WASHINGTON — Growing up in the early 2000s, Sarah Prager could find only one or two books about LGBTQ+ history in her school library in Connecticut.
So, she says, she taught herself this history, in part to understand her own identity.
“I was able to get a sense that I wasn’t alone,” Prager, a Massachusetts-based writer, said of her research. “That was really empowering and validating for me.”
The paucity of resources was why Prager decided to become an author and speaker on LGBTQ+ history. Her books for younger readers talk about the lives of LGBTQ+ people who made history, including Billie Jean King and Marsha P. Johnson.
But her young-adult book “Queer, There, and Everywhere” about those historical figures’ lives was placed under restricted circulation for “mature content” along with other books in April 2022 in a Mississippi school district. Students need parental permission to check them out.
This school year, hundreds of books like Prager’s, spanning from kindergarten-age titles to young-adult novels, have been restricted, challenged, and outright banned in libraries and classrooms across the country. The book challenges have come amid a nationwide campaign by conservatives to reshape public education to give parents more control over what their kids – and others’ kids – can access in schools. Much of the focus has been on content with LGBTQ+ themes or efforts to promote diversity that conservatives assert are biased against white people.
This has left Prager, and authors like her, facing a particularly painful reality. The books that they wrote about their identities in the hopes of supporting people like them and educating others have become lightning rods in a culture war built on limiting mention of their very existence. And contrary to popular notions, they say, the heartbreak hasn’t come with increased sales – for some, only the opposite.
“I grew up feeling unsafe,” said Abdi Nazemian, an Iranian-American author who identifies as queer and whose book has faced a ban. “I think over time, I’ve let go of that feeling. And I think what’s really hard about the book ban on a personal level is it puts me back in that state of fear.”
Nazemian’s book “Like a Love Story,” which draws from his own experience moving to New York and finding LGBTQ+ community as a young immigrant, was among the titles removed from public school libraries in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, in March for “sexually explicit material.” He said about two months ago, he started to notice hateful messages directed his way on social media. People were calling him a “groomer” and a “pedophile” – common language of conservative anti-LGBTQ+ activists. He said he’s also encountered anti-Iranian messages.
His book touches on the AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s. Nazemian said a conservative advocate once told him they wouldn’t have a problem with a book about HIV and AIDS – if there was no sex mentioned.
“I’m like, but this is what you don’t understand, is that the stigma of growing up at that time was around sex and sexuality,” he said. “You have to read the whole book to understand.”
Spotsylvania County Public Schools Superintendent Mark Taylor confirmed in a written statement the books were deemed sexually explicit and removed, saying the district is “following state law and standing up for parental rights.” He said teachers may still assign the books with parental notification, and they are available in public libraries.
Book challenges have left some authors, including author and editor Saundra Mitchell, struggling to write.
Mitchell, who identifies as queer and uses she and they pronouns, said she first learned on Twitter that her young-adult book “All the Things We Do in the Dark” was among others pulled from shelves in Texas’ Granbury Independent School District for alleged inappropriate content. The fictional thriller discusses the impacts of sexual assault on survivors. Mitchell said she wrote the book for her 16-year-old self, as a sexual assault survivor from childhood.
“It was such a personal book,” Mitchell said. “For people to say that it was ‘dirty’ and ‘sexual’ when it’s a book about someone who was sexually assaulted as a child and who continues as a survivor — we don’t have a lot of books like that.”
The school district did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment, though most of the books under review there have reportedly been returned to shelves. Another of Mitchell’s books, an anthology of LGBTQ+ authors’ short stories, was pulled last August for review in Tennessee.
In recent years, the very concept of calling these book restrictions “bans” has emerged as contentious territory.
Tiffany Justice, co-founder of the conservative nonprofit Moms for Liberty, which opposes LGBTQ+-inclusive content and school policies, said her group and its chapters are made of parents seeking “transparency” and access “to the materials that are in school.”
Justice readily recognized the unpopularity of the concept of book banning and called the idea that schools are banning books a “lie” and a “political weapon” for Democrats. She said when a book isn’t on a school shelf anymore it’s the result of library content being “curated.”
“There’s only so much space in any given school library,” Justice said. “Of course, the majority of Americans don’t want to see books banned.”
Book advocates, however, argue that any efforts to restrict content from schools or allow parents to block material from other kids amounts to a ban. PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates free expression, defines a school book ban as “any action taken against a book based on its content” that leads to it being either restricted or completely removed, even if temporarily.
The authors say their experiences fly against the narrative that being banned or challenged is good for their careers.
Prager, the writer on LGBTQ+ history, remembers being congratulated when her books made a list of titles declared objectionable by a Republican Texas lawmaker.
“But on a list of 850 books, no one’s going out and buying [all of them and] paying thousands of dollars,” Prager said.
The old saying “any publicity is good publicity” is false, according to Lin Oliver, co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. While some of the most-banned books have seen sales grow or ended up as best sellers, many more do not.
“I think that group is largely outweighed by the negative sales and the negative publicity and the personal toll that comes with the accusations that you’re doing something bad for kids,” Oliver said.
The authors aren’t sure where book restrictions will go from here. Some have concern that the industry could be intimidated into not publishing books that could be controversial. Others are heartened by the pushback they see, including lawsuits against school districts. A Texas federal judge recently found that a library board’s book bans were unconstitutional.
The question remains if book banning is a new permanent reality for the book industry and classrooms across the country, or if it’s just a passing trend for conservative-led efforts.
Prager called book banning a “very old tactic” used against marginalized communities, like the very histories she recounts in her books. Those same examples, though, give her hope.
“We’re all dedicated to telling these stories,” Prager said of banned authors. “These stories tell a history of resilience against attacks like these.”