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Wednesday, Sept. 6, 2023

School and public libraries all around us this year are grappling with a wave of pressure to ban books with sexual content or LGBTQ+ representation.

About 30 miles north of Charlottesville, Madison County Public Schools removed and disposed of 21 books from its high school library last year for containing what the board deemed “sexually explicit content.” (This was reported in February by the Madison County Eagle, which you can access through the Daily Progress if you have a subscription.)

Hanover County Public Schools, just north of Richmond, removed 17. Just north of Hanover, Spotsylvania County Public Schools pulled 14 titles.

And about an hour and a half north of Charlottesville, the Samuels Public Library in Front Royal, Virginia is in danger of closing over pressure to ban books. The Warren County Board of Supervisors this summer withheld the library’s funding over concerns about sexually explicit books that the library director would not remove from shelves.

A group called Clean Up Samuels Library began campaigning last spring for the library to pull 134 books from circulation. Many were young adult books with LGBTQ+ characters. Under immense pressure from the group, and the Board of Supervisors, the library made several changes to its policy. It created a “New Adult” collection and moved some books there. It also created a new card system that allows parents to put restrictions on which books children can check out. County leaders did not feel the changes were enough to give the library its funding. The library director recently resigned

Library shelves of books

This wave of book banning is not unique to Virginia. Over the last two years, libraries across the country have been inundated with demands to review and remove books from shelves.

According to the American Library Association, 2022 saw the most attempted book bans from public libraries in the country in more than 20 years. While some of the books in question contain graphic sexual scenes, others have no sexual content whatsoever. Rather, they have characters who are queer or gender nonconforming. (You can read more about the types of books targeted in this New York Times article.)

In fact, the “vast majority” of books challenged in 2022 “were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community and people of color,” ALA reports. You can see this in some of the titles that have been banned so far in Virginia. Here is a complete list of the books removed from the Spotsylvania County Public Schools library.

Critics of the book bans say they are targeting people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals — and that the bans will do the greatest harm to children. Albemarle High School Librarian Erica Thorsen explained this when she spoke with the Cavalier Daily this summer. Some students check out books to explore inner conflicts that they may not be ready to discuss with their families.

These books can help them, she said.

That is exactly what 62-year-old Charly Burton did. As a child in Charlottesville, Burton said he struggled with his sexuality. 

“The only thing I knew about gay life in Charlottesville was from the books I would sneak off and read at the Gordon Avenue Library,” Burton wrote in his First Person Charlottesville essay published last November. “When I was around 10 years old, I climbed those brick steps into a world of adventure. I looked for books about gay people — I didn’t know about trans people then — and I would go all the way to the back where the health books were. I snaked my way through and chose books off the shelf, carrying them around the library. Sometimes I was so depressed, I looked for books about suicide. My heart would pound and I had sweaty hands just knowing I could slip away into all those words and find out about subjects that were taboo in my community. Even as I got older, it felt as if I was doing something wrong.”

A portrait of a man with crossed arms standing between library stacks.
Credit: Kori Price/Charlottesville Tomorrow

He used to sneak to the back of the library to learn about who he was — now this trans advocate has his own book

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Demands to ban books don’t seem to be slowing.

In Virginia, the bans are mostly (though not exclusively) happening in public school libraries as a result of a law passed last year requiring districts to notify parents when teachers use sexually explicit instruction materials as part of lessons. The law says nothing about removing books from circulation, but it has given rise to community conversations about what it means for a book to be “sexually explicit.” And, through those conversations, books are being pulled. You can read more about the phenomenon in this Virginia Mercury story.

As of Wednesday, Charlottesville City Schools has not pulled any books from its libraries, and has received no formal requests from community members to do so, said City Schools spokesperson Amanda Korman. The district has a formal process via which community members may request the district review books or other instructional materials. Contact City Schools’ central office for more information about how to submit such complaints.

Albemarle County Public Schools has not received any book complaints this year, either, said spokesperson Phil Giaramita. The district did receive one complaint from a parent in April 2022 for the book Court of Mist and Fury, by Sarah J. Maas. After receiving the complaint, district officials reviewed the book and decided to remove it from the district’s high school libraries due to the graphic sexual content it contains, Giaramita said.

The local Jefferson Madison Regional Library has had no pressure to remove books from circulation, a spokesperson said Wednesday.

Do you know of other central Virginia libraries that are grappling with book bans that we didn’t mention? Tell us about them here.

Thanks for reading, everyone,

Jessie Higgins, managing editor

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I'm Charlottesville Tomorrow's managing editor and health and safety reporter. If there’s something you think we should be investigating, please email me at jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org! And you can follow all the work we do by subscribing to our free newsletter! Hablo español, y quiero mantener a la comunidad hispanohablante informada. Si tienes preguntas o información que debo saber, por favor, envíame un correo electrónico a jhiggins@cvilletomorrow.org.