Mason Adams Published

Why An Appalachian School Board Pulled 57 Books Off Library Shelves

Two men sit behind desks in a school board meeting. Closer to the camera are the backs of people's heads who are sitting in the audience.
Members of the Rockingham County School Board, which recently voted to remove 57 books from school libraries.
Ashlyn Campbell

This conversation originally aired in the April 14, 2024 episode of Inside Appalachia.

School boards have become the latest front in America’s culture wars — especially when it comes to books in school libraries that some people think are inappropriate for students. 

That situation has been playing out in Rockingham County, Virginia, which sits midway down the Shenandoah Valley. In January, the school board voted to remove 57 books from school libraries, prompting an outcry from people who see this as a book ban. 

Ashlyn Campbell has been covering the story for the Daily News-Record. Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams reached out to Campbell to learn more about what’s happening.

Adams: We’re talking about Rockingham County, located in the Shenandoah Valley, where the school board voted 4-1 to remove 57 books from school libraries. Why did they take this vote?

Campbell: This was something that multiple members of the school board campaigned on in November. A new majority came in who were very vocally conservative. They’ve said that they’re concerned over sexual content, profanity and violence. At the meeting where they took the vote, they said, we read the books, they’re deeply disturbing to us, and we want to protect the kids and the county. So that’s kind of the gist of why they wanted to remove the 57 books.

Adams: What kinds of books were removed? Can you share some of the titles?

Campbell: It’s a broad list of books. A lot of them have to do with the LGBTQ community, racial issues, mental health, stuff like that. One of the books, Felix Ever After, is about transgender teen, which is a coming of age story. There are some books on the list that are considered classics — books like The Bluest Eye, Beloved from Toni Morrison and Slaughterhouse-Five. There are books on the list that do have sexual content, profanity, violence. Looking for Alaska is on the list.

And then there are one or two books that don’t have any sexual content, profanity, violence. One of them is The Invisible Boy, which is a picture book. And then the other one is Drama, which is a middle school theater book that has kissing but no real sexual content. With The Invisible Boy, which is a picture book that talks about not feeling alone and having empathy, one of the board members said that they think it was mistakenly included. There’s another [similar] title that has to do with race and evangelical Christianity and stuff like that. One of the school board members did say that she thinks the picture book was mistakenly included on the list.

Adams: How did students and parents respond to this decision by the school board?

Campbell: [The school board] said that this removal is temporary while they develop a new policy to review library books. The vast majority of parents and students that I’ve talked to have been very upset about the ban. Students have walked out at several of the high schools. They held a rally about all of the issues going on with the book ban. I know a lot of people have sent a lot of emails to the board sharing their concerns — they don’t think they should ban books, because they help represent students, and it’s a slippery slope, and stuff like that.

There are community members that have spoken in favor of the removal. From their point of view, they don’t want sexual content in books at school libraries. But for the most part, the vast majority of parents and students I’ve talked to or have spoken out at meetings have been against the decision. 

Adams: One of the things that comes up in your story is the board members do clarify like this, they say it’s not a book ban. It’s a “temporary removal.” So what happens next in terms of process? 

Campbell: They’ve started the process of creating the policy of how books enter libraries, and how books are reviewed if they’re challenged. The other week, they met with school librarians to talk about what policies they have in place, what they would like to see from the policy, stuff like that. I think that was the first meeting to talk through what those policies will look like.

They’ve said they want to hear from community members, parents, teachers, librarians, all those kinds of people to start developing the policy. They’ve said that they would like to get it out sooner rather than later. They had that first meeting, and then I think they’re going to have another meeting where they hear more from the community. But from there, they’re going to develop a policy and we’ll see what they decide to include.

Adams: One of your follow-up stories notes that this isn’t an isolated incident, but part of a national trend. And certainly, we’ve seen other communities in Appalachia that have done something similar. Can you tell us a little bit more about what’s happening in the bigger picture? 

Campbell: Rockingham County is not the only school division that has experienced both challenges, book bans and removals. A lot of school divisions have removed a lot of similar titles or have similar lists that they’re removing. A lot of that has to do with this website called Book Looks, which is a book review website that, while it says it’s not connected to Moms for Liberty, it has ties to the group.

For Rockingham County, the board member who compiled the list said, I pulled these from parent complaints, but then went and researched through Book Looks. She has this document that the vast majority of the books that she researched, which was about half of the list, she said is from Book Looks. There’s at least one screenshot for one of the books that she pulled directly for Moms for Liberty, too, which is a similar theme across a lot of school divisions where they’re using Book Looks or sources like Moms for Liberty to either pull directly from those lists of books, or, like in Rockingham County, the board member used to research it.

PEN America has said that book challenges [and] book bans are on the rise. A lot of this has to do with those groups that are now pushing removal of books, like Moms for Liberty, who in a lot of school divisions are directly going in and advocating for removing a lot of the books that are also on the Rockingham County list.

Adams: So this decision was made back in January, and it’s got a lot of attention. There was a Washington Post op-ed, I see there’s a thread on Reddit, and a lot of other outlets have picked up the general story. Do you think that bigger attention has made a difference in Rockingham County at all?

Campbell: For the school board, no. Now, the National Coalition Against Censorship sent a letter to the school board, advocating for them to put the books back and to have certain things in their process to review books. PEN America also worked with a number of authors to again advocate for them to return the books, to not have a book ban.

When I’ve talked to the chair of the board about this, he said that he’s not interested in national groups’ opinions about what’s going on because he’s listening to his constituents in Rockingham County. I think he sent a one sentence email back to PEN America that was like, “My constituents are in Rockingham County.” When I talked to him about the National Coalition against Censorship letter, he said something similar. He’s not taking anything that they’re saying into account, because he’s listening to people in Rockingham County.

Adams: Have there been any changes since this happened in January? It’s been a couple of months.

Campbell: The biggest thing that’s happened is that meeting with librarians where they shared their thoughts. A lot of them said that the decision really hurt them because the board didn’t consult them beforehand. But for the most part, I think the board is going ahead with the new policy to review challenged books, and then also to determine how books end up in school and classroom libraries. There’s been a lot of backlash. There’s been a lot of discussion about what’s going on.

But from what I’ve seen from the school board, I think they’re just going to go forward with their plan of how they’re going to develop the policy. In one of the work sessions, they did pull from a lot of other school divisions that have examples of policies for libraries. And they’ve said, not everything that are on those policies they want to include, but they want to pick and choose.

Adams: From reading your story, it looks like there are existing procedures already set up for the libraries. Can you tell us more about what those look like?

Campbell: They have collection development policies for each school. So they use things that compile reviews. There’s a number of websites that they use to look at books and determine what’s going to be included in their libraries. The division has also had a policy that was used to review challenged material for library books or instructional material. Now, the board has said that’s only for instructional material. It’s been a practice to use it for library material, but really, the policy is only written for instructional material. The policy has been used for library material for a number of years.

For the school division, libraries have collection development policies. Parents can go in and research what books are in their school libraries. And parents also have the option to be notified when their child checks out books, so they can see what their kid is checking out and, from my understanding, it’s in the single digits for the number of people that have actually utilized that option. So there are school-specific collection development policies. They use a lot of similar resources. There also was a county policy that they said is used for instructional material, but has been used for library material in the past.