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The Great Divide

Dozens of Massachusetts districts have faced attempts to remove books from schools

Banned and challenged books in Massachusetts school districts include "Woke: A Young Poet's Call to Justice," "If I Ran The Zoo," "Gender Queer," and "All Boys Aren't Blue."Tanner Pearson for The Boston Globe

George M. Johnson felt isolated.

Growing up Black and queer in New Jersey, they rarely saw themself represented — in popular culture or in their own community — and suppressed their true self as they struggled to navigate a society that was not built for them. So years later, Johnson penned a young adult “memoir-manifesto,” a series of essays that include descriptions of sex and sexual assault, contain racial slurs, and depict sexually explicit scenes.

Johnson has said their 2020 book, “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” aimed at readers 14 and up, is the book they wanted to read when they were young, as well as to teach white and straight people about experiences outside their own.

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But not everyone has embraced that pitch.

“All Boys Aren’t Blue” is one of a handful of books about LGBTQ+ experiences that have drawn the most requests in Massachusetts for districts to remove them from classrooms and libraries. Data collected by The Boston Globe show nearly 70 different books were challenged in Massachusetts schools by parents, residents, and others over the last five years.

Frequently challenged books mostly deal with gender, sexuality, and race. This includes “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” “Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe, and “This Book Is Gay,” by Juno Dawson. In some cases, superintendents said they received more general pushback or questions regarding “LGBTQ+ and diversity topics and perspectives,” without specific titles named.

But the challenges didn’t all come from conservative voices. Some parents took issue with titles that contained outdated and racist content, such as Dr. Seuss books that are no longer being published due to racist imagery, or with books they deemed too violent for elementary-aged students.

At least 10 districts removed or placed restrictions on at least 17 books in their curriculums, classrooms, and school libraries, including, “Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice,” by Mahogany L. Browne, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Olivia Gatwood and “The Adventures of Tintin,” by Hergé.

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Most of those challenges come from parents, records obtained by the Globe showed, and some parrot objections made in other states, which include summaries of passages they find objectionable.

This should come as no surprise, said Andrea Fiorillo, co-chair of the Massachusetts Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom/Social Responsibility Committee: Prior data released by the American Library Association found that in 2022, public libraries in Massachusetts reported the fourth-highest number of book challenges nationwide, exceeding Florida.

“Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe. Simon & Schuster

Last month, police were even called to a middle school in Great Barrington to investigate a complaint about “concerning illustrations” in “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a graphic novel about gender and sexual identity. The book was never assigned for a lesson and instead was part of resources used for a club that supports LGBTQ+ students. Authorities determined no laws had been broken and the police chief apologized for causing alarm, but the teacher whose room was searched is taking a temporary leave of absence. The town is now investigating its Police Department over the incident, the Berkshire Eagle reported.

Sonya Douglass, a professor at Columbia University’s Teacher’s College who has studied race in education, called the book bans “un-American.”

“The historic rate of book bans, which really have been generated by a very small number of individuals, is obviously politically motivated,” Douglass said. “Across the country, it’s really been topics that speak to LGBTQIA student experiences or the experiences of people of color, and that is a concern.”

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Before the incident in Berkshire Hills, the Globe surveyed and requested records about book challenges and bans to all 291 traditional public school districts in Massachusetts, with more than 95 percent responding. At least five districts have removed books from classroom shelves, curriculums, and libraries in the last five years. Restrictions included moving books to sections of the library geared toward older readers and requiring parent permission.

The 10 districts that removed or restricted access to books are Abington, Ludlow, Marblehead, Medfield, Melrose, North Attleborough, Sandwich, Westwood, Wrentham, and Wilmington. These districts are largely suburban communities with a few thousand students each. Their student populations are whiter than the state’s public schools overall, and they have fewer low-income students.

Just a handful of districts did not respond to multiple requests for information from the Globe: Manchester Essex Regional, Martha’s Vineyard, Medford, Rockland, Sudbury, and Wakefield.

None of the state’s biggest districts, including Boston, Springfield, and Worcester, reported any book challenges.

“If I Ran The Zoo” by Dr. Seuss. Penguin Random House

“We are a district that actively embraces diversity in all forms and has been building curriculum and library collections to reflect that diversity and inclusion,” wrote Brian Dickey, director of English instruction for Springfield Public Schools, in response to the Globe survey.

In most cases, districts reviewed complaints and opted not to make any changes, but there were a handful that did. Abington, Melrose, and Medfield moved or restricted books to libraries geared toward older readers, such as Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and Dawson’s “This Book Is Gay,” and Sandwich required parental permission to access James Howe’s “Totally Joe.” North Attleborough, Westwood, Wilmington, Ludlow, and Marblehead removed books entirely, including Ruth Alexander’s “Changing Bodies, Changing Lives.”

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According to Fiorillo, Massachusetts is distinguished from other states not by how often books get challenged, but by how its school districts and state government have responded.

“The same things are happening, we just tend to not ban as often, and the Legislature is trying to help us protect intellectual freedom,” Fiorillo said. “Whereas in other states they’re very pro-censorship, our Legislature is very anti-censorship and is trying to help us protect intellectual freedom.”

There are multiple bills before lawmakers that would help protect against book bans, Fiorillo said — the Legislature held a hearing on one of them Wednesday — but at the local level, it’s “dicier,” particularly for school libraries and curriculums.

“Often it’s a non-librarian or non-trustee of the library making those decisions, and compromising,” Fiorillo said, referring to superintendents and principals. “In public libraries, there are policies in place about how challenges are handled. In school libraries, those vary from place to place.”

Records obtained by the Globe show that in some cases, campus and district leaders responded to parental challenges on a case-by-case basis. But in recent years, many Massachusetts districts have also instituted formal policies to respond to challenges, sometimes following rancorous school committee meetings about classroom materials.

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The formal processes usually have the district or school leader appoint a review committee to assess the complaint and the district’s reasons for using the materials. But many communities have not had to use the review processes, district leaders said.

“We had a number of contentious School Committee meetings full of public fervor and moved to create a reconsideration procedure through a representative committee,” wrote Dudley-Charlton Superintendent Steven Lamarche. “Once established, we have not had one submission.”

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said it’s important for districts to have transparent processes that examine the purpose, audiences, and age-appropriateness in response to challenges.

“Transparency is important not just for the individuals making the complaint, or requesting the banning of the book, but for the general public to see that we don’t just dismiss out of hand people’s objections,” Scott said. “There’s a lot of different reasons why people [challenge books].”


Christopher Huffaker can be reached at christopher.huffaker@globe.com. Follow him @huffakingit.