In late April, Governor Glenn Youngkin and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers gathered at the Library of Virginia to sign one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 2022 session.
The Virginia Literacy Act aims to strengthen the reading resources and performance of students in kindergarten through 3rd grade, through more specialists, programs, and other services.
“The most important thing we can do, as parents, as educators and as a community, is to ensure that our children learn to read, so that they can read to learn,” said Youngkin said in a statement.
While lawmakers in Richmond have agreed on why children need to read, localities across the Commonwealth have suffered divisions over what kinds of books should be in the hands of pupils, especially as that they grow up. Month-long fights over which titles to censor are a poor use of time. There are better ways forward than “book bans”.
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In early May, The Times-Dispatch published an article based on data, finding that 23 Virginia school divisions had removed books over a two-year period. The most contested book was Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” an “autobiographical graphic novel by a non-binary, asexual author,” the RTD analysis revealed.
Weeks after this story was published, objections to “Gender Queer” accelerated in Virginia Beach, both in public and private capacities. The book has been removed from area school libraries. Of the. Tim Anderson and former US congressional candidate Tommy Altman, also filed a lawsuit to stop sales of Sarah J. Maas’ “Gender Queer” and “A Court of Mist and Fury” to children in bookstores, without parental consent.
“A minor cannot enter an R-rated movie in a movie theater without parental consent, [and] children should not have access to extremely sexual material without parental consent,” Anderson said in a WVEC-TV report. He added that the purpose of the lawsuit is “not to ban the books”, but rather to defend the parents’ choice.
Reason magazine hit back in its recent “Bannid Books Issue”, calling the lawsuit a “bizarre extension of the banning of school library books in the private sector, a clearly unconstitutional, politically motivated and ultimately unnecessary extension”.
“The books have very little in common other than that they’re both about sex,” the article explained. “But as anyone who’s ever stood spellbound in the romantic aisle of a Barnes & Noble knows, these aren’t the only two books to do so.”
On August 30, a circuit court in Virginia Beach will decide whether a dated and obscure segment of the Virginia Code applies. As the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia explained at the end of June:
“Under statute, the court has the authority to temporarily block all sale and distribution of the books anywhere in Virginia upon the mere finding of ‘probable obscenity.’ And, if the court ultimately determines that the books are actually obscene, anyone who sells or even lends the books in Virginia could be subject to criminal prosecution, whether or not they have knowledge of the obscenity procedure.This would impact all independent bookstores and other distributors of the state of Virginia, even if they don’t know that a book has been so challenged.
There are better ways forward. Just steps from the State Capitol, the Richmond Public Library connects patrons to “The Bookologist”: a service where staff members connect readers of all ages with new favorites.
Families can fill out a form identifying their children’s ages, authors and books they already love, and their “perfect book” in 3-5 words. The Bookologist uses these comments to compile the choices, and children can pick up the books at their local library.
“Whether you’re stuck in a reading rut, looking to read outside of your comfort zone, or just looking for great suggestions, The Bookologist can help,” said a flyer at RPL’s main branch.
No matter where you live in the Commonwealth, Virginia’s Readers’ Choice Program is also an invaluable resource for book lists that develop a love of reading.
For over 40 years, thousands of students from hundreds of different schools have come together each year to vote for their favourites. The program is a partnership involving the Virginia State Literacy Association, Virginia Association of School Librarians, Virginia Library Association, and Library of Virginia Youth Services.
The criteria for the books are simple. A title must be “recognized as outstanding in the field of children’s/young adult literature”, “published within three years prior to the ballot on which it appears”, and “appropriate to the level for which it is nominated”.
The conditions of participation are simple. Students must be “exposed to at least four nominated books at each level in their entirety,” either through independent reading or reading aloud with the help of others. They can vote in a public library, school library, or classroom, and a “responsible adult” oversees the process.
The goal, as defined by the VSLA, is clear: “To encourage young readers to become more familiar with contemporary books with exceptional literary appeal, to broaden students’ awareness of literature as a lifelong pleasure, to encourage reading aloud in classrooms as a way to introduce reading for pleasure and to honor favorite books and their authors.
Virginians should respect the opinions of their neighbors who decide that a certain book is not good for their children to read. But rather than relying on an outdated, arcane law that builds more barriers than bridges, let’s elevate the resources that guide students toward a love of reading, in a way that preserves their own choices.
Chris Gentilviso is editor of Opinions. Contact him at: [email protected]