Right-wing activists seek to ban "Arthur's Birthday" from Florida school libraries
On July 12, 2023, the book Arthur's Birthday was formally challenged in the Clay County School District, which is located outside of Jacksonville, Florida. The challenge is an effort to remove the volume from the district's school libraries. The book tells the story of Arthur, a bespectacled anthropomorphic aardvark in the 3rd Grade, whose birthday party is scheduled at the same time as one of his classmates, a wealthy monkey named Muffy. Initially, the dueling birthday parties divide Arthur's 3rd Grade class, with the boys pledging to attend Arthur's party and the girls committing to Muffy's celebration. The tension is resolved when Arthur arranges for a joint get-together.
The book, by Marc Brown, is part of a popular children's series that was spun off into an Emmy-winning children's cartoon.
It's unclear exactly why Arthur's Birthday was challenged because the Clay County School District would not immediately release the challenge form. On Page 5 of the book, Arthur invites a monkey in his class named Francine to the party. Francine is excited and says, "Oh boy, we can play spin the bottle." On the book's last page, Arthur's friends present him with a gift. It's a glass bottle with the words "Francine's Spin The Bottle Game" printed on it. No aardvarks or monkeys are shown playing spin the bottle.
The current status of the book is "Pending Oversight Committee Review." That means the book will remain out of circulation until the three-person committee reviews the challenge. That committee can immediately ban the book, reject the challenge, or send the challenge to a larger book review committee for evaluation.
Since the challenge form has not been released, it is not certain who challenged Arthur's Birthday. But nearly all the book challenges in Clay County schools have been submitted by Bruce Friedman, an activist associated with the right-wing group No Left Turn in Education. Among other things, No Left Turn in Education seeks to "screen and monitor the curriculum, materials and any other resources used in all classes" to prevent the "sexualization of children."
Friedman did not respond to texts or an email seeking comment. But in an interview with Popular Information in December 2022, Friedman said he had compiled "a list of over 3,600 titles" that he was considering challenging. Friedman said that unless the school district voluntarily purged all the books he believed were inappropriate from the library, he would "perform 3,600 challenges and overwhelm your awful, awful procedures and policies." The goal, according to Friedman, is to use Clay County school libraries to "set a good example for what a clean library looks like" for Florida and the country. If anyone gets in his way, Friedman vowed to "run over them like a dead body."
Over the last year, Friedman has filed hundreds of challenges. And according to records requested by the Florida Freedom to Read Project and obtained by Popular Information, Friedman has had considerable success. Challenges submitted since the beginning of the 2022-23 school year have resulted in the district permanently banning at least 120 books from school libraries through June 30. Among the books banned in Clay County schools are highly-acclaimed novels, including The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Looking for Alaska by John Green.
Another 154 titles remain inaccessible pending further review, including Arthur's Birthday and 44 other books challenged in July. Among the recently challenged books are four titles by Stephen King, including classics such as It and Carrie. Although King's novels contain violence and sexual content, they have been read by high school students for many years.
King himself has been outspoken about book bans for decades. In 1992, King wrote a column in the Bangor Daily News responding to a report that two of his books had been banned from a school. King addresses students who are impacted by these bans directly:
There are people in your hometown who have taken certain books off the shelves of your school library… hustle down to your public library, where these frightened people's reach must fall short in a democracy, or to your local bookstore, and get a copy of what has been banned. Read it carefully and discover what it is your elders don't want you to know. In many cases you'll finish the banned book in question wondering what all the fuss was about. In others, however, you will find vital information about the human condition. It doesn't hurt to remember that John Steinbeck, J.D. Salinger, and even Mark Twain have been banned in this country's public schools over the last 20 years.
King warned that "a great deal of good literature may soon disappear from the shelves of school libraries simply because good books -- books that make us think and feel -- always generate controversy."
Obama speaks out
The explosion of book bans is not limited Clay County, Florida — the same thing is happening across the state and throughout the nation. Often there is a single individual like Friedman challenging most or all books. A Washington Post analysis "of book challenges from across the nation shows the majority were filed by just 11 people."
This week, Obama wrote an open letter to the nation's librarians decrying the surge in book bans.
Today, some of the books that shaped my life — and the lives of so many others — are being challenged by people who disagree with certain ideas or perspectives. It's no coincidence that these "banned books" are often written by or feature people of color, indigenous people, and members of the LGBTQ+ community — though there have also been unfortunate instances in which books by conservative authors or books containing "triggering" words or scenes have been targeted for removal. Either way, the impulse seems to be to silence, rather than engage, rebut, learn from or seek to understand views that don't fit our own.
I believe that such an approach is profoundly misguided, and contrary to what makes our country great. As I've said before, not only is it important for young people of all walks of life to see themselves represented in the pages of books, but it's also important for all of us to engage with different ideas and points of view.
Obama concluded by thanking librarians, who are under sustained attack, for their work: "All of us owe you a debt of gratitude for making sure readers across the country have access to a wide range of books, and the ideas they contain." He also endorsed a campaign by the American Library Association, United Against Book Bans.