The Biased Online Book Ratings Systems Undermining Professional Review Sources: Book Censorship News, November 4, 2022

Books

We know that the same books show up again and again in these bans and challenges across the U.S. Beyond the copycat effect, what’s driving this push for specific titles to be pulled are book ratings systems created by groups like Moms For Liberty, Utah Parents United, and others. These book ratings systems are homegrown creations, developed my volunteers affiliated with these groups. The volunteers are ostensibly parents, though we know from a year and a half of increased book censorship that many are not. They have no formal training in child development, in literacy, or in determining text appropriateness. These volunteer book evaluators go in with their agenda and rate the books with them, absolutely undermining the professional judgment, training, knowledge, and experience of educators and librarians. In some cases, these book review systems are trickling into school boards. In other cases, these volunteers are using their experience in developing these databases as proof they’re capable of sitting on boards and on committees to evaluate the books in schools and libraries.

Without question, if school boards continue to be influenced by right-wing, Christian nationalists, these ratings systems will continue to infiltrate public education, devaluing the professional experience of school and library employees. (This is, of course, a step in the plan of destroying public education at large.)

Let’s take a look at several of the biggest databases out there, as well as who they are affiliated with. This is by no means comprehensive, but instead, a way to make sense of where these challenges are coming from and a way to see where book challengers are getting their copy-paste arguments.

All of these databases are accessible to the public, with the exception of one, which is very easy to gain access via Facebook. Though these are separate systems, many of these groups work together and collaborate, utilizing power in numbers.

None of these sites are linked for reasons that should be pretty obvious, but they are very easy to find.

BookLook.info/BookLooks.org

These two websites look slightly different, but they are the same thing. This is the Moms For Liberty book review joint, as reported on earlier this year. It’s modeled after the motion pictures rating system, though on a 1-5 scale. Books that earn a 4 or a 5 trigger a challenge.

Moms For Liberty claims this is not their system, and they updated their “about us” page after I reported on them. The thing is, their members say it is.

The BookLook and BookLooks websites are databases of book reviews. You can sort through them by rating and search by title, and the passages that volunteers highlight are the talking points used in bans. These are copy and pasted (or, more accurately, plagiarized) in book challenge forms.

Image of the book report for The Nowhere Girls in booklooks

RatedBooks.Org/LaVerna In The Library/Mary In The Library

While RatedBooks is a standalone website, LaVerna In The Library and her cousin Mary In The Library operate via Facebook. Mary has spawned iterations in many states across the country, so it is easy to look up Mary In The Library + Your State to see if your region has one.

All of these are creations of Utah Parents United, one of the largest and most active “parents rights” groups outside of Moms. They, too, use the BookLooks moving rating system, and they offer “stickers” and “warning labels” on their website for people to use on the books they deem inappropriate (conveniently, where they make some money!). RatedBooks and its ilk are affiliated, too, with No Left Turn in Education, as well as stopschoolporn, and several local groups in Georgia, Texas, and Idaho. For books in Utah, the group puts what law the book supposedly violates, and all of this is available in a searchable spreadsheet.

They, too, provide full reports for easy copy-pasting/plagiarism by book banners.

Pavement Education Project

One of the “smaller” book ban lists comes from the Pavement Education Project (PEP) in North Carolina. This book review database, created by volunteers with no background in education, literacy, or child development, explicitly encourages people to use their excerpts and findings “for your book protests.”

Not only does this database include books they consider obscene and where they’re available throughout North Carolina, but they have two additional lists: “gender ideology” books and “LGBTQ+” books. There is zero hidden agenda here.

From their website: “A PEP may be equated to a friendly flashmob that informs rather than entertains.”

Book Censorship News: November 4, 2022

  • Launching with moderately good news (it’s not going to get better from here, though). The Greenville, South Carolina, city council will not be taking up a censorship resolution that would pull several books from the city libraries. This isn’t the end, though — the library board will be debating the issue in December, which might remove or relocate nearly two dozen books. It’s again all part of a massive misinformation campaign fueled by right-wing Christian nationalists under the guise of “grassroots parental rights.”
  • “The forms also included rating information from the website BookLooks, a Brevard County-based group that provides parents with information on potentially inappropriate content in certain books found in schools. The book ratings that Pennock provided ranged from four to five. According to BookLooks, a four rating means the book shouldn’t be viewed by minors, and a five rating is ‘aberrant content.’” The complaints are over several books in Seminole County Schools (FL) and they are citing Moms For Liberty’s reviews as if they are authoritative. The newspaper not questioning it is equally problematic.
  • The director of Maury County Public Library (TN) resigned because of complaints over a Pride display. This piece gives the numbers of how few queer books are in the collection, too.
  • The Pierre Library Board (SD) denied a request to ban Push from the library. They did, however, determine it would be moved from the YA section to the adult section.
  • Black Is A Rainbow Color has been banned from Lexington-Richland 5 school district (SC). No reason has been given.
  • “The event organized by Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder was billed as a press conference to discuss the sexualization of children in Wyoming’s schools. Roughly a dozen speakers, including Schroeder, parents, national activists and state lawmakers, spoke Tuesday against the exposure of children to sexual imagery in books and teacher-led discussions. They argued for the rights of parents to shield their children and decide what they learn inside school walls.” An entire conference in Wyoming, organized by someone who oversees education, dedicated to the false notion of children being sexualized and indoctrinated in schools. Sit with that.
  • Book bans and challenges across Nebraska, written as if this is a political platform to be proud of.
  • Batesburg-Leesville Middle and High School (SC) removed Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You from their school shelves. Now, there’s a new freedom to read group forming in the area to push back against censorship like this.
  • An appeal has been filed against the decision to keep Gender Queer and White Fragility on shelves at Spruce Mountain High School (ME). The appeal is set for November 10.
  • In St. Tammany Parish Library System (LA), I Am Jazz and Lawn Boy are under fire. The news reporting on this is atrocious.
  • Lawn Boy was banned from two schools in Sumner County, Tennessee.
  • The Woolrich Central School (ME) will be able to keep Beyond Magenta on their shelves.
  • “A prominent member of the Willard community recently addressed the school board, calling for a ‘full audit of the K-12 libraries’ to weed out any inappropriate or sexually explicit content.” This is in Willard Schools in Missouri. Buried in the story are the ban on Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and the new restrictions on Arvin Ahmadi’s How It All Blew Up.
  • Gender Queer will stay on Medomak Valley High School library selves (ME).
  • Sixteen books are being challenged at Salem-South Lyon District Library (MI) after being on a Pride display earlier this year. All of the books have queer content.
  • “‘Absolutely, that’s what we do with Mom’s for Liberty is we say, we are going to flip those seats, and like I yelled out in there, we’re going to, we are going to take over the boards,’ said Danforth.” Because an individual in Owasso, Oklahoma, was told they were not welcome at the school board meetings for inciting harassment and attempting to remove a library book. They’re. Naming. Names.
  • Unfortunately for the school, the individual won a legal case later this week allowing him to attend those meetings.
  • Michigan’s GOP candidate for governor wants to ban books about divorce…suggesting any book about #45 would be banned, right?
  • On the topic of book bans and school board races in Maryland.
  • And the same topic, this time in Wisconsin.
  • “Parents are outraged and say they feel disrespected after learning of a sexually explicit book assigned for in-class reading to their freshmen children at Mt. Shasta High School. The book includes inappropriate racial slurs, sexual content, profanity, and vulgar jokes about sex with an animal.” In this California town, they’re mad about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
  • This story is paywalled, but the good news out of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, is that Me and Earl and The Dying Girl will remain in the schools.
  • This deep-dive into the book challenge happening at Lincolnwood Public Library (IL) is a must-read. The article might be paywalled, and if so, you can access it in full here. I love that stories about the erosion of democracy and stripping of First Amendment rights keep ending up behind paywalls.
  • Two dozen books are being challenged at Big Walnut schools in OH.
  • Four books are being challenged at the Thomas County Public Library (GA).
  • “The school district has been quietly and steadily banning or removing books from library shelves at Flagler Palm Coast High School, Matanzas High School, Indian Trails Middle School and Buddy Taylor Middle School since summer […] The district has been removing the books in two ways, but in both cases after receiving book challenges from people wanting them banned. Over the summer, libraries simply removed the controversial titles from circulation as part of the ‘weeding’ of shelves that periodically takes place anyway, thus masking controversial removals by lumping them with more routine removals, as with books that have been worn down or lost their relevance. In other cases, schools banned books outright after meetings of media committees. Those meetings are ongoing, with a lists of books yet to be judged.” It’s suspicious that the books which are being banned and challenged around the country and by Moms For Liberty would need to be “weeded.” (Florida).
  • Frank Strong highlights how the Mama Bears Rising are wrecking chaos on the Tomball, Texas, school board with their book ban demands.
  • Let’s Talk About It will remain on shelves in the Ankeny Public Library (IA).
  • “The ImagineIF Board of Trustees voted Thursday to keep a Christian child rearing book in the library’s collection after a challenge claimed the author’s alleged close ties with a pedophile warranted its removal.” This is in Montana — and the complaint brought little conversation at the board meeting. Ethically, this is a tricky one. The book should remain on shelves because it is the right of citizens to access the book (it’s already there, so it falls outside the scope of the collection development policy guidelines cited) but it is interesting how this generated none of the fiery conversations former book complaints have before.
  • Gender Queer being available in the adult section of the Parkersburg City Library (OH) led to a fiery city council meeting, where a resolution about “controversial” library material was ultimately dropped due to “hate on both sides.”
  • “Over 20 people spoke during the public comment portion of the school board meeting about the removal of 97 books for review. Two people said the books shouldn’t be there at all. The community members spoke about an hour and a half, compared to 15 minutes normally allotted for public comments. The books were removed from county middle and high schools after several parents in previous board meetings read sex scenes aloud from them.” The books are still being reviewed after this meeting in Beaufort, South Carolina.
  • An update on the Llano County Library (TX) lawsuit over book removal. The initial statements were taken this week.
  • The Escambia County School Board (FL) voted to ban The Perks of Being a Wallflower from schools. The Bible, which had also been challenged, will stay on shelves though, thanks to Florida law.
  • “After the appeal of a decision made by a review committee earlier this year, Bay City Public Schools has denied a proposed ban by a group of parents targeting several books with LGBTQ+ themes.” Good news in Michigan.
  • In Connecticut, some school board meetings are devolving into whatever this discussion is.
  • The battle over books and education in Round Rock, Texas. Note this article is good and gives a lot of solid context, but the headline still calls this a “culture war.” Bigotry isn’t culture.
  • “Under Williams’ proposed policy, educators are forbidden from teaching ‘controversial curriculum’ that advocates for communism, abolishing the police, or teaching that ‘America is presently a white supremacist society or systemic racial oppression is present in the United States.’ The policy also forbids curicula containing pornography or teaching that law enforcement discriminates against people based on ethnicity, race or gender identity. It would also ban lessons that teach that ‘individual liberties and freedoms are presently systemically suppressed based on ethnicity, skin color, race, sex, or gender identity.’” Welcome to the Orange County, California, school board, which has fallen under the right-wing rhetoric’s spell — including calling it all indoctrination. This should terrify you.
  • In Williamson County, TN, the school board is limiting who can weigh in on book complaints. This is a move which eliminates the paid actors and those falling under the spell of right-wing nationalism spouted by groups like Moms For Liberty who don’t have a vested interest in the education of their students.

Further Reading

  • I had the opportunity to be on a fantastic panel hosted by the ACLU, We Need Diverse Books, and Hachette Publishing last week while traveling. You can read the wrap up here from the conversation between myself, Mark Oshiro, Stephana Farrell (of Florida Freedom to Read Project), and Lev Rosen about book bans and the specific target of LGBTQ+ books.
  • Librarian Martha Hickson wrote an incredible opinion for CNN on being the target of non-stop efforts to ban books and challenge librarians.
  • The New Yorker takes a deep dive into the ways Moms For Liberty are fueling school board wars.

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