Columns > Published on March 8th, 2023

Yes, I Read The 111-Page Moms For Liberty Book Ban Document

Header images via Pixabay

Book bans are pretty much the worst, and when it comes to the worst of the worst, the 111-page Moms for Liberty BOOK of BOOKS document, which claims to provide parental guidance for controversial children’s books, is beneath the barrel’s bottom, somewhere deep in the sewer, under a layer of crust formed by many, many flushed turds.

If I can rewind for a moment, which might be impossible after going the turd crust route: I consider myself a pretty fair and even handed person. I dislike progressive AND conservative book bans, and when it comes to getting a fair shake, you’ll get it from me. I’m not out to hate Moms for Liberty just because their politics and mine disagree.

So this is probably the fairest, most reasonable look you’ll get at this particular document, which lots of book bans and parent groups are using as a resource to help them remove books from school libraries.

And this reasonable take starts with “turd crust.”

Moms for Liberty

Wait, who are the Moms for Liberty who wrote this document? To get Seinfeldian about it: What’s their deal?

I visited the MFL website, and the first thing I saw was some text that was unreadable thanks to bad design decisions. But I squinted hard and thought of Jesus, and then I saw that it read, “Joyful Warriors.”

If scripty font that says something confusing and threatening, like "Joyful Warriors" tingles your Spidey Sense, just you wait.

The next thing I came across was a video from the MFL convention from last year.

Highlights? Highlights!

At first you see things like a woman saying, “We continue to fund systems and buildings, but not students. We need to fund students.” Well…alright, that sounds cool. Maybe these moms aren’t so bad.

Then I saw the large projection of the phrase “Florida leads,” as a background for a speaker, which, unless it was followed by a slide that said something like, “the country in book bans and other nonsense,” seems a little alarming.

The speaker most heavily profiled was none other than Ron “anti-abortion, anti-gun-control, ban-sanctuary-cities, fund-the-police, I got married at Disney World,” DeSantis.

There was also a Foxy Babe who said a bunch of vague things about MFL being “her people.” Oh, sorry, don’t be offended when I say, “Foxy Babe.” What I mean by that is, you know that specific sort of blonde, attractive young lady who you’ll see pop up on Fox News? She’s cute, she’s got her glasses on so you take her seriously, and then she casually starts talking about how she carries her handgun with her to spin class, just in case someone tries to force her to get a vaccine?

Possibly my favorite quote: “Our rights don’t come from the government, they come from God.”

Hoo boy.

Let’s call this what it is: a group of right-wing weirdos pretending like their wacky politics are just good, no-nonsense parenting.

Opening Salvo

Back to the document, the opening of which is delicious:

What started as a fight statewide to get our children out of masks and back into school has turned into so much more.

Hey kids, if your mom is a Mom For Liberty, she thinks you’re too stupid to finish high school if you can’t see the mouth part of your teacher’s face, AND she thinks you’re too stupid to select your own reading material.

Parents should have a say in what is available to our children within the school library and classrooms. We work hard to provide our children with specific morals and values, and feel strongly that they should come home from school with those morals and values intact.

I guess that’s the most succinct, if disingenuous, vision of MFL. Sure, if a kid is raised Christian or Muslim or Wiccan, they shouldn’t then go to school and have those values denied them. Who am I to step in between parents and children by saying that Jesus was all about kindness and acceptance of all people?

Our group has been labeled “Book Banners,” which is patently false. We do not want to burn books or take them out of circulation. If a parent believes their child should have access to these materials, they can check them out at a public library or purchase it. 

You know, they’re not totally wrong on this, but they’re doing the thing I hate, saying that because their form of ban isn’t a huge bonfire in the middle of  the town square, it’s not REALLY a book ban.

Take note, progressive folks: This is what you sound like when you talk about removing a book from one bookstore not being a ban, or when you talk about pressuring a publisher to not put out a book because you fear its contents and how that's "just creating friction."

All of these things still count as book bans, okay? To bastardize our friends Mobb Deep, when it comes to bans, there ain’t no such thing as halfway (banned) books.

Let's sum up the intro in a couple lines:

We don’t want to ban books, we believe in liberty. Now please enjoy the next 110 pages of us telling you which books should be banned and which liberties you should give up.

The Rating System

MFL rates books on a 0-5 system.

A zero is…I don’t know, I don’t think any examples were given, but I would be extremely curious to know which book would be a zero. Probably just a single-pager with a picture of a bald eagle.

Some of the criteria that pushes books up to 2’s and 3’s and beyond is about what you’d expect: Sex, violence, drug and alcohol use.

But there are some other criteria that are new ones for me. "Hate," which seems to be anything that mentions the existence of race or gender, and "Gender Ideology," which can be explicit or non-explicit, and basically means, "modern-ish ideas about gender."

As with any ratings system, it’s when you get to the filthy end that things get more fun.

A 3, in this system, is deemed inappropriate for anyone under 18 without parental guidance. A 4 is something that shouldn’t be viewed by anyone under 18, at all. Level 4 books contain Explicit Sexual Nudity: depictions of sexual organs in a state of arousal.

Good to know: A soft penis is a 3, and a hard-on is a 4. Well, I guess if we’re talking inches…

And by now you're asking, "What could possibly be a 5?"

“Explicit references to aberrant sexual activity, including sexual assault/battery, beastiality, or sexual abuse.”

Let’s…let’s get back to that one momentarily.

First Things First

The game Moms for Liberty is playing is one where kids and teens are the same.

There’s a world of difference between having a book like Gender Queer in an elementary school library and having a book like Gender Queer in a high school library.

I agree that Gender Queer might not be appropriate for an elementary school library. But I'm not agreeing with Moms for Liberty, I'm agreeing with Gender Queer's author Maia Kobabe:

It was always planned to come out from the older-reader imprint of my publisher, aimed for either adults or high teens, like 16-plus.

I'm also agreeing with the Alex Awards Committee, who selected Gender Queer as an Alex winner (Alex Awards are given to adult books that have appeal to teens).

It's your 111-page document that makes you look stupid. The Toni Morrison parts just highlight the depth of the stupidity.

I do agree that a depiction of someone giving oral sex to a strap-on indicates that Gender Queer is not intended for kids, and if you're looking for a gentle introduction to concepts of gender, It Feels Good To Be Yourself by Teresa Thorn is a MUCH better choice.

But what MFL does throughout the document is collapse “kids” and “teens” into the same group by using the term "our children" to describe both.

You may think of your teenage daughter as your “child,” but in terms of how they navigate the world, what is reasonably expected of them, and how much protection they should receive when compared to how much freedom they need, the discussion can’t be the same for a kid who’s 8 and a teen who’s 18. Both are your children, but one is a child, and one is not.

And, for the most part, it looks like Iowa schools (the schools profiled in the report), DO make an effort to present material to the intended audience, not just by making good choices about what goes on the shelves, but even going so far as to divide the library catalogs for different schools.

When I searched the Linn Mar High School library catalog, sure enough, we’ve got Gender Queer, and it’s listed as having an “Adult Interest Level.”

When I searched in the catalog for the Excelsior Middle School Library (awesome name, Stan Lee would be proud), part of the same school system as Linn Mar, Gender Queer doesn’t come up at all.

Which tells me this: the library staffs in these schools have created separate catalogs, and these schools aren't offering Gender Queer to kids.

It's not schools and school libraries who are confusing what's appropriate for kids and what's appropriate for teens. It's Moms for Liberty.

Let’s Run Down Some of the Profiled Books

Push by Sapphire: 

This one is a 5, meaning anyone under 18 shouldn't even touch it. I DO give Moms a little credit, they counted “puta” as a swear, so I guess they won't be pushing for an English-only curriculum(?)

Ellen Hopkins (various titles)

Ellen Hopkins is the number one edgelord for teen girls, change my mind.

Of course her books contain drug use. But they depict drug use as shitty, ruinous, and VERY unglamorous. If Ellen Hopkins created Breaking Bad, the story would center on Jesse blowing half the population of New Mexico to bankroll his meth habit. Nobody walks away from a Hopkins thinking drugs sound fun.

Rupi Kaur (various titles)

These aren’t really my jam. I always felt like these books…let me put it this way: thanks to Rupi Kaur, there must be a billion pieces of shabby chic reclaimed pallet wood with “fall in love with your solitude” painted on them.

Frankly, I think poetry is inappropriate for teens all around. BORING. Too boring.

Is there a parent group out there that’s trying to ban boring-ass books from schools? Because that’s a group I could get behind. Enough Shakespeare, for fuck’s sake! I want my kids to be bored, but I want them to be bored the way I think is appropriate.

Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture edited by Roxane Gay

Here’s a cited passage in the MFL document:

When I was twelve years old, I was gang-raped in the woods behind my neighborhood by a group of boys with the dangerous intentions of bad men....Allowing myself to believe that being gang-raped wasn't "that bad" allowed me to break down my trauma into something more manageable, into something I could carry with me instead of allowing the magnitude of it to destroy me.

One of MFL's sneaky, stupid ideas is right in the ratings system, where sexual content is all intermingled. Real accounts of sexual assault are a 5. As are stories of beastiality.

If I wrote a story about a farmer and his late-night relations with a lubed-up ewe and how awesome it was, it would be banned by Moms For Liberty FOR THE SAME REASONS that an essay about sexual assault, which is frank but nowhere near salacious, BY ROXANE GAY would be banned.

Just as an aside, how many accounts of beastiality show up in school libraries? Is there an Animorphs book that takes a dark turn (arguably darker than the turn they took when they time traveled and killed Hitler)?

Assassination Classroom by Yusei Matsui

Hey, if you’re anti-school-shooting, I’m with you, mom-bros!

But if you’ve voted against gun control, which I’m guessing most MFL did, fuck off, eh?

Based on all of their other politics, I'm guessing Moms for Liberty would prefer kids have access to a copy of Assassination Classroom that was hollowed out with a gun placed inside it than a copy of the same book with the story intact.


Let’s look at some of the super weak "problematic" examples MFL highlights:

from The Perks of Being a Wallflower:

He was also crying pretty bad, and he decided if anyone asked him, he would say his eyes were red from smoking pot.

This is categorized as drug use. Alright...sure. 

From The Hate U Give:

I swear, I don’t understand white people...

This is categorized as hate by MFL. Which, holy shit, aren't you the same people always complaining about "snowflakes"?

From The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian;

During one week when I was little, Dad got stopped three times for DWI: Driving While Indian.

This is a tangled ball of yarn. Is the problem in the dad character thinking he's being pulled over for racial reasons? Is that him being racist? Or is it the cops pulling the dad over? Is the problem that racism exists in the book? Is the problem in mentioning a racism happened? I'm so confused.

from Flamer:

Usually his bark is worse than his bite, but one time he was so mad at my little brother, he went to hit him...but mom stepped in between them.

That's violence. Violence that was prevented completely.

Enough bad examples, let me give you a tip, Moms: There's PLENTY of stuff that, taken out of context, put in front of an average parent, would help your case. "I don't understand white people" doesn't make the grade.

Stop wasting everyone's time with this nonsense.

"The Bluest Eye" and the Curriculum Conundrum

I see which teens have good parents and which teens don’t.

MFL, while I'm giving you advice, I’ll advise you to not run up against Toni Morrison.

Morrison is almost universally considered one of the all-time great American authors.

You can try and oust Rupi Kaur because, eh, she’s an Instagram poet, she’s only like 30 years old, whatever. You can try to scrub Ellen Hopkins because, eh, that sort of edgy, look-how-far-we-can-take-it writing for teens is past its prime. You could probably get rid of Sherman Alexie if you went the route of, "He's been implicated in some sexual misconduct, I don't think he needs to be in the school library." You might even get some progressive people to go with you on that one.

But Toni Morrison is just a dumb swipe to take. Pulitzer, Nobel, National Humanities Medal, Presidential Medal of Freedom—It makes you look stupid.

Well, that's not entirely true. It's your 111-page document that makes you look stupid. The Toni Morrison parts just highlight the depth of the stupidity.

Belief in Books

MFL has a weird, mystical belief in the power of books, which is kind of cool, it's something they share with LeVar Burton.

What's not so cool is that MFL sees the power of books as a threat. That part is very NOT LeVar Burton, and I'm sorry I invoked your name, Mr. Burton.

MFL fails to ever, at any point, weigh the good potential outcomes of reading a book against their objections. In other words, sure, a book may have some material that's not for everyone, but does the book, on the whole, present possible benefits? And do those benefits outweigh the potential harm you see?

Someone might read All Boys Aren't Blue, and while being mildly uncomfortable with the sex scenes, might enjoy the book overall. 

Someone might read All Boys Aren't Blue, and while not directly identifying with the narrator's gender or sexuality, might recognize themselves in the broader idea of feeling like it's hard to fit in.

Someone might read All Boys Aren't Blue, and while not seeing themselves reflected, might recognize a struggle in someone else and become a better friend to that person.

I mean, for "Joyful Warriors," you are spending an awful lot of time talking about the worst possible outcomes of reading a goddamn book. Maybe you could find some joy in considering the positive? 

And Here, Fuck It, I Tell You How To Raise Your Kids

I was going to say that I didn't want to tell you how to raise your kids, but let's just skip that part, because I do, and I will.

I don’t have kids. And maybe that's allowed me to see something you can't.

Maybe, as a librarian who worked with teens, ran book clubs for them, supervised teen workers and volunteers—maybe what I’ve seen of your children and what you see of your children is different.

I’ve seen how they act when their parents aren’t around.

I see them forced to make decisions. I see them trying to fit in. I see them working out the complex social hell that is high school.

I've seen them in situations where they have a little freedom. Some LIBERTY, if you will.

And I see which teens have good parents and which teens don’t.

The teens that have good parents can be honest with their parents. They don’t have to hide who they are. They don’t feel like their parents are going to freak the fuck out if they come home with a book.

The ones who have good parents, they act the way they do because they think it’s right, not because they’re afraid of what will happen if they do something wrong.

Raising your kids, and especially your teens, to value liberty, is not about walking ten steps ahead, clearing any roadblocks and making their decisions for them. Sometimes, it’s about teaching your kid to make their own decisions. Giving them the tools to pick up a book when you're not around, decide it’s not for them, and set it back down.

I mean…isn’t that what liberty is?

Let's Really End This

I really wanted to end on that line about liberty, but there's one last thing to say.

I don't care for your document, Moms For Liberty. I don't care for your merch store, where you sell shirts that claim you don't co-parent with the government, even though you DO ask the government to enforce your rules, sort of the way in a traditional co-parenting situation you might have one setter of rules and one enforcer.

I don't even like your name. Did you know that the difference between "liberty" and "freedom" is that freedom is about doing whatever you would like to, if you're able, and liberty is about being able to live without "arbitrary restraints"? "Arbitrary Restraints" might actually be a better name for you all.

Despite all my feelings, I'm going to give you a piece of advice that comes from a genuine place of love.

If you continue to participate in this nonsense, you are going to put up a wall between you and your kids. 

It won't happen when they're 10, but as they get a little older, as they see more of the world and meet the people in it, they're going to feel differently about you. 

Your kid is going to live a full life, and you're not going to be a part of it. Because your kid is going to know that they can't tell you about their gender queer roommate. Your kid is not going to be able to talk to you about it if they're sexually assaulted, because that shit is taboo, it's like beastiality, remember? Your kid won't be able to come to you for help if they end up hooked on pills, even prescribed pills, like so many folks we all know.

But I don't want to scare you, I don't want to present the world as a threatening place, a place your child needs protecting from. That's really more what you're about.

What I want to say is that your kid is going to grow up good and wonderful, and they're going to avoid you while they do it.

You're going to miss out.

Get It Feels Good to Be Yourself: A Book About Gender Identity by Teresa Thorn at Bookshop or Amazon

Get All Boys Aren't Blue by George M. Johnson at Bookshop or Amazon 

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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