Jun 14, 2022 7 min read

The Books In Public Schools, Exposed

As families and legislators push for more parental control over education, book banning has become a core issue. We reviewed six of the most controversial books found in K-12 public school libraries, classrooms, and programs. This is by no means an exhaustive list.
The Books In Public Schools, Exposed

Reference for approximate age group guide for U.S. public schools:

  • Elementary school - grades K-5, ages 5-10
  • Middle school - grades 6-8, ages 11-14
  • High school - grades 9-12, ages 15-18

"I Am Jazz" by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings, published in 2014 by Penguin Random House

I Am Jazz is a narrative of the real-life story of Jazz Jennings, a young transgender activist, and how Jennings began expressing a transgender identity as a child, growing attached to feminine clothing and behavior. Jennings is taken to a doctor, declared transgender, and socially transitioned at school.

"I have a girl brain but a boy body," the first-person narration reads. "This is called transgender. I was born this way!"

Found/used in

Multiple K-12 libraries and classrooms, including classrooms at the elementary school level, including kindergarten.

Publicity

The American Library Association gave I Am Jazz the "Rainbow Project Book List" award in 2015. In response to frequent bans, news site The Guardian responded with a guest piece by co-author Jessica Herthel, who rejoiced in the book's widespread effectiveness at getting young children to question their genders.

"As soon as the book came out, and we started receiving letters of gratitude from children around the world," she writes, ''I knew we'd made the right decision: suddenly kids struggling with gender had some vocabulary to articulate what they were feeling.''

The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish, published in 2020 by Lil Miss Hot Mess

Lil Miss Hot Mess, whose real name is unknown, wrote this children's book to help kids "experience the magic of drag" with a narration based on "The Wheels On the Bus." Its illustrations show several cross-dressing characters performing, some with sexually ambiguous names like "Cinderfella."

"The shoulders on the drag queen go shimmy, shimmy, shimmy… all through the town."

"The cheeks on the drag queen go blush, blush, blush… all through the town."

Found/used in

New York City's Department of Education and school library system.

Publicity

During COVID lockdowns, the NYC government and a local television station aired a virtual "Drag Queen Story Hour" for kids aged 3 to 8 as supplemental material. Lil Miss Hot Mess, dressed in full drag, read the book, then directed the audience to dance and pretend to put on makeup, jewelry, and other apparel.

"I think we might have some drag queens in training on our hands," he told the audience.

As a top organizer of Drag Queen Story Hour nationwide, this reflects his usual routine at public libraries.

"Call Me Max" by Kyle Lukoff, published by Reycraft Books

Call Me Max, by trans-identifying author Kyle Lukoff, depicts the life of the title character with a first-person narration of how "Max" feels as a trans boy.

"'Transgender' is a long word, but it means something simple. 'Trans' means going across, like how transportation means going from here to there. 'Gender' means being a boy or a girl, or a little of both, or not feeling like a boy or girl."

"When I was born, my mom and dad said, 'it's a girl!' When I looked in the mirror, I saw a girl, kind of, but because I'm transgender, I wanted to see a boy."

Found/used in

At least five school districts (Florida, Utah, Texas, Indiana, and Wisconsin), including at the elementary level.

Publicity

At a Utah elementary school, Call Me Max was read to a class of third graders without parents' permission. Some kids went home and told their parents about it, prompting those parents to complain. The school kept the book in their library, giving no clear indication that it wouldn't be brought into classrooms in the future.

"Anything in our libraries is fair game for teachers to use right now," the school district's spokesperson told local media.

"Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness" by Anastasia Higginbotham, published in 2018 by Dottir Press

A young white girl sees her mother turn off the television when news breaks of a black person being killed by police. She grows skeptical of her mother's attitudes toward racial controversies and her family's belief that being color-blind kills racism. She becomes persuaded that racism is a system, not just a behavior or belief. She browses history books depicting the oppression of minorities, various anti-slavery figures, and race-related protestors throughout history, including Colin Kaepernick, then confronts and rebukes her mother.

"When grown-ups try to hide scary things from kids," begins the narration, "it's usually because they're scared too. They want to bury the truth." Meanwhile, the girl's mother says, "Our family is kind to everyone. We don't see color." Then follows the narrator, "Deep down we all know. Color matters. Skin color makes a difference in how the world sees you and in how you see the world."

"Racism is a white person's problem and we are all caught up in it – mostly by refusing to look at it," the narrator also says. "You can face this."

"Why didn't anyone teach me real history?" the girl eventually asks her mother. "I do see color! I see yours, mine, and everybody's! You can't hide what's right in front of me. I know that what that police officer did was wrong!" The details of the publicized police shooting are never specified in the story.

Most controversial content

The back of the book contains learning activities to help white kids examine themselves, including a depiction of the devil inviting them to sign a whiteness "contract."

"You can be white without signing on to whiteness," the author reassures.

Found/used in

At least 25 K-12 school districts, including classroom readings, according to reports by activist Chris Rufo.

Publicity

In 2021, an Illinois school district was sued on the basis of civil rights law and the 14th Amendment for its use of the book in accordance with race-related teaching and activities. A Republican in the Texas House that year sent the book to his colleagues to illustrate the need for an anti-critical race theory bill, which later passed and was signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott.

Warning: the rest of this article covers sexually explicit and disturbing material.

"All Boys Aren't Blue: A Memoir-Manifesto" by George M. Johnson, published by Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux

A series of essays retelling the author's life as a queer-identifying black person in America.

Most controversial content

Fellatio, oral sex, masturbation, ejaculation, anal penetration, child molestation, incest, and use of condoms are explicitly described throughout multiple sex scenes.

Found/used in

One or more high school libraries in Georgia, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Florida, Maryland, Texas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, middle school libraries in Maryland and Kansas, and an elementary school library in Pennsylvania. Some of the above districts retained the book after parental complaints.

"Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe, published by Oni Press & Lion Forge Comics

The comic book autobiography of "queer" or "non-binary" author Maia Kobabe. It centers on her experiences with sexuality and gender confusion growing up.

"My deepest emotional relationships have always been with women," Kobabe narrates. "Did that mean I was a lesbian? But my sexual fantasies involved two male partners. Was I a gay boy trapped in a girl's body? The knowledge of a third option slept like a seed under the soil.''

Most controversial content

The graphic novel contains explicit descriptions and illustrations of nudity and sexual behavior, either from the main character's life or imagination. These include "sexting," oral sex, masturbation, and the use of "strap-ons" and vibrators, all between or involving minors. One image seems to depict pederasty.

Found/used in

One or more high school libraries in Virginia, Rhode Island, Florida, Montana, Alaska, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Pennsylvania, Iowa, Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts, Kansas, Maryland, Washington, and Missouri.

Backlash from parents

While Gender Queer has won two awards from the American Library Association, it was the most banned book of 2021. Many parents in the states listed above protested at school board meetings, presenting its contents and demanding its removal. Some schools voted to keep it anyway.

In addition, parental rights activism group No Left Turn sent a letter urging U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland of the Justice Department to investigate schools for having obscene material available to minors. The letter lists Gender Queer among its examples.

Federal law explicitly prohibits any ''distribution of obscene matter to minors,'' the DOJ's website explains. ''In addition, visual representations, such as drawings, cartoons, or paintings that appear to depict minors engaged in sexual activity and are obscene are also illegal under federal law.''

Garland's only action regarding schools has been promising to mobilize the FBI against parents, per the request of the National School Board Association.

Suitable for minors, according to progressives

Despite booksellers like Amazon rating the book for ages 18 and up, author Maia Kobabe and the progressive outlets supporting her seek to push those boundaries. The book is recommended by the School Library Journal, whose promotions are likely to influence whether schools pick a title for their shelves. The Journal included praise of its explicit content in a review:

''Matter-of-fact descriptions of gynecological exams and the use of sex toys will be enlightening for those who may not have access to this information elsewhere.''

The Washington Post published a guest piece by Kobabe headlined, ''Schools are banning my book. But queer kids need queer stories.''

A 7-member committee at an Ohio high school reviewed the book and voted to keep it in the school library. The Interim Superintendent explained, ''While the committee expressed concerns regarding the sexual content contained in the book, they also recognized that the book contained educational value in that it provides students who may be struggling with their own gender identity with unique perspective and support.''

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