut the book selection process

There are several other ways that people are changing the decision-making process for what books should be in libraries. In Florida, for example, state legislation that critics call the "Don't Say Gay Law" says when a book is challenged, the decision can be appealed to a special magistrate appointed by the state education commissioner. That means a state political appointee now has the power to overrule a decision made by a local school district.

Even before a book is formally challenged, that same Florida law provides a way for people to get that book effectively banned from a school library. Under the law, if someone reads aloud from a book at a school board meeting and is stopped by the chair because they think the book is too explicit, that book automatically must be removed from schools.

In other words, if it's too racy for a public meeting, it's too racy for a school library.

Pastor John K. Amanchukwu speaks at an August school board meeting in Indian River County, Fla. He was just a few words into reading an explicit passage from the book <em>13 Reasons Why </em>when he was cut off by the board chair — triggering the book's automatic removal from the school library.
/ Screenshot by NPR/School District of Indian River County
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Screenshot by NPR/School District of Indian River County
Pastor John K. Amanchukwu speaks at an August school board meeting in Indian River County, Fla. He was just a few words into reading an explicit passage from the book 13 Reasons Why when he was cut off by the board chair — triggering the book's automatic removal from the school library.

People are already using that law to skirt the formal challenge process, including many in Florida's Indian River County.

At a recent school board meeting, Pastor John Amanchukwu stood up to read an explicit passage describing a sex act from the book 13 Reasons Why. He had gotten only a few words out before he was cut off.

"Sir, I'll stop you there," interjected the school board's then-Chair Peggy Jones, banging her gavel. "I'll stop you from reading. It's going to be removed."

Dozens of books have been pulled from Florida school libraries that way.

And there's yet another tactic that some people around nation are using to get around long-standing library book selection policies.

As Carolyn Harrison and Halli Stone from Parents Against Bad books in Idaho Falls have figured out, they can simply check out whatever books they object to, up to a dozen at a time.

"We kept 'forgetting' to take them back," Harrison says. "Somehow, we kept forgetting."

Halli Stone of Parents Against Bad Books looks at a Banned Book Week display at the public library in Idaho Falls, Idaho. She is among those advocating for more parental involvement in the selection of library books for young readers.
/ Kim Raff for NPR
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Kim Raff for NPR
Halli Stone of Parents Against Bad Books looks at a Banned Book Week display at the public library in Idaho Falls, Idaho. She is among those advocating for more parental involvement in the selection of library books for young readers.

"So many of them are simply not on the shelves right now," Stone deadpans.

And in case it wasn't clear, Harrison offers, "We're looking at this as a positive."

The immense pressure over books has even led some libraries around the nation to self-censor before any controversy starts.

In Florida, state law now prohibits K-8 classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity and in some cases bars it in high schools. The official word to some schools is to "err on the side of caution." So libraries have simply removed — at least temporarily — dozens of books dealing with LGBTQ+ themes or characters.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.