What’s the state of book bans in Georgia schools?

Challenges to school library books aren’t new, but in recent years they’ve become a flash point in the larger battle over how we tell the story of America, particularly to children. Here's the latest on what's happening locally.

What's the state of book bans in Georgia schools?
Katie Rinderle speaks during a banned books event, hosted by MoveOn Political Action, at Little Shop of Stories in Decatur on October 1. Rinderle was fired from her job as a 5th grade teacher at Cobb County’s Due West Elementary after reading a children’s book about gender identity to her students that administrators say violated the school’s “controversial issues” policy.

Photograph by Derek White/Getty Images for MoveOn

If someone were to write a book about the culture war currently raging across the United States, chances are someone else would try to ban it. Challenges to school library books aren’t new, but in recent years they’ve become a flash point in the larger battle over how we tell the story of America, particularly to children.

PEN America, a hundred-year-old nonprofit organization that tracks data on free speech and literacy, found that nearly 1,600 unique book titles were permanently banned in public school libraries around the country during the last school year. Most of the banned titles feature LGBTQ+ characters or characters of color, or include themes of racism or sexual assault. In many states, new laws banning “sensitive” or “explicitly sexual” material in public schools have led to an increase in challenged books.

So far, Georgia’s seen fewer book bans than some other states like Florida and Texas, but we’ve seen plenty of controversy over who reads what. Here’s the latest in the fight over books in Georgia schools.

In Georgia, most formal book challenges have ultimately been rejected, but some removals may go unreported.

While activists have challenged hundreds of books in Georgia, our reporting found that most efforts did not result in permanent bans. A survey of Georgia counties completed in October 2023 found seven titles permanently banned from specific middle and high schools; other books were eventually returned to shelves, according to PEN America. The permanent bans included two books in Cobb County schools and Marietta City Schools, one in Forsyth County, two in Coweta County high schools, and two in Coweta middle schools. Some counties, including Coweta, Forsyth, and Floyd, have added parental consent requirements or “M for Mature” stickers to certain titles.

Then, in December, the number of banned books in Georgia ballooned when the Marietta City School Board voted overwhelmingly to remove 23 books from its high school libraries. The list includes some popular targets of book ban advocates, such as A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah Maas and Tricks by Ellen Hopkins, but the school board also voted to ban bestsellers like The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky.

The true number of books removed from Georgia school libraries is likely higher, however, because school districts aren’t actually required to report bans. The American Library Association (ALA) estimates that 82 to 97 percent of challenges go unreported, and it’s impossible to know how many school administrators and teachers have quietly pulled books from shelves even without complaints.

“The reported challenges don’t include that kind of softer censorship,” says Nan Brown, a metro Atlanta middle school librarian and an advocacy coordinator with the Georgia Library Media Association. “Like when a principal says, This book doesn’t need to be here, it needs to disappear—those [removals] aren’t visible.”

One thing we do know: Book bans are unpopular. A recent ALA poll found that 67 percent of voters oppose removing books from school libraries.

Georgia’s new law makes it easier for parents to challenge books, but harder for outside groups.

One reason Georgia has seen fewer book bans than other states is that SB 226, the 2022 state law that governs book challenges, requires that complaints be filed by parents of students in the respective school, limiting challenges from national organizations.

“From the fall of 2021 to the summer of 2022, most of our challenges came from a group called No Left Turn in Education,” says Dean Jackson, a spokesperson for the Coweta County School System. “None of them had kids in our schools, so those challenges were ultimately dropped.”

To get around Georgia’s policy, some outside organizations have recruited parents. In Forsyth County, book challenges were initiated by several school parents who were members of Mama Bears, an organization launched in North Carolina that promotes such protests. In March 2022, a Cherokee County parent sent school administrators a list of hundreds of titles she wanted prohibited in her child’s school—a significant portion of which were reportedly copy-pasted from a list originally issued by the Florida Citizens Alliance, a conservative activist organization known for challenging educational policies around such issues as vaccine mandates, bathroom choice, and global warming.

Critics say the language in Georgia’s new education laws is too vague.

Georgia’s new book challenge law specifies who can request a book ban, but it provides little clarity on what gets a book banned. The legislation—which tasks principals with deciding whether to remove a book, rather than teachers and librarians, who have historically resolved complaints from parents on their own—says material that is “harmful to minors” can be nixed from shelves. The law defines as “harmful” material that, “taken as a whole,” is sexual content appealing to “prurient” interests, without “literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.” But there’s no further guidance on how principals should decide whether a book meets that definition, making the process largely subjective.

Critics say the “taken as a whole” stipulation is key when judging a book’s merit, and note that book challengers often lift explicit paragraphs out of context (and have taken to reading them out loud at school board hearings for dramatic effect).

There is similar confusion around a related new state law, the so-called “divisive concepts” legislation, which bans discussion of certain ideas about race and racism in K–12 public schools, including that “the United States of America is fundamentally racist.” Unlike the book challenge law, HB 1084 allows for penalties—including termination—for teachers who violate the prohibitions and gives administrators and school boards wide latitude in enforcing those penalties.

In August, Cobb County’s school board made national headlines when they voted to fire fifth grade teacher Katie Rinderle for reading a book about gender identity to her students. She is appealing the decision and may sue for unlawful termination.

Rinderle, a 10-year teaching veteran, purchased My Shadow Is Purple, a children’s picture book by Scott Stuart, at a Scholastic book fair held at Due West Elementary, where she taught fifth grade. “I thought it was a beautiful book that promoted inclusivity and was very affirming to students,” she says.

She read it to the class on a Wednesday, after her students selected it from several options using a “Post-it note vote.” The next Monday, the principal placed her on administrative leave for violating Cobb County’s “controversial issues” policy, adapted from the state’s divisive concepts law. Though a panel of three retired educators recommended against her termination, Cobb County’s school board overruled their decision in a 4–3 vote, firing Rinderle on August 17. She’s believed to be the first teacher to lose her job under Georgia’s new rules.

Rinderle, who is appealing her firing to the state board of education, says Cobb provided no guidance on what constitutes a “controversial issue.” The policy prohibits employees from “espousing” or “indoctrinating a student” with “such individual’s personal beliefs concerning divisive concepts.” Rinderle says that, during a preplanning meeting, she and her colleagues were shown a PowerPoint presentation that included the language of the new law. “But that’s really the extent of any discussion or ‘training’ that we had at school,” she says.

Rinderle and her attorney, Craig Goodmark, are considering suing Cobb County, and more litigation over Georgia’s education laws may be forthcoming. Goodmark is working with the Southern Poverty Law Center on a lawsuit against the divisive concepts law; civil liberties attorney Gerry Weber has also announced plans to sue the state.

“Placing students at the center of their education is something we should all be fighting for,” Rinderle says. “Making sure we are empowering students to think critically, helping them understand the complexities in our world. That’s why we do what we do.”

Books recently banned in Georgia

Cobb County, Marietta City Schools

  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews
  • Flamer by Mike Curato

Marietta City Schools

  • 13 Reasons Why by Josh Asher
  • City of Thieves by David Benioff
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chobsky
  • This Book Is Gay by Juno Dawson
  • I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle
  • It Ends With Us by Colleen Hoover
  • Crank by Ellen Hopkins
  • Identical by Ellen Hopkins
  • Tricks by Ellen Hopkins
  • Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany Jackson
  • All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
  • Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin
  • A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas
  • A Court of Thorn and Roses by Sarah J. Maas
  • A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas
  • A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas
  • The Infinite Moment of Us by Lauren Myracle
  • Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera
  • The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
  • Lucky by Alice Sebold
  • More Happy Than Not by Ada Silvera
  • Grasshopper Jungle: A History by Andrew Smith
  • Blankets by Craig Thompson

Forsyth County

  • All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson

Coweta County

  • The Handmaid’s Tale (graphic novel version) by Margaret Atwood
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • Tricks by Ellen Hopkins
  • A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

A version of this article appears in our December 2023 issue.