One afternoon toward the beginning of the school year, Yolanda Taylor noticed a “Banned Books” table at a Wake Forest bookstore.
A fair housing attorney, she quickly saw the display was filled with titles featuring marginalized people – like the Black eighth-grade protagonist of the graphic novel Class Act, by Jerry Craft.
Taylor serves on the board of Rolesville Charter Academy, her 12-year-old daughter’s school. In the past two years, she’s seen more parents statewide challenging books used in classrooms or available in the library, especially books focused on racism or racial disparities.
"Schools should be allowed to teach diversity because there are diverse kids that attend these schools. And we have a diverse history that has not been told," said Taylor, an adjunct professor at Wake Forest University.
"Class Act," whose main character is a Black student in private school, is among the books that increasingly are drawing the ire of conservative parent groups in North Carolina and nationwide.
Over the past two years, people have brought at least 189 book challenges across this state’s 115 public school districts, journalists from nine North Carolina newsrooms learned by surveying the districts. The reporting was timed to coincide with Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of the importance of public records, open government and transparency.
Journalists requested district policies for responding to objections over books as well as details on challenges filed. Out of the 101 districts that responded, most reported no formal challenges.
While challenged titles span a wide range of topics, the most challenged books are written for a middle school reader and are on topics about race and racism, or coming-of-age books that include characters with LGBTQ identities. In Robeson County, there has also been at least one challenge to a book that references Islam.
The reporting project discovered that, for now, many book challenges do not result in full removal. Only 16 titles have been banned from North Carolina schools, according to PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression. Those include “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds in Pitt County Schools and “Life is Funny” by E.R. Frank in Moore County Schools, according to PEN America.
But library advocates say this doesn’t capture the full scope of censorship, and they warn that proposed legislation could make future challenges more successful in North Carolina.
What is a book challenge?
Most school districts have a clearly defined policy by which parents can inspect and object to instructional materials.
A challenge is first addressed at the school level with principals or librarians speaking with concerned parents. If school administrators decide to keep challenged materials, parents may appeal to the superintendent or school board, which would make the final decision.
In at least two cases, parents have sought to press criminal charges against schools. But to date, no law enforcement agency or district attorney has pursued these cases, according to N.C. Sheriff’s Association Executive Vice President Eddie Caldwell.
Defining when challenges are successful is not straightforward. Rarely does a formal challenge reach a school board, according to a review of school records.
But PEN America argues that censorship can happen even if a book is not formally removed through a challenge.
In some cases, books are off shelves indefinitely during a review by school administration. Books can be left in a library, but taken out of a class, or moved from a middle school to a high school library, according to PEN America.
Kristy Sartain, president-elect of the N.C. School Library Media Association, said some districts avoid using the term “book ban” or "challenge" but quietly remove books – or make them harder to access – when parents complain “to try to not sound like they took the books out.”
Kasey Meehan, PEN America's Freedom to Read program director, said the increase in challenges can cause some principals to self-censor.
"If you see a book that maybe is being banned in other places, there's a chilling effect that happens when you see that book in your library collection," Meehan said.
This happened in Pender County, where school administrators reviewed 42 titles after a small but vocal conservative group highlighted them as concerning. Such challenges have become increasingly public and political, according to some advocates.
"It might be before where a parent would have an issue with their child reading that book and it would be handled most likely at the school level," said Jenny Umbarger, past president of the N.C. School Library Media Association. "Now it seems like more issues are escalating up to the district level and going in front of the school board."
Who files challenges?
Book and curriculum challenges come most often from conservative grassroots groups like Moms For Liberty or the Pavement Education Project, whose members say they want parents to have more control over what their children read in public schools.
They want schools to teach that no race or group is superior to another, according to Moms For Liberty Wake County chapter president Julie Page.
"We truly believe in equality for every child, and not simply just equity," she said.
Page, who has two sons, has tried to challenge books throughout Wake County, but the district’s policy requires objections to come only from parents at the school where the book is being challenged. She said it has frustrated her that the district has rejected her challenges.
In Catawba County, three school board candidates built a successful campaign around removing books from the district.
In Pender County, Mike Korn was the co-author of a 28-page grievance that listed 42 books, along with a collection of state and federal laws pertaining to obscenity. He's a member of Pender County Concerned Citizens, a conservative group that largely organizes on Facebook, where it has about 250 members.
Korn said he first became concerned about books in the school while listening to Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and watching national news coverage. Books about transgender characters seemed to specifically upset PCCC members.
Critics of book challenges
Critics of book challenges have started to push back, saying small groups should not dictate policies for entire school districts.
Jennifer Abel, current president of the N.C. School Library Media Association, said ensuring her students are represented among the titles on the shelves is a major part of building out the catalog.
"If a kid comes to my library and needs to find a book, I want them to be able to find that book that speaks to them and that they can see themselves in as well," Abel said.
In North Carolina, it’s a small but vocal group that drives the bulk of challenges. Nearly 90% of challenged titles counted in the survey came from just four people.
Sartain said members of her organization have seen similar book lists circulate online in districts across the state.
"It's scary how organized this is, and just the mentality of 'I'm going to choose the books for everybody to read, not just for my child to read,'" Sartain said. "That's another big source of frustration: You can tell your child what you want them to read, but you really shouldn't be telling other people's children what they should or should not read."
Even when official challenges make it to a school board, they aren’t always successful. In December, the Guilford County Board of Education Member T. Dianne Bellamy-Small was part of the majority who voted to retain two challenged books. She reflected on her own time in school years ago.
“The books that I had to deal with were all books written about and by white people. That's what I had to learn from,” she said. “So I didn't learn about the struggles of Black people, except slavery, in the books that were in the libraries when I went to school.”
Would bills remove more books?
Depending on what the Republican-led North Carolina General Assembly does this summer, it could become easier for some groups to censor more books and curricula in North Carolina.
Lawmakers will consider Senate Bill 49, titled the "Parents' Bill of Rights," which limits teaching about LGBTQ topics and requires school personnel to inform parents if a child chooses to go by a different pronoun; and House Bill 187, which sets guidelines for teaching about gender, race and U.S. history.
While the proposed legislation includes some inclusive language – HB187 allows for the "impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group" – critics say these measures encourage teachers to shy away from teaching about the difficult struggles faced by racial minorities.
Taylor, the attorney and advocate, said, "I want my daughter to know that your history is American history. Black history is American history."
Already, schools leave big gaps in American history, and Taylor worries those gaps will yawn only wider.
"I want my daughters to know that their history wasn't just the slave plantation … and then (Dr. Martin Luther) King marched and then Rosa (Parks) sat on the back of the bus, and then we're all free now," she said. "I just think it's more than that to really understand the society that we live in."
Taylor said she wants an understanding of that history not just for her own children, but for the multi-racial group of her children's friends.
"This is a melting pot of diverse people," she said. "We can't hide that from our children. Our children need to be equipped to live in this world."
Taylor’s 12-year-old daughter, Chloe, loved Jerry Craft’s "Class Act," one of the books her mother saw on the banned book table in her local bookstore.
"I just think this book is a good book because it teaches us, you know, how to find yourself," Chloe Taylor said of the book. "And it really helps. Because I know middle school can be hard."
This story was reported and edited by Jason deBruyn and Laura Pellicer of WUNC; Ivey Schofield of the Border Belt Independent; Anna Maria Della Costa of The Charlotte Observer; Tyler Dukes and Cathy Clabby, of The News & Observer; Lilly Knoepp, Laura Lee, and Helen Chickering of Blue Ridge Public Radio; Whitney Clegg of WBTV-TV; Amy Diaz of WFDD; Benjamin Schachtman, Rachel Keith and Grace Vitaglione of WHQR; and Emily Walkenhorst and Ali Ingersoll of WRAL-TV.