Bloomington’s monthly school board listening sessions are usually sedate, Monday night affairs in a room at the district educational services center. At most, a handful of people typically show up to ask questions or raise concerns.
The past few sessions, however, have been very different. Crowds have been bigger, prompting the board to open the auditorium to accommodate hundreds of residents. A single question is increasingly on the minds of those who want to talk: Which books should the district allow on school library shelves?
Board members in Minnesota and across the nation have long fielded questions about individual books. Observers, though, say what used to be occasional concerns about a single book from a parent or two have morphed into confrontations with groups and parents coming in with long lists of titles they see as inappropriate.
An online petition circulating in Bloomington has raised questions about at least 29 books in the district’s elementary, middle and high schools that petitioners label as “sexually explicit.” More than 360 people have added their signatures to the petition — about 40 of whom are current Bloomington schools parents or caregivers.
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Some of the high school books on the list include Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” or Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” Others feature gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender characters or scenes involving sex.
The elementary books are not sexually explicit, but they do feature transgender characters. The petition says they have “a concerning emphasis on transgender and transitioning.”
The boundaries of the debate were on display earlier this week at the school board’s most recent listening session as residents spoke for and against removing the books.
“This issue in front of the board is about sexually explicit and age appropriate content that is available without restrictions in our schools,” Sarah Steinbach told board members.
“Removing controversial books could set the district up for a lawsuit,” countered Melissa Rock. “It would be a huge disservice to our kids.”
“Our kids have identities due to their faith, morals, purpose and calling. It is not fair to our kids that they have to endure the constant barrage of messaging and material in the school environment that runs counter to their values,” added Alan Redding.
Other speakers expressed dismay over signs displayed on school walls or teachers’ clothing to indicate trans and bisexual students were welcome at school.
Bloomington school district officials say the books targeted by the petition will remain in circulation as the district forms a review committee to study the books’ content.
‘Exactly which parts in the book to attack’
Efforts to remove books from schools have ramped up across the state, said Laura Gingras, president of the Information and Technology Educators of Minnesota, the school library division of the Minnesota Library Association.
“This is a relatively new trend in this state,” said Gingras. “I would say we started anecdotally seeing an uptick in 2021-2022, but it really just ramped up in the second half of the last school year.”
The books targeted by the ban efforts contain LGBTQ+ or African American characters. And she said the criticisms of the books are specific.
“I am hearing from our members that a core group of individuals in their district is going online to certain websites where they're finding very specific information about the book that is being spread,” she said. “And they have sheets they print out that show these individuals exactly which parts in the book to attack, and then challenge them to go into their school libraries and see if those books are there and try to get them removed.”
In Bloomington, the petition seeking to get books out of school libraries directs supporters to a website run by a national organization that rates books according to what it calls “objectionable content, including profanity, nudity and sexual content.”
The website also contains instructions on how people can challenge books in school libraries along with lists of talking points, printable brochures and helpful hints on how to create their own websites and on how to contact lawmakers.
For Redding, who had students graduate from Bloomington schools, signing the petition and showing up to talk to the board on Monday night were important. He said he’s long been trying to get the district to be more “politically neutral.”
He said he started worrying about books three years ago when his sons and their classmates were assigned reading material that included descriptions of sexual violence that made them and others uncomfortable.
“It was an affront to what they considered decent, and what they figured — how you should conduct yourself,” said Redding. “And they were unprepared for how graphic it was going to be, and unprepared for just really how dismissive the teaching was on it.”
Nationwide in the 2022-23 school year, there were more than 3,000 instances of book bans in public school classrooms and libraries with female, LGBTQ+ and authors of color most frequently targeted in “coordinated campaigns by a vocal minority of groups and individual actors,” according to PEN America, a group that defends free expression for writers, artists and journalists.
‘Helped me feel comfortable, safe’
Students directly affected by the issues in Bloomington schools have pushed back on the belief that books addressing their experiences and struggles are inappropriate to make available in the school library.
For Shae Ross, a senior at Jefferson High School who spoke at Monday’s listening session, the focus on trying to do away with books that have LGBTQ+ content is deeply concerning and personal.
“It is explicit in these peoples’ argument that the inclusion of queer and trans characters in books is somehow inappropriate and sexual but the inclusion of straight relationships or of cis people in children’s books is absolutely standard and normative,” said Shae, noting that they’ve experienced anti-gay and anti-trans discrimination since elementary school.
“A lot of us are queer or have very close LGBT friends, family members in our lives, and to see our identities labeled as inherently sexual, inherently violent, inherently graphic — stripped off of our shelves when our community is already facing tangible hate,” they said.
Being able to access books with LGBTQ+ characters and themes was a vital lifeline, Shae added.
“In middle school, I was still discovering myself as an LGBT person and access to LGBT literature in my middle school library at Olson Middle School helped me feel comfortable, safe, supported and valid and who I was at a time in my life where I was, at the moment, none of those things.”
Correction (Oct. 16, 2023): Alan Redding has children who graduated from Bloomington schools. An earlier version of this story misstated their status.