Somewhere in Indiana, I ran into a ghost of the Queens grandmother who brought down a schools chancellor more than 25 years ago — all over a book called “Heather Has Two Mommies.”
The story of a fictional little girl named Heather with two moms enraged conservative families, who were dead-set against a Rainbow curriculum that included teaching social issues in classrooms. The story dominated headlines for more than a year, cost New York City Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez his job and opened a new chapter in the culture wars.
Fast forward to 2022. During a recent visit to Indiana, I watched a video from Purple for Parents Indiana, a chapter of a national group that pushes parental rights with a goal to “protect children from harmful agendas saturating the education system.”
And there she was: Heather, a little girl holding hands with her two smiling moms, a cat and dog at their sides, on a slide alongside other books aimed at introducing children to issues of race and sexuality: “A Tale of Two Daddies,” “My Princess Boy” and “The Different Dragon.”
“Heather” is once again a lightning rod as debates rage in Indiana over a Republican-backed bill that would allow schools and public libraries to be criminally prosecuted for books and other materials that contain obscenity, violence or pornography. Purple for Parents believes these books are very dangerous and wants Indiana lawmakers to keep them out of schools and libraries. “Heather” and other books and ban lists, it seems, have become symbols of a larger fight led by state Republicans who want power over what is being taught and how.
“We need to be very careful about what kind of materials are being provided to your children,” Jennifer McWilliams of Purple for Parents says in the video, while also warning of “psychological manipulation of your children to get them to adapt critical race theory in order to dismantle our systems … This is a revolution. This is what a Marxist believes.”
The fights in 1992 and 2022 over “Heather Has Two Mommies” remind us that attempts to ban bookss in America go back to the Puritan days and will likely never disappear. This is evident in recent campaigns to ban books that mention homosexuality, race or gender, along with today’s disputes over how much control parents should have over what children are being taught in public schools across the country. Public schools are once again under attack, from mask mandates to the teaching of critical race theory, with battles breaking out everywhere about what teachers should teach, what books are acceptable and how much say parents and state legislatures should have.
Take the current tussle in the Hoosier State. A recently proposed bill, which could soon head to the Senate floor, would ban teaching “divisive” concepts of race and racism and prohibit teaching that could make students feel responsible for slavery or discrimination. Indiana is one of 36 states where lawmakers are trying to restrict discussions of our nation’s racist past.
“How will the future leaders of America be able to provide for a country they know nothing about? Teaching real history will not bring children down based on the color of the skin, but will raise them up and inspire them to stand up and not repeat gruesome patterns.”
Lizzie Koschnick, student, North Central High School, Indianapolis
So here we are again, with echoes of the Scopes trial a century ago when Tennessee tried to ban the teaching of evolution. Today we have a Tennessee school board removing Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust graphic novel “Maus” from its eighth-grade curriculum. We have a Texas House committee investigating school districts’ books on race and sexuality, with lists of book bans popping up just about everywhere. I scoured an extensive list of books targeted for bans in Texas and found titles such as “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and a book about former First Lady Michelle Obama.
I even found “Heather” again: In December 2021, a Pennsylvania school district ordered the removal of the book from all of its elementary-school libraries over parental objections, leading its author, Lesléa Newman, to declare: “It’s 1992 all over again.”
“No Left Turn in Education,” formed recently, has created a list of books that its members believe “demean our nation and its heroes, revise our history and divide us a people for the purpose of indoctrinating kids to a dangerous ideology.” The group argues on its website that “all too often words such as diversity, equity, inclusion, social justice, systemic racism, human rights education and health education concealed an aggressive, radical totalitarian ideology.”
At the same time, liberals are also involved in trying to ban books like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” for its racist language and portrayal of Black people.
“We need to be very careful about what kind of materials are being provided to your children.”
Purple for Parents Indiana
“This is absolutely cyclical,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of educational leadership, law and policy at Brooklyn College. “It’s a reaction to social advances.”
In Indiana, the battle is so charged that some teachers are reporting death threats and worry they could be sued if found in violation of teaching anything other than what’s been approved through the review committees the proposed bill would set up. I also heard concern about whether Indiana students can learn about the Klu Klux Klan, which at its peak in the 1920s included in its membership an estimated 30 percent of all of Indiana’s native-born white men, along with the governor and more than half of state legislators.
Last week, opponents came together to dispute the bill on a Zoom press conference sponsored by the Marion County Commission on Youth. Some called it “heinous and racist,” while others said it would stifle discussion and prevent future generations from combatting racism.
Lizzie Koschnick, a junior at North Central High School in Indianapolis, said she worried the bill would strain teachers, promote censorship and keep truth from students.
“How will the future leaders of America be able to provide for a country they know nothing about?” Koschnick asked. “Teaching real history will not bring children down based on the color of the skin, but will raise them up and inspire them to stand up and not repeat gruesome patterns.”
In Indiana, however, the initial Senate bill may have gone too far: It created a national public outcry and was withdrawn after the state senator who authored it said it would require teachers to remain impartial — even as they discussed Marxism, Nazism and fascism.
A new version of the bill passed by the House makes no mention of impartiality. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Tony Cook, a Republican and former U.S. history teacher. “I taught them [my students] with facts,” Cook said recently. “Facts is different than theory. And that’s where I’m going with this. Teach the facts. The facts will talk to students.”
Well, facts also have a way of being really inconvenient, depending on whose version of them is being taught. The truth can hurt, which is perhaps one reason why there are so many attempts to conceal it.
That’s a big concern for Bloomfield, who remembers the Rainbow debate in New York City and worries that the current battles will send parents withdrawing into their own bunkers, on both the left and the right — denying thousands of children access to a complete and accurate education. He’s equally concerned about efforts to suppress free speech and take away the ability of educators to make their own judgments about which books are developmentally appropriate.
“Am I worried? Yes,’’ Bloomfield told me. “It’s a denial of reality. At its source, education is about reality.”
This story about attempts to ban books was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters.