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Texas school district’s book purge takes Anne Frank story, 40 other books off shelves

Aug. 18, 2022 Updated Thu., Aug. 18, 2022 at 8:35 p.m.

Author and Nobel Prize in literature winner Toni Morrison receives the Honor Medal of The City of Paris (Grand Vermeil) at Mairie de Paris on Nov. 4, 2010, in Paris. Her novel “The Bluest Eye” was among dozens of books pulled from library shelves in the Keller Independent School District in Texas on Tuesday.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
Author and Nobel Prize in literature winner Toni Morrison receives the Honor Medal of The City of Paris (Grand Vermeil) at Mairie de Paris on Nov. 4, 2010, in Paris. Her novel “The Bluest Eye” was among dozens of books pulled from library shelves in the Keller Independent School District in Texas on Tuesday. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By María Luisa Paúl Washington Post

Back in April, Laney Hawes thought she had saved a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary from being purged from a North Texas school district’s libraries and classrooms. But on Tuesday morning, a school official sent an email telling principals and librarians to pull it off the shelves – along with 40 other books.

A day before school began for its approximately 35,000 students, Keller Independent School District announced a last-minute review of scores of books that had been challenged in the previous school year, an email obtained by the Washington Post shows. While those conflicts had already been resolved by book committees made up of parents, librarians, administrators and teachers, policies adopted earlier this month by the new school board sparked the recall of 41 publications, including classics like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

The board cited concerns from parents about mature content, including depictions of sexual activities. But in November, a parent also voiced opposition to “any variation” of the Bible being in schools. A second challenge followed in December, and while a board review initially determined the Bible would remain at its current library location, it, too, was caught up in Tuesday’s sweep.

The removal of Frank’s diary adaptation has sparked backlash since it was announced. In a joint statement Wednesday, the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth & Tarrant County and the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas and its Jewish Community Relations Council expressed disappointment over the decision and urged the school district “to put the book back on the shelf.”

“It is imperative that we teach our children about the Holocaust in age-appropriate ways, as outlined in Texas’ state standards for Holocaust education,” the statement read. “At a time of rising antisemitism, we must be particularly vigilant so that nothing like the Holocaust can ever happen again.”

A school district spokesperson told the Washington Post that “books that meet the new guidelines will be returned to the libraries as soon as it is confirmed they comply with the new policy.” In a Facebook post, the president of the board of trustees, Charles Randklev, said the review was necessary “to protect kids from sexually explicit content.”

But for Hawes, whose four children are students in the district, the decision to take the books off the shelves underscores how politics have seeped into school boards – a trend that’s been playing out across the United States.

“These are people who want to bring political culture wars into our schools,” Hawes told The Post. “We can have those fights all we want elsewhere, but do not bring them to my children’s schools.”

Book challenges are nothing new, but they’ve feverishly ramped up over the past year, as a growing movement on the right embraces them as a political talking point.

An April report from PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization, found 1,586 books were banned in 86 school districts from July 2021 to March , affecting over 2 million students. Texas – where a legislator distributed a watch list of 850 books last year – ranked above the 25 other states that have bans, with 713 book bans, according to the report.

In Keller schools, the list of challenged books includes LGBTQ touchstones like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic”; poetry tomes like Rupi Kaur’s “Milk and Honey”; and young adult novels like Jesse Andrews’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” and the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J. Maas. Many center on gay or transgender characters. All had been reviewed by the district’s book committees – with some being approved, removed or assigned age restrictions.

In spring, Hawes – one of the parents on the book committee – had been called to analyze a complaint about Ari Folman and David Polonsky’s adaptation of “The Diary of a Young Girl.” Based on the unabridged version of Anne Frank’s journal, it was hailed by the New York Times Book Review as “so engaging and effective that it’s easy to imagine it replacing the Diary in classrooms and among younger readers.”

The novel illustrates the hope and despair Frank felt during her time hiding from the Nazis inside a tiny annex. But it also includes some of her references to female genitalia and a possible attraction to women. The parent who complained about the book didn’t show up to the book committee’s review, so it’s unclear what that person objected to, Hawes said.

The committee of some eight people ultimately voted to keep the book – but only in middle and high school libraries, since it was labeled a young adult novel.

“We were so excited because we thought we saved this book and had done our duty,” Hawes said. “And then the school board election happened the next week and the school board dynamics switched.”

Keller is one of 20 school districts in Tarrant County, a politically divided area where Joe Biden won by just 1,826 votes in the 2020 presidential election. The election results kindled a conservative push to take over school boards in the county, Hawes said. Patriot Mobile Action, a Christian political action committee based in Texas, endorsed and funded the campaigns of 11 school board candidates across the county, who all won. Three of them joined Keller’s seven-person board of trustees in May.

One of their first moves was revisiting the district’s book selection. On Aug. 8, the new board adopted two policies endorsed by the state’s department of education relating to the acquisition and review of instructional materials and library books.

During that Aug. 8 meeting, some parents thanked the new board for its expedited attempts at “removing sexually explicit pornographic materials” – efforts, a mother said, that began the previous October, when the right-wing Twitter account Libs of TikTok showed that the school possessed a copy of Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: a Memoir,” which has been challenged in many districts.

Hawes acknowledged that not every book is appropriate for all children. But “calling them pornography just shuts down the whole conversation because we’re not in the same reality,” she said.

“We can agree or disagree, but these are important and reasonable conversations we need to have as parents,” Hawes said.

“How are we suddenly in a place where we can’t listen to each other or find some sort of compromise?” she added.

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