Virginia Beach City Public Schools removed several books, including such award-winning books as A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines, The Bluest Eye by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, and Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, from school libraries pending the outcome of an official challenge. NCAC, along with the Authors Guild, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, National Council of Teachers of English, PEN America, PEN Children’s and Young Adult Books Committee, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, have written to school district to urge them to return the books to library shelves.
Since the start of the 2021 school year, Lawn Boy has been a frequent target of would-be censors. Despite her soaring accolades, Toni Morrison has been one of the most frequently challenged authors of the past century. A Lesson Before Dying has also been previously challenged.
Virginia Beach’s District Regulation 6-61.2(A)(3) explicitly states: “Material may not be withdrawn from use with other students unless the decision is made to do so after following the process in this regulation.” Thus, it appears that the district has ignored its regulations by removing the books from the school libraries.
Removing a book without following administrative regulations is not only illegal, it also raises serious pedagogical concerns. The requirement of a review process for challenged books, both in the classroom and the library, assures teachers that they can choose titles that may be controversial but have important educational value. Without that assurance, they would be reluctant to assign any but the most innocuous and unchallenging books. It would create a chilling effect on their willingness to select the books that they believe best serve students’ needs.
Removing books before they have been reviewed also gives the personal opinions of those who challenged them at least a temporary veto over the judgment of the education professionals who selected the books for the library or the classroom.
All of the titles at issue in Virginia Beach tell stories by and about people of color. All grapple with difficult ideas of identity. All are complex narratives that cannot be reduced to individual passages or scenes taken out of context. And, all help students to achieve one of the goals of the English Standards of Learning for Virginia Public Schools: To prepare students to “collaborate with diverse groups in their communities, workplace, and postsecondary education.”
Some students may see themselves reflected in these characters and stories in ways that they do not often see in books. Other students may be exposed to lives and experiences they would not otherwise encounter, challenging them to develop empathy, critical thinking and a respect for difference. Some students may dismiss the books entirely. But it is crucial that all students be allowed to access as wide a variety of books, voices and ideas as possible, even and perhaps especially ones that challenge them.
Read the full letter to the school district below. Click here for a full screen view: