When Wes Brown looked for children’s books for his two young sons, he made sure to look for titles that reflected the family he and his husband were building.
He found that in a book called “The Family Book,” a 2003 picture book by Todd Parr. It shows families of all kinds: the traditional nuclear family, but also families with one parent or stepparents, as well as adoptive families and same-sex parents like Brown and his husband.
But across the country, books and lessons representing different families and identities are increasingly the target of conservative opposition — even if they’re aimed at the youngest students. Parr’s book for preschoolers and early readers is often among the books challenged by parents and activists.
“It’s important that my kids are definitely exposed to that,” Brown said. “What these parents are really doing is showing how fragile their worldview is, that a children’s book is enough to destroy it.”
Efforts to ban books have exploded in schools and public libraries. Of bans targeting picture books, about three-quarters are books that address LGBTQ+ themes and about half are stories that mention race, says Kasey Meehan, Freedom to Read program director at PEN America.
“There is legislation that can lead to crimes and criminalization, and the revocation of teachers’ certifications,” Meehan said. “When you see this threatening environment, we see more and more teachers responding in an overly cautious way, and it shows in the way they feel about their classroom libraries.”
Objections to the titles are often accompanied by arguments that they are not age appropriate. In some of the many challenges Parr’s book has faced over the years, detractors have objected to a sentence that reads, “Some families have two mothers or two fathers,” which says the book is not appropriate for young children.
Educators and free speech advocates said the books often simply acknowledge the existence of different identities. That’s critical, they say, to helping young children develop empathy and understanding for themselves — especially for kids whose families also include people of color or LGBTQ+ relatives.
The disputes have spilled over to the classrooms. In Wake County, North Carolina, a kindergarten teacher resigned last year over an outcry over flashcards depicting LGBTQ+ families to teach colors based on the characters’ clothing.
In Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, replaced the state’s director of early childhood education in April over the use of a guide for kindergarten teachers. The governor slammed the guide for teaching “awakened concepts” for language about inclusion and structural racism.
The book comes from the National Association for the Education of Young Children – the non-profit professional association for early childhood education, which recognizes daycare centers and kindergartens. The fourth edition of the group’s “Developmentally Appropriate Practice Book” says in part that children “begin to see how they are represented in society” in kindergarten and that the classroom should be a place of “affirmation and healing.”
The Alabama official’s impeachment was the most common example of how censorship and restrictions on education extend beyond elementary and secondary education to include preschool, says Leah Austin, president and CEO of National Black Child Development Institute.
Research has shown that children as young as six months can perceive differences based on race. Restricting content denies children the opportunity to learn about themselves and interact with other people, Austin said.
For young children, access to books that interest them is also a critical factor in becoming strong readers and combating disparities in literacy rates, said Michelle Martin, a professor of youth and child welfare at the University of Washington. While the diversity of children’s books has grown in recent years, representation still lags behind.
Martin recalled growing up in South Carolina, where her parents had to drink from segregated water fountains. As a child, she had little choice but to read books that portrayed stories far removed from her experiences.
“There were very few books from my generation that reflected who we are,” she said. “Those books are starting to be published on a much wider scale, and those are the ones that are being targeted.”
In Florida, where Brown and his family live, Republican Governor Ron DeSantis has passed legislation banning the mention of gender identity and sexuality in classrooms for all classes, including public pre-K programs. Proponents of the law say parents, not teachers, should discuss these topics with their children.
For gay men of his generation, Brown recalled, starting a family often felt like a remote possibility. When he and his husband first started dating in 2002, it was illegal in the state of Florida for gay couples to adopt a child.
“It was like a dream, but it’s a dream that is so far away,” he said. “It’s like, ‘I want to fly like Superman.’ You don’t even really think it’s something you can have.”
The couple returned to the question at age 30 and decided to pursue adoption. Brown said he and his husband know it’s inevitable that their sons, now ages 5 and 7, will face questions about having two dads.
“These laws aren’t really meant to stop people from talking about sexuality,” he said. “It’s to avoid talking about queer families, about the queer experience. It is very much aimed at us.”
The Associated Press receives support from the Overdeck Family Foundation for reporting focused on early learning. The AP is solely responsible for all content.