Just 20 miles outside of Boise, Nampa, Idaho may not seem like a place to ban the most books in the state, but thanks to one parent, it became the bleeding edge of a national movement to curb literature in schools.
But at a time when school board meetings are under siege by parents over concerns about curriculum, and vocal politicians are demanding teachers be scrutinized, the Nampa school district allowed just one parent to dictate what books should be removed from its libraries, a single inquiry leading to 24 books removed.
Nampa is just one of many cities in the country that have found themselves in a war against books. But its story is a microcosm of how outspoken parents and ill-informed school boards can curb students’ reading material with almost no effort.
According to Pen America, there were 2,532 instances of books being banned last school year, removing 1,648 unique titles from library shelves. At least 138 school districts across 32 states have been affected by book bans, leaving nearly 4 million students without access to these books.
The trend of book banning began to truly rise in January after a Tennessee school district banned the graphic novel Maus. Since then, it’s become a national news story, as almost every month another school district announces it is closely examining the books in its libraries.
According to Pen American, a big factor in the rise of book banning is non-profit organizations and parent groups pushing for certain books to be banned. One of the most prolific organizations is Moms for Liberty, a national organization with over 200 chapters throughout the country.
Idaho is responsible for 26 titles being banned, with Nampa school district personally banning 24. But it wasn’t a coordinated group. It all came at the behest of one woman, leaving families to wonder how someone was able to remove so many books from their children’s libraries.
The Daily Dot obtained records from Nampa school district containing hundreds of pages of emails of conversations leading to the decision to remove the books and emails from parents following the shocking decision.
In December 2021, Tosha Sweeney sent an email to the Nampa school board demanding the removal of 24 “pornographic” books.
Its subject line? “Obscene books.”
In Sweeney’s initial email to the school district, she argued that many of the books concerned topics of sexual assault and suicide and that reading the books would be traumatic for students.
“If a child gets a hold of one of these books who has a history with even one of these subjects you will be subjecting them to their trauma all over again,” she wrote.
Calling the books pornography, she also claimed that the books would lead to an increase in sexual assaults, as sex offenders, according to her, used pornography to “plan their attacks.”
Sweeney argued that not only was it morally wrong for school libraries to carry these titles, but it was also illegal under section 18-1515 of Idaho law which states a person is guilty of “Disseminating material harmful to minors” when they knowingly loan material with detailed sexual descriptions to underage children.
Sweeney did not respond to inquiries from the Daily Dot.
The 24 books Sweeney challenged were all young adult books and many included LBGTQ+ characters and themes.
Eight of the books on Sweeney’s list also appeared on Pen America’s list of the most banned books of the 2021-2022 school year. Specifically Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Pérez, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Crank by Ellen Hopkins, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, l8r, g8r by Lauren Myracle, and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. The full list is here.
Combined these titles have been banned in 115 school districts.
Many of these books include LBGTQ+ characters and themes. Out of Darkness involves themes of race and love across segregation. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie deals with themes of racism, identity, and grief. Almost all of these books are in the young adult genre and tell coming-of-age stories of characters dealing with their race, sexual identity, and their identity in the world.
According to Pen America, the campaign to ban these books is “in part driven by politics, with state lawmakers and executive branch officials pushing for bans in some cases.”
In October 2021, a Republican state representative, Matt Krause, sent a list to various Texas school districts asking them to remove 850 books from their libraries. These books all dealt with themes and race and sexual identity.
Most campaigns to ban books have been led by conservative parents concerned about supposed sexual content available in their children’s libraries. A Georgia mom caused a scene at her local school board meeting after she read graphic excerpts from books found in the school’s library. Michelle Brown told Fox News that she loves “living in a conservative town” but that she was concerned with the curriculum in the school district.
In a town with over 100,000 people and so many voices, one wouldn’t expect a single email from a single parent to cause the removal of 24 books from the entire school district.
And yet, the Nampa school board removed all the books on Sweeney’s hit list without a formal review being finished.
Before Sweeney’s complaint, no books had been banned in the Nampa school district. Almost immediately after, a committee was formed to review the books on Sweeney’s list.
The committee began with eight of the books and was set to review more after they were done with the first eight. Sweeney was offered a spot on the committee, despite her intentions already being clear. However, the planned review was never finished, and the books were axed.
Kathleen Tuck, director of communication and community relations for Nampa school district confirmed to the Daily Dot that the school board decided to ban all 24 titles without the committee finishing their review.
According to Idaho News 6, at the school board meeting in May, where they voted to ban the books, the board said that “the list was discussed at length during a board work session and previously reviewed by an in-house committee.”
The vote was 3-2 in favor of the ban. One attendee demanded the books be removed without a review over fears that leaving books in the libraries while any reviews continued would “add lifetime trauma to a child.”
At the meeting, Sweeny spoke and played into the current panic over grooming. “Exposing kids to pornographic material is a tactic used by groomers [and] child predators,” she said.
Sweeney admitted that the books she was upset about required parental consent to check out, but that she was worried children could read them in the library without checking them out, and thus needed to be completely removed.
The books were officially banned on May 9. The next day, Laurie Maughan, director of curriculum and instruction, emailed Nampa librarians and told them to box up the books that were banned and send them to the district’s warehouse.
After the books were banned, emails flooded in from parents thanking the board for their decision and parents condemning the board for the removal.
“The kids need adult love and support and to be properly guided,” one community member sent to the board. “I applaud you for keeping with appropriate reading materials for our kids, please continue to remove inappropriate teaching from the schools.”
When the books were banned, Aadika Singh, legal director of ACLU of Idaho emailed the superintendent saying the organization was “deeply concerned” by the decision to remove the 24 books. Singh argued that the school was in breach of the First Amendment by failing to establish an unbiased review of the books.
Long-time residents of Nampa expressed their disappointment to the board. “My wife and I are embarrassed by your banning of several popular books,” Jimmie Brown sent to the board. “We fail to see your point as this appears to be a political decision that had nothing to do with education.”
One parent emailed the district to express how “appalled” he was over the books being banned. “The more I learn about the situation the more appalling it becomes. To allow one person to challenge these books and then ban them forever without proper evaluation is ludicrous.”
Sweeney is one of many mothers across the country to demand books about race, sex, and identity be removed from the library shelves in the name of protecting their children. Pen America estimates that 20% of books banned last school year were caused by complaints from conservative groups and parents at school board meetings.
One upset parent emailed the district to ask one question of the school board.
“Have any of you read any of the books on the list?” they wrote.
The answer, according to records, is not many.