The story behind banned books in Arkansas schools

An effort to remove books from Arkansas schools has become a hot topic among communities. What’s the story behind the controversy?

LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Concerns about banning books have become an issue in Arkansas and across the country as debates about whether certain novels should be taught in the classrooms.

“Best way to clear the air is to have it all out in the open.”

It’s a line many of us have read at some point. It comes from Harper Lee’s novel, To Kill A Mockingbird

It’s a classic novel at the center of the banning debate.

So we are helping to “clear the air” when it comes to book bans in Arkansas.

Bans in Bryant

In February, concerned parents told us they were upset that books like To Kill A Mockingbird were removed from the reading list.

“Why were the wider community of parents not consulted about their thoughts on these updates,” asked Patrick Mead at a Bryant School Board meeting.

The Bryant School District responded by saying they removed To Kill A Mockingbird as well as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Diary of Anne Frank. They said the books were replaced with other non-fiction texts and higher-level readings.

“As a district we wanted to provide our faculty and students with rigor, a balance of themes and genres, and appropriateness for formal classroom setting as well as age,” said Angie Dischenger, a Bryant Asstistant Superintendent.

Conflict in Conway 

In Conway, a similar situation, when a Facebook post claimed Conway Public Schools also banned To Kill A Mockingbird.

The district said the book wasn’t banned but taken out of the curriculum during the pandemic. The principal felt there needed to be more support and context that couldn’t be done with students at home.

But the principal still had hesitation to keep the book even after kids returned to class. In a statement from the district, “[The principal] felt like the use of the ‘N-Word’ would be difficult for students, especially African American students, to be forced to hear as part of a required class assignment or discussion.” 

After giving teachers the option to include it in their reading assignments this year, they all said yes.

But this debate goes beyond central Arkansas, all the way to the corners of the state, with more concerns of what kids might be reading at a young age.

Contention in Craighead County

Last year, an LGBTQ display in the Craighead County Library sparked a lot of controversy. Some parents did not want their kids seeing these topics.

A book called The Gay B C’s, for example, had the alphabet with LGBTQ-related terminology.

Then parents discovered It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie H. Harris. It’s in the children’s section and is described as an educational book for those 10 years and older. It covers topics like sexual health, changing bodies, and gender through illustrations.

Kaila Henick is one of those parents who wants this book and others removed from the children’s section of the library.

“It’s appalling when you open up a book and there’s just a bunch of naked men, women, and children all throughout this book,” said Henick.

Vanessa Adams, the Craighead County Library Director says It’s Perfectly Normal wasn’t removed from the children’s section, but placed instead on the parent/teacher shelf. 

“This material that we have is instructional, it’s educational, it’s for children to learn the basics and a lot of times it’s the only place children can go to learn facts about sex,” said Adams.

Henick says that’s not good enough and she wants more safeguards put in place.

“Maybe just trying to find some way to either flag the book when a kid tries to check it out so they have to have parental consent based on the material that’s in it, or putting some kind of sticker on the outside to let the parent know, ‘hey, this book contains this kind of material in it,'” said Henick.

Challenges on the rise 

These concerns over book banning have sparked conversations across social media. Facebook groups were created, like Friends of the Bryant School District. In Conway, Back to Basics and Forward to the Future. In Jonesboro, Safe Library Books for Kids — Arkansas and Citizens Defending Craighead County Library.

All of these groups aim to bring more awareness to what children are reading and what decisions are being made in our schools. Members have gone to board meetings and created social media posts as they discuss what they think is best for kids.

Amber Wilson, an associate professor and librarian at the University of Central Arkansas says there has been an increase of books challenged based on their content across the country.

“Most of the time those books wind up not being banned, but the controversy winds up surrounding the challenge of the book,” said Wilson.

According to the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, challenge totals for 2021 have more than doubled from the year previously. In 2021, 729 books were challenged, in 2020, there were 156 challenges, and in 2019, there were 377.

A challenge defined by the ALA is an attempt to remove or restrict materials based upon the objections of a person or group.

In 2020, To Kill A Mockingbird was the 7th most challenged book of the year citing racial slurs and a negative effect on students.

“We support access to information from various viewpoints to various backgrounds. We want to be sure everyone can see themselves reflected in a library collection,” said Wilson.

Wilson adds as a librarian she protects the First Amendment regarding freedom of speech, but also a person’s right to choose.

“We want individuals to make their own choices and to make choices for their children, but we don’t want them to be able to make choices for everyone,” said Wilson.

A chance for people to make choices when it comes to what they can read because as Harper Lee also wrote, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

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