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Over 100 Wisconsin school districts fielded inquiries, challenges to books

Source: Shane Fitzsimmons for Wisconsin Watch

Over 100 Wisconsin school districts fielded inquiries, challenges to books

‘Gender Queer’ by Maia Kobabe was most challenged book since 2020. Restricted books included ‘The Bluest Eye,’ ‘The Kite Runner’ and ‘Slaughterhouse-Five.’

July 3, 2024 10:21 AM CDT

By: Rachel Hale / Wisconsin Watch

More than 100 Wisconsin school districts — 1 in 4 — fielded inquiries about books or formal requests to remove them since 2020, according to a Wisconsin Watch review of records obtained from all but two of the state’s 421 public school districts.

Many requests came from organized conservative groups and politicians rather than organic requests from parents concerned about required reading. In several cases, the school district didn’t even own the books someone wanted to remove.

Requesters involved with school board or state-level politics filed nearly half of the challenges and concerns. Book ban requests in one district sometimes rippled into nearby districts, fanned by viral social media posts and conservative media personalities. 

Records revealed a culture of hostility and division surrounding book-banning efforts and added stress for district administrators and library specialists who faced personal threats and saw their job responsibilities expand in unexpected ways. In some cases, school board members resigned following requests for book removals, citing resulting division and harm. Schools walked a tightrope in trying to appease upset parents while ensuring diversity and free speech standards for students.

A handful of “super requesters” seeking to remove more than 15 books made up nearly three-quarters of removal requests and concerns, often using information from right-wing media and lists compiled by national groups to formulate requests.

Requesters targeted books with LGBTQ+, sexually explicit and racial content, repeatedly alleging liberal bias and anti-Christian values. “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, an autobiographical exploration of gender and sexuality that includes sexually explicit graphics, drew the most challenges and concerns in the state. Ellen Hopkins, whose young adult novels featuring drugs and sexual themes frequently top national book ban lists, was the top author.

Wisconsin Watch’s findings are the most comprehensive look at attempts to ban books in the state since the pandemic, when remote learning gave some parents a closer look at what their students were being taught in public schools.

Experts say Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — among the most competitive battlegrounds in national politics — are particular hotbeds of book challenges as partisan actors use such tactics to energize their base. Tasslyn Magnusson, a Wisconsin-based program consultant with Freedom to Read at PEN America, called Wisconsin “one of the most dangerous states for book bans.”

“They are tipping point states in the election, which means we’re going to get so much money poured in here,” Magnusson said. “The governor can veto some of this crisis legislation, but then what happens is these groups and these efforts then change policy at the local level.”

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Nearly 200 instances of book removals and restrictions revealed 

The records from every corner of the state showed 165 unique requesters raised questions about or formally sought to remove 1,617 books across 106 Wisconsin school districts between Jan. 1, 2020, and Oct. 13, 2023. That includes 625 formal challenges.

There were 679 titles, including classics such as “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “The Bluest Eye” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”; bestsellers such as “A Game of Thrones,” “The Kite Runner” and “Fifty Shades of Grey”; and in one case someone inquired about 12 books including Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” and Anne Frank’s “The Diary of a Young Girl.” But the most frequent requests were for books about sex and LGBTQ+ themes such as “I am Jazz,” “It’s Perfectly Normal,” “Queer: The Ultimate LGBTQ Guide for Teens,” “Sex Is A Funny Word” and “This Book is Gay.”

Districts removed books or restricted them to older grades or parental permission in 190 instances, involving 127 titles. Most removals took place in southeast Wisconsin districts, particularly Waukesha, Kenosha, West Allis, Oak Creek-Franklin and Elmbrook.

The books “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir by George Johnson of growing up a queer Black man, and “Lucky,” a memoir by Alice Sebold involving a traumatic sexual assault, were either restricted or removed six times each, followed by “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky and “Tricks” by Hopkins at five each.

Stack of books with shelves of books in the background
Since 2020, one in four Wisconsin school districts received complaints or requests to remove books from school libraries. The most challenged books feature storylines that include LGBTQ+ topics, sexual explicitness, profanity, violence and racially charged content. (Shane Fitzsimmons for Wisconsin Watch)

After Wisconsin Watch filed its requests, Elkhorn and Menomonee Falls removed or restricted pending an investigation an additional 477 books. Adding those to the Wisconsin Watch total, Wisconsin schools removed or restricted at least 667 books. That’s 114 more than the list PEN America maintains.

PEN America, the leading institution tracking book challenges, counts any content-based action taken against a book that leads to removals or restrictions, for any period of time, overriding the original choices of school boards, administrators and teachers. The count includes some situations in which schools later returned restricted books to shelves.

PEN America requires publicly available data to confirm book bans, such as school board minutes and local news reporting. Magnusson said far more efforts likely go untracked in rural Wisconsin, where many local newspapers no longer routinely report on school board actions.

Several districts initially charged a fee for Wisconsin Watch’s records request, but later agreed to provide the records without a charge. Two — the Superior and Oshkosh Area districts — refused to waive the charge.

Conservative groups and ‘super requesters’ lead the list 

Members of organized conservative groups facilitated removal requests in at least 14 districts, and many more districts received challenges from requesters who used lists of books compiled by national political groups. The largest groups involved were Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, Mass Resistance and Parents’ Rights in Education.

In many cases, independent citizen requesters relied on lists compiled by larger national groups like booklooks.org and ratedbooks.org.

Eleven “super requesters” — those who raised concerns about or challenged 15 or more titles at a time — accounted for 73% of the targeted books. They often referred to lists of books originating in other districts or from online forums. Some had no children in the district. In nearly 60 cases, the school district didn’t own the book the requester sought to remove.

In addition to lists on national websites, super requesters used lists compiled by parents in other states. Two parents who collectively lodged a concern about 86 books in the Watertown Unified School District used IowaMamaBears.com and an anonymous list they called Parents List of Sexually Explicit Content.

The largest request from the period Wisconsin Watch requested records came from Lisa Anne Krueger in the Manitowoc School District, who on Oct. 10, 2023, inquired about 310 “aberrant obscene inappropriate pro-abortion and anti-Christian” books from a list, but did not follow through with a formal request. Krueger in February unsuccessfully ran for election to the Manitowoc School Board. She was the only requester in the district.

After Wisconsin Watch made its open records request in October, Melissa Bollinger in the Elkhorn Area School District challenged 444 books on Nov. 30, 2023, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

A district policy prompted the temporary removal of the books, and following review, administrators placed or maintained restrictions on 135 books. Prior to her challenge, the district had only received two removal requests, both resulting in removals.

Requesters often involved in politics

At least 849 inquiries and formal challenges to books — more than half compiled by Wisconsin Watch — came from a school board member or candidate, another local politician, or someone otherwise heavily involved in local conservative activism.

The most prominent such lawmaker was Sen. Jesse James, R-Altoona, who in March 2022 asked 12 districts if they possessed a list of 51 books, according to his staff. The list was compiled by an Eau Claire parent who previously spoke out against COVID-19 masking efforts and equity training materials. The books addressed gender, sexual and racial identity, and some contained sexually explicit or graphic content. Only eight of the districts provided records showing James’ requests, so only those 408 were included in the Wisconsin Watch count.

“Nothing more came out of the request besides simple information gathering,” a James spokeswoman said. “We did NOT follow up with the schools after the fact about removing the books, and we did NOT pursue any legislation or oversight after the request was fulfilled. … James really just wanted to know what age groups the books were available for, if they were available at all.”

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In the Mequon-Thiensville district, supporters of an unsuccessful fall 2021 effort to recall school board members requested the removal of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie from libraries on Sept. 30, 2021, saying it included “pornography” and “racist” content. Requesters Curt and Torri Woda and Dennis Becker, along with Moms for Liberty’s Scarlett Johnson and Amber Schroeder, who helped support the request, also took part in the recall movement based on concerns over pandemic restrictions and what members called critical race theory. 

The request became part of the recall conversation after incumbent candidate Akram Kahn told a Fox News reporter that “the goal post has been moving since last August, it’s been masks, open the schools, and now we are talking about banning books in the district.” His comment prompted Curt Woda to accuse board members of citing the complaint for political gain and to “discredit the Restore MTSD movement.”

“To characterize the concern from my family about this specific book as being a part of the recall movement is completely false, but now you have made it such,” Woda wrote in an Oct. 25 email to Kahn and other board members.

Conservative media fuel book ban fever

Conservative media played a role in requests for removal in at least 12 districts.

A July 20, 2023, Libs of TikTok post received more than 875,000 views after it claimed the Kimberly Area School District offered “This Book is Gay” to students. Kimberly Superintendent Bob Mayfield told the Post Crescent he found out about the social media post after state Rep. Ron Tusler, R-Harrison, sought an explanation. In addition to three requests sent to the district and two media inquiries, he received hundreds of messages on Twitter in the following days, mostly from outside the community, he told the Post Crescent.

But the district owned no physical copies of the book. A district official said the Wisconsin School District Library Consortium, composed of 250 school districts, offered an online version of the book, but no Kimberly student had ever checked it out. All e-books in grades 7-12 are protected by age restrictions, though a synopsis of all e-book titles is available if searched.

A similar, more aggressive scenario played out in the Kenosha School District.

After a Sept. 3, 2023, Libs of TikTok article on the district described concerns about several books, social media spurred waves of removal requests throughout nearby districts.

Kevin Mathewson of the far-right blog Kenosha County Eye sent emails on Sept. 11, 2023, to two district administrators, noting that book removal requests put Kenosha in national headlines. He asked whether the district planned to remove four titles critics had flagged. 

Bristol School District #1 Administrator Jack Musha responded that the district had “a few of the titles” in its library and has a “very specific policy in regards to book reviews.” In his response, Mathewson asked: “Do you think liberals like you have a mental disorder or really believe in the ideals of the democratic party?” He then asked Musha to provide a photo of himself, adding, “When I write about you liking kids to watch porn, people will want a face to go with your pedophile-like behavior.”

Michelle Garven, Trevor-Wilmot Consolidated Grade School District administrator, told Mathewson none of the books were available to check out at district libraries, but families could search for titles through the Wisconsin School District Library Consortium.

Mathewson vowed to write “a story about not only how you allow pornography in your district, but that you don’t want the public to know about it.” He later wrote he was “very eager to publish a story about your sexual deviance” and added, “Don’t make me sue you and embarrass you further because when I write my article people are going to be wondering why you want kids to be exposed to pornography.”

His emails and reporting prompted Garven to send a cease and desist letter to Mathewson.

Books with LGBTQ+, sexually explicit content targeted

Most books targeted for removal in Wisconsin explored themes related to identity or coming of age, with a particular focus on LGBTQ+ and racial storylines. Many also dealt with abuse, mental health or grief, Wisconsin Watch found. Data from PEN America show that restriction efforts nationally overwhelmingly targeted books about people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.

“Gender Queer,” the state’s most targeted book according to the Wisconsin Watch analysis, also topped the American Library Association’s national list of challenged books in 2023 and was fifth on PEN’s list of challenges during the 2022-23 school year.

The book drew at least 41 formal challenges and six additional instances in which people expressed concerns. The Baraboo School District in early October 2023 fielded 32 challenges to the book. District officials said they were not sure what prompted the brief surge of restriction requests.

Requesters claimed the book aimed to “indoctrinate,” “corrupt,” “pervert” and “deceive” children, “promote pedophilia and sexuality,” “tell children they can be queer” and teach kids “to become pedophiles” and “sex offenders.” One requester cited Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 as justification for the book’s removal, adding that “the Bible calls this lifestyle sinful.” Another said, “In God’s eyes this is so wrong.” Requesters said the district should burn the book. One parent called for jailing whoever put the book in the library.

A high stack of books
For the majority of the cases, a small group sought to challenge more than 15 titles. Such “super requesters” were often affiliated with organized conservative groups. Moms for Liberty, No Left Turn in Education, Mass Resistance, and Parents’ Rights in Education were among the largest. (Shane Fitzsimmons for Wisconsin Watch)

Baraboo district officials, however, said they couldn’t find the book in their inventory. Two other districts — Kenosha and the Sheboygan Area — removed the book.

Magnusson said critics of “Gender Queer” tend to focus on short excerpts and discuss them out of context. 

The novel’s most explicit section, frequently cited in requests, shows two characters using a sex toy to perform oral sex. The scene is “about consent and choosing not to have sex,” Magnusson noted.

“When we evaluate books just by what seems the most outrageous, we’re missing that point,” Magnusson said. “The story is about saying no and saying, ‘I don’t want to do that, that is not for me,’ and it’s actually a very valuable, caring story about learning that you can say those things in your life.”

Opponents of “Gender Queer” and other books targeted in Wisconsin expressed concerns that sexually explicit scenes, regardless of how little of a storyline they make up, could expose their children to sensitive topics before they’re ready. Many book restriction advocates said they would prefer that parents instead discuss such issues with children.

Two sets of parents in the Silver Lake J1 School District complained after a fourth-grade teacher added the book “Love Makes a Family” by Sophie Beer to her Amazon wishlist.

“The question almost inevitably will come up in the classroom of why two daddies are in the bed and both my husband and I absolutely do not feel like it is the place of the teacher to be explaining this to our child,” one parent wrote, referring to an illustration of a same-sex couple. She added that she feels like “political views, religion, and how we raise our own families need to stay out of schools.”

Supporters of the targeted books applaud their affirming storylines that help teenagers navigate their identity. Jennifer Handrick, a Chippewa Falls art educator and Cadott School District parent, wrote in support of keeping four challenged LGBTQ+ books in the school district.

“I understand that many of these books are for young children, and that makes people uncomfortable, but creating exposure to LBGTQ+ journeys at the ages where kids start to feel ‘different’ not only creates a level of normalcy being around members of the LBGTQ+ community, it tells those who feel ‘different’ that there is nothing wrong with them,” Handrick wrote. “Most importantly, the books might give them the courage to talk to a trusted adult and begin to build the critical support system they need.”

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Books exploring race also targeted 

Wisconsin is home to some of the nation’s starkest disparities between white and Black residents in education, public health, housing, criminal justice and income. But book challengers also objected to a range of books that explore issues surrounding race. Those include “The Bluest Eye” and “Beloved” by Toni Morrison and “Stamped (for Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You,” an adaptation of Ibram X. Kendi’s history of racism.

The Wautoma Area School District removed student access to “An American Story” by Kwame Alexander in October of 2023 following a challenge that called the book “very racially charged and frightening for elementary school kids” and said it “depicts Americans as being monsters to Africans.” In the decision letter, District Administrator Jewel Mucklin wrote that “not all students have the emotional or intellectual awareness to process and understand some of the images in the book or the content of the story.”

The novel tells the story of American slavery through the journey of a child navigating the complexities of identity amid racial tension in contemporary America.

The Muskego-Norway School Board in July 2022 blocked the recommendation “When the Emperor Was Divine” by Julie Otsuka, a novel on the internment of Japanese Americans, from being taught in a 10th-grade accelerated English class. The decision prompted criticism from the Japanese American Citizens League, the Asian American and Pacific Islanders Coalition of Wisconsin and Otsuka herself, as well as a petition calling for the book’s approval, which was signed by 362 people, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Others started a community book club and made the novel its first read.​​

Emotional toll beyond count

An increasing part of library specialists’ and district administrators’ jobs has become dealing with requests. Records showed hundreds of internal emails related to scheduling reconsideration meetings and addressing parent concerns. Administrators oversee books across numerous buildings and are struggling with the balancing act of appeasing parent concerns while maintaining appropriate grade interest levels for thousands of other students. 

Districts’ criteria took into account a book’s alignment with curriculum and state standards, the readability and appeal of texts to diverse students, the grade-level appropriateness, the significance and reputation of a book’s author, popular appeal and reviews from sites such as Scholastic and Common Sense Media.

“I think there’s no librarian in America right now that isn’t having some amount of emotional distress over what’s going on,” said EveryLibrary Associate Director Peter Bromberg, who has tracked bills around the country targeting librarians. 

Bromberg said more teachers and librarians are leaving the profession early as a result. 

“There’s an emotional toll to this that doesn’t show up on a … spreadsheet of how many books are being banned,” Bromberg said.

This article first appeared on Wisconsin Watch and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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