As the target of a book ban, it seemed an unlikely candidate: a book about babies, about their adoration, a book inspired by a grandmother’s love.
The story of how he was attacked takes unexpected turns.
It’s a story of censorship, hypocrisy, and twisted facts, details lost in the fog of an all-consuming culture war spreading across the United States.
A popular children’s book, Babies everywhereended up on a list of 58 books targeted to be banned from school libraries by a Florida conservative group.
The book’s author was stunned last week when the issue made national and international headlines and she heard about it from The Washington Post.
“It’s so out of the blue,” children’s writer Susan Meyers later told CBC News in an interview.
“I think it’s extremely upsetting. Really upsetting.”
This 2001 book was inspired by the birth of Meyers’ first grandchild and how all of the boy’s grandparents looked down on him with love.
What the book shows
Meyers decided to write Babies everywhere after having witnessed Christmas nativity scenes: it was based on images of adults gathering around babies.
An eminent artist was hired to illustrate these scenes and she drew all kinds of families: young parents, old parents, light skin and dark skin.
In some images, there are two men or two women with a baby. Artist Marla Frazee says she never specifies whether they are sisters, brothers, friends or spouses.
But she says she wanted families with same-sex couples to feel included.
“It was on purpose,” Frazee said in an interview.
“I wanted to make sure, as best I could, that any child looking at the book would find some semblance of their own family. … I wanted them to read the book and think, ‘This is how we are. This is what our family is like.'”
Now she’s bothered by this controversy unfolding two decades later, with same-sex marriage legalized seven years ago in the United States
A culture war is enveloping schools
The pace of book banning has accelerated, according to research by literature and free speech group PEN America. This account 1,145 books banned in the United States over a nine-month period in 26 states, defining bans as student access to previously available books being restricted, diminished, or completely removed
Most of the banned books dealt with race, gender, and sexuality, and unlike most book bans of the past, these were driven primarily by calls from the chosen and elected.
In this new political culture war, Florida is a central battleground.
Governor Ron DeSantis is considered a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination and some of his view of opponents his moves in an effort to get national attention.
In the past few weeks alone, the state has passed laws that restrict the teaching of gender identity before 4th grade (dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say Gay” bill); allowed parents to sue school boards that do not respond to their complaints about inappropriate material; prohibits the teaching of concepts that make people feel guilty about their race or gender; and created new oversight rules for school boards.
When Disney complained about one of these bills the state targeted Disney with another law: it canceled a tax exemption neighborhood around Disneyworldand did it so quickly that it might not have taken into account the unforeseen budgetary fallout: a rating agency now warns of potential liability for ordinary Florida taxpayers.
Enter the hubbub book.
In the northwest corner of the state, which borders Alabama, school officials in Walton County received a list from a conservative group of 58 books deemed unsuitable for schools.
These school officials say they are still trying to understand the legal implications of Florida’s new laws.
There are differing interpretations of what happened next, but the county says some media and national reaction were exaggerated.
Books Targeted in Florida
“I’m just a little disappointed with the misinformation,” Walton County Schools Superintendent Russell Hughes told CBC News.
“We don’t ban books.”
Based on the debate in the comments on the department’s Facebook pagenot all area residents agree with this characterization of what the school district did To do.
The basic details, however, are undisputed.
A conservative group called the Florida Citizens Alliance, a short organization according to the standards of American policy, compiles a annual list of allegedly pornographic or age-inappropriate books that violate state rules about what belongs to schools.
Some of the 58 selections are unsurprising. The erotic novel Fifty shades of Grey is described in the report as follows: “Excellent educational material for newlyweds. [But not for people] younger than that.”
Some are literary gems. Beloved by Toni Morrison is included for mentioning slaves having sex with farm animals; The kite runner and The God of Little Things to describe sexual abuse.
A few are picture books for young children, such as Tango makes threethe story of gay penguins, and Babies everywhere.
The list went to Hughes, the Superintendent of Schools, a Republican who was elected to that position.
Superintendent: ‘It hasn’t been deleted’
Hughes is popular: He won the Republican nomination and general election in 2016, then ran unopposed and was re-elected four years later as schools in his county vastly outnumbered state averages in a number of criteria including improvement.
In an interview, Hughes said he didn’t want any trouble. Especially not now, with all the uncertainty surrounding new state laws.
“I’m not going to risk my staff members getting in trouble,” Hughes said.
So he asked for a review and learned that of the books on the list 24 were in his school libraries, 34 were not.
He ordered all 24 library shelves removed and asked staff to examine them to see if they violated state rules.
What happened to Babies everywhere?
Nothing happened, Hughes said. It wasn’t on any of his county school library shelves, he said.
“So it was not removed,” he said.
He is frustrated with how the news has spread nationally, after a Democratic candidate for statewide office tweeted the complete list of the 58 targeted books.
BREAKING: My home county, Walton County, Florida, has decided to ban 58 books from public school libraries in Walton County.
Here is the list : pic.twitter.com/IDjnq0XKNP
Nuance often goes AWOL in a political skirmish. And in today’s censorship debates, so is consistency.
American political discourse has lately been plagued by complaints of censorship, from right to left, with each side being selective in its outrage, the author of a new book warning of threats to our traditions of free speech.
Freedom of expression: right, left, hypocrisy
In The constitution of knowledgeauthor and journalist Jonathan Rauch warns that we are losing the ability to talk to each other and breaking the pattern that allowed democracy to grow.
“I’m very worried,” Rauch said in an interview.
Conservatives are currently mounting a crusade for free speech, even as they celebrate Florida for targeting Disney and restricting classroom discussion.
Current famous cause on the right, billionaire Elon Musk’s attempt to take control of Twitter and reform it after censoring stories during the 2020 election.
The same conservative media that last spring were Rebell on book censorship and aired days and days of segments on Estate of Dr. Seuss ceasing publication of books containing racially offensive images now applauds Florida news.
Liberals have a mixed record here, too: they now speak out against censorship in American classrooms, but were less vocal in the last election.
During the campaign, Twitter censored posts on the business dealings of President Joe Biden’s son; he even suspended the New York Post account. Facebook banned then unbanned posts about unproven theories regarding the origins of COVID-19.
How censorship backfires on you
Rauch describes the phenomenon as an increasingly radicalized politics where people on the left and right are using all available weapons to attack unwanted speech.
According to him, the right uses tools it controls: state legislatures or media bubbles that restrict truths about vaccines (they help) and about the last US election (Donald Trump really lost).
He accuses the left of using its own cultural institutions, like academia, to silence dissent and create a false appearance of agreement on ideas such as police defunding and gender identity.
His book suggests ways to ward off these tendencies. This includes the challenge of setting standards for social media that allow free speech, while discouraging lies.
“If we don’t push back…we could lose this battle,” Rauch said, expressing fear of democratic erosion. “We could look a lot more like Hungary.”
A way to undermine censorship? Illustrate that it can turn against you. Just ask the author to Babies everywhere.
News of the banlist propelled sales of Meyers’ former book to No. 1 on Amazon’s children’s activity book bestseller list and No. 21 overall. children’s books.
“It has the exact opposite effect when you ban a book,” she said.