The American Library Association (ALA) has proclaimed “Let Freedom Read!” as the theme for this this year’s “Banned Books Week,” which just ended this past Friday (Oct. 7.) This “View” is written to acknowledge the rationale for such a week, and reflect on why it is especially pertinent in 2023 Old Lyme.
Stepping back, I said at the end of “Surfing with Gen. Alpha,” which I characterized as “something light,” that “I anticipate that my next “View” will be about children’s books.” I will present that in Part 2 of this essay, but with emphasis on challenges to children’s books, after some news from the ALA, who released its preliminary data on banned and challenged books for 2023 in mid-September.
The data show a “record surge” in challenges to books in public libraries. The ALA identified 695 attempts to censor library materials and services and documented challenges to 1,915 unique titles” for the period from January through August, 2023 — a 20 percent increase from the same period in 2022.
Particularly upsetting is that public libraries now account for one-half of total challenge requests. “The vast majority of challenges were for books written by or about a person of color or a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. Unfortunately, and as inferred above, the events that began last May in Old Lyme clearly put our community in their data set.
I continue my consideration of censorship here, which began last August with “A View From My Porch: Some Funny Things Happened on the Way to the Celebration.” Accordingly, this “View” is “weightier” than surfing (less buoyant?); but before I get into that, please remember that we have a municipal election on Tuesday, November 7th. If you are not already registered, you can pick up the forms at the Library.
Recent Events in Old Lyme — Just a ‘kerfuffle’?
On July 28th, The Day called it a “kerfuffle”, but I do not think that the word adequately describes the anger and anxiety generated by two letters that questioned the suitability of two titles available in our library’s “Teens & Tweens” section. (Editor’s Note: This is a link to the second letter — we did not receive a copy of the first letter.) They demanded the removal of “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships and Being a Human,”, by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan and; “You Know, Sex: Bodies, Gender, Puberty and Other Things,” by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth from that section; and in addition; “a proper review of the materials in the Teens &Tweens room “in hopes that no other content like this is available in that space”.
Coincidentally, the letters were received by the Library Director, and the Board of Trustees just as Old Lyme was preparing to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the founding of the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library, scheduled for June 23rd.
Note that although the Library has an established process for questioning materials in its collection, i.e., a “Request for Reconsideration;” that process would not have generated the coverage in the print and broadcast media, or produced the angst that occurred here.
I did not see this happening in Old Lyme, but we all would eventually learn that, “The calls for removal are part of a national storm that has gained strength through the South and Midwest;” which is not very comforting. Is modern Old Lyme becoming Florida and Texas?
Nonetheless, the “Rock the Phoebe” celebration went on as planned; and a few days afterwards, more than 400 Old Lyme and Lyme residents responded formally to the book challenges in a letter overwhelmingly in opposition to the proposed actions (above). Note: see the “View” I cited above for a more thorough survey of the local situation and an appraisal of whether Old Lyme’s experience was unique in the broader context of attempts at censorship occurring statewide.
Lest we ever forget, I lay out the Connecticut media coverage below in an annotated timeline detailing the key events that occurred after receipt of the two letters.
With apologies to Mr. Fred Rogers, It was not, “A beautiful day in this neighborhood.”
Media coverage; a play-by-play:
On March 31st, the CT Examiner published a Letter to the Editor from the chairman of the Old Lyme Republican Town Committee (RTC) that troubled me. The letter was an aggressive response to a March 26th sermon by the Rev. Dr. Steven R. Jungkeit, senior minister of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme, that included some of the Rev. Jungkeit’s concerns with an RTC mailer that went out to residents with a list of priorities that included a “pledge” to exercise greater “parental rights” over the shaping of school curricula and the holdings of school and public libraries. The Rev. Jungkeit is well-known as a strong advocate for social justice and has publicly stated his concerns regarding guns, book bans, and systemic racism.
The RTC chairman said that the sermon contained “petty, ill-informed, and disingenuous accusations.” To me, the language in the RTC chairman’s letter appeared insulting and almost threatening. Note that I am not a member of the Rev. Jungkeit’s congregation, although I respect his opinions and feel that it is not inappropriate for him to voice them from the pulpit or in written opinion (below).
The Old Lyme Democratic Town Committee held a “Freedom to Read” rally on Friday, April 28th.
On June 14th, The Day published the results of the latest report compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), a non-profit legal advocacy organization that monitors extremist organizations in the United States. They identified 11 hate and anti-government extremist groups operating in Connecticut. Amongst them are two chapters of “Moms for Liberty,” who first emerged in Florida in 2021 to campaign against COVID19 public health measures like masks and vaccines.
They were listed as an “extremist group” over accusations of harassing community members, advancing misinformation about LGBTQ+ people, and fighting to remove materials about diversity from classrooms. Their leadership denied the accusations.
However, they are well-known for their extremist agenda, which includes banning books that address gender, sexuality, and racial issues from schools and public libraries; and promoting policies that target trans youths; and opposing school curricula that mention LGBT rights or race and ethnicity. Their website states that the organization is dedicated to, “Unifying, educating and empowering parents to defend their parental rights at all levels of government.”
Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director for research, reporting, and analysis at the SPLC said, “They really are seeking to undermine public education and to divide communities.” They are now widespread and influential within the Republican party.
GOP presidential candidates who appeared this past July at the organization’s national summit in Philadelphia include Ron DeSantis, Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, Vivek Ramaswamy, and Donald Trump.
On June 27th, the Hartford Courant reported that Steve Spooner, a member of the RTC, “Identifies himself in the second letter as the “lead organizer of the effort to remove the books from the Teens &Tweens shelves.”
On June 28th, the Hartford Courant published commentary by Rev. Jungkeit titled, “The banning of books – all books – is wrong;” in which he states, “The decision about what books are appropriate for any young person is one that needs to be made by that young person in conversation with his/her parents. It is not a decision that should rest with a self-appointed group of citizens seeking to act in loco parentis for all the young people in Old Lyme.”
And further, “The efforts undertaken by those seeking to ban these books can and should be understood as a form of bullying. Such efforts are mean spirited, cruel, regressive and hurtful to a population that is already forced to live precariously; and especially to those who identify as trans in the Lyme and Old Lyme region.
On July 11th, the Library Board of Trustees announced that the two books “Meet the selection criteria as stated in The Library’s Collection Development Policy for inclusion in the Library’s Teen/Tween collection”; and “the Board’s decision rested on the principles found in the ALA’s Freedom to Read statement; which espouses freedom to read for all members of the community, irrespective of the relative size or outspokenness of the opposing groups.”
The Day editorial board stated, “It’s disappointing at best, that so many jumped on this unwarranted and dangerous book banning bandwagon. While these books may not be appropriate for every young tween, they are absolutely appropriate for many tweens and teens struggling with all the age-old issues of adolescence.”
They went ever further and said that, “While the letters contend the request to remove these books from the teen-tween section of the library does not constitute book banning, it is obvious that is exactly what is being advocated here.”
On July 28th, The Day reported that an Old Lyme resident described one of the books in question as “pornography marketed to children” at a meeting of the Lyme Library Board of Trustees The book was not in the Lyme Public Library’s collection, although there were requests for the book from residents.
Frankly, if you “do the math” above, you must ask yourself whether they’re using the ‘Moms for Liberty’ playbook?”
In Part 2, I will review some of the challenges and bans directed at several popular titles and authors of children’s and tween’s literature, many of which are now, or once were on the bookshelves in our home. It’s time for a little healthy nostalgia.
Author’s Notes — Part 1: Over the past few months, I have read more about public libraries than I have read in public libraries, and I continue to support a parent’s right to oversee their ‘teen’s & tween’s’ book selections, but feel strongly that they do not have the right to make those decisions for other parents. Clearly, fighting against censorship is vital to preserving our First Amendment right to access information and to decide for ourselves what books we want our kids to read. Libraries should not curate their selections based on popularity of ideas but on the principle of allowing people access to a wide spectrum of ideas. Finally, my advice, based on personal experience remains that parents should talk with their children and endeavor to create an environment in which they are comfortable approaching you for advice or feedback on any number of issues.
Editor’s Note: This is the opinion of Thomas D. Gotowka.
About the Author: Tom Gotowka is a resident of Old Lyme, whose entire adult career has been in healthcare. He will sit on the Navy side at the Army/Navy football game. He always sit on the crimson side at any Harvard/Yale contest. He enjoys reading historic speeches and considers himself a scholar of the period from FDR through JFK. A child of AM Radio, he probably knows the lyrics of every rock and roll or folk song published since 1960. He hopes these experiences give readers a sense of what he believes “qualify” him to write this column.
Cross, A. “Study: Watchdog identifies nearly a dozen active extremist, hate groups in Connecticut.” The Day. 06/14/2023.
American Library Association “American Library Association Releases Preliminary Data on 2023 Book Challenges” [Press Release]. 09/19/2023.
Aleem, Z. “The right’s censorship campaign is growing more ambitious — and threatening.” MSNBC. 09/22/2023.
The Day Editorial Board. “Let parents pick their kids’ books.” The Day. 07/11/2023.
Cabello, M., and Butler, S.M. “How Public Libraries Help Build Healthy Communities.” Brookings Institution. 03/30/2017.
Dunne, S. “Old Lyme library facing calls to ban two sex-ed books from teen section”. The Hartford Courant. 06/27/2023.
Fitzgerald, W. “Op-ed: Book Banning Is About More Than Book Banning” LymeLine.com. 07/03/2023.
Gotowka, T. “A View From My Porch: Some Funny Things Happened on the Way to the Celebration” LymeLine.com. 08/16/2023.
Jungkeit, S. R. “Opinion: The banning of books – all books – is wrong”The Hartford Courant. 06/28/2023.
Logan, O. “Old Lyme Library Board Issues New Statement Answering Additional Questions Related to Recent Book Challenges” LymeLine.com. 07/27/2023.
Meyer, K. “Presidential candidates court voters at ‘Moms for Liberty’ event” News Nation. 06/30/2023.
Nixon, R.A. “Sermonizing a ‘Complete Misrepresentation of the Facts’ in Old Lyme” CTExaminer. 03/31/2023.
Regan, E. “Old Lyme library refuses to remove two controversial books from its shelves” The Day. 07/11/2023.
Regan, E. “Old Lyme ‘kerfuffle’ over sex education book spills into Lyme” The Day. 07/28/2023.
Regan, E. “National culture war blows through Old Lyme’s town center.” The Day. 07/29/2023
Swenson, A. “Moms for Liberty rises as power player in GOP politics after attacking schools over gender, race.” AP News. 06/12/2023.
Sarappo, E. “Read the Books That Schools Want to Ban” The Atlantic. February 1, 2022
Yousef, Odette. “Moms for Liberty among conservative groups named ‘extremist’ by civil rights watchdog” NPR. 06/07/2023.