Where have you gone, Laura Bush?

In an age when books are being removed from school libraries, one must ask why school librarians and others concerned about censorship have not heard from Laura Bush, who, as first lady and a former librarian and teacher, celebrated books and the creative writing process. In 2001, Bush founded the National Book Festival in conjunction with the Library of Congress. The festival commemorated the literary world in all its forms — from children’s books, to famed writers of fiction and nonfiction alike. Thanks in part to her celebration of the arts, by the end of 2001, Laura Bush topped the list of most admired women in the world. 

Once a first lady’s term expires, most fade from public view. Bess Truman happily returned to her home, as did her successor, Mamie Eisenhower. Haunted by the assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy eventually retreated to New York, where she became a sought-after book editor. Lady Bird Johnson returned to her beloved Texas ranch, and Pat Nixon joined her husband in exile. Barbara Bush lived a quiet life after the White House, and Laura Bush has done the same.

Former first ladies who bask in the spotlight after their White House years are the exception, not the rule. Eleanor Roosevelt continued her newspaper column and public service, always immersing herself in the politics of the day. Hillary Clinton, seeing Roosevelt as a role model, won election to the Senate, served as secretary of state and became the first woman nominated by a major party for the presidency. Michelle Obama is leading a “When We All Vote” campaign in advance of the midterms.

Emulating her mother-in-law, who promoted literacy, first lady Laura Bush celebrated books of all genres. In her opening remarks at the 2001 National Book Festival, Bush highlighted acclaimed novelist Eudora Welty who, as a child, was given her own library card and read every book she could find. In celebrating Welty, Bush said, “I love to read, and I want more Americans to experience the sense of adventure and satisfaction that comes from reading a good book.”

Today, growing numbers of schoolchildren are being deprived of that right. In Tennessee, one school board has unanimously removed “Maus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust that tells the harrowing story of a father who survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp. Ryan Higgins, who remembered reading the book as a teenager, said the story was “heartbreaking and emotional, and it brought a whole new window into something I had little knowledge about.” 

In North Carolina, school officials removed “Dear Martin,” a story about a teenage boy who is racially profiled. In Virginia, Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin ran an advertisement featuring a mother who objected to Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Beloved,” which describes a slave murdering her child rather than having the infant face the horrors of that institution.

In Laura Bush’s native Texas, Republican Governor Greg Abbott has called for criminal charges to be filed against any school staff member who provides children with access to young adult novels. Nearly 100 school districts have received 75 formal requests to bar certain books from library bookshelves. Many target works dealing with racism or sexuality. In the Houston suburb of Katy, for example, gone are “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts),” a book about a gay teenager, along with “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Lawn Boy,” both coming-of-age stories featuring LGBTQ characters.

One student described losing her “safe space” in the school library. Another Texas parent demanded that a book about Michelle Obama be banned, arguing it promotes “reverse racism” against white people. Still another parent wanted a book about famed Olympian Wilma Rudolph expunged because it described the racism Rudolph faced growing up in segregated Tennessee during the 1940s. Texas Republican state Rep. Matt Krause has compiled a catalogue of 850 books that “make students feel discomfort,” and he has demanded their removal.

School librarians have increasingly become the target of parental ire, with some leaving the profession altogether. One of them, Sarah Chase, spoke for many of her former colleagues: “Who wants to be called a pornographer? Who wants to be accused of being a pedophile or reported to the police for putting a book in a kid’s hand?” 

Censoring books is hardly new. During the Joe McCarthy era of the 1950s, there were several attempts to ban books from overseas library shelves deemed to be “subversive.” Dwight Eisenhower condemned the practice in language that needs reaffirmation today: “Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you’re going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed.”

Like McCarthy, the notion of banning books in the name of defending America, eventually is seen as un-American. In 1981, 62 percent thought school librarians and teachers should have the final say as to what appears on the bookshelves; just 28 percent thought school boards should ban controversial books. Today, 87 percent reject the idea of banning books that discuss race or depict slavery; 85 percent say they disapprove of books that advocate “political ideas you disagree with”; and 83 percent side with Eisenhower’s disapproval of banning books that criticize U.S. history. 

The Laura Bush Foundation provides grants to school libraries, especially in poor districts so students can, as Bush said, experience “the sense of adventure and satisfaction that comes from reading a good book.” But it’s well past time to hear from the former first lady about the nationwide movement to ban books from libraries and the attacks on school librarians. To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel, “Where have you gone, Laura Bush? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.”

John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”

Tags banned books Bush family George W. Bush Glenn Youngkin Greg Abbott Hillary Clinton Laura Bush Librarian Michelle Obama School library

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