Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor is reviewing dozens of books found in public school libraries to determine whether they violate state obscenity law.

Books under review range from classics such as Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies to newer titles that cover LGBTQ and social justice issues. The Frontier obtained a list of 51 books under review from the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office. 

O’Connor’s review comes as libraries and school boards in Oklahoma and across the nation face a surge in challenges to books in public schools. Republican state lawmakers have  introduced several bills this legislative session that seek to place new restrictions or oversight of school library standards. 

In one of the latest challenges in Oklahoma, the Bixby Board of Education on Wednesday voted to uphold the recommendations of a review committee to keep two titles on the shelves — Thirteen Reasons Why and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. A parent had asked for the books to be removed because of sexual content and coarse language.

The Attorney General’s office said there has been an increase in the number of complaints it has received about books over the past year, but did not have information about which materials were in high schools, middle schools or elementary schools.

In a brief interview with The Frontier on Monday at a Republican Women’s Club South Tulsa United meeting, O’Connor said he decided to investigate after receiving complaints from parents and conservative groups including Reclaiming Oklahoma Parent Empowerment, and the Tulsa County chapter Moms for Liberty.  O’Connor said his office would review the books to determine whether they contained ponographic material. 

“Well, I think the first thing we have to decide is at what ages are our kids ready for exposure to images that many think are pornographic? And and then we have to also look at things and decide for our community standards what is pornography?” O’Connor said. “And usually if a number of parents are shocked that a given photo or diagram is inappropriate, that should be reviewed and they should look at removing the use of that book or whatever.”

  • Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

    “A lot of the effort seems to be, in some circles it’s considered cool to expose kids to drawings of, say, homosexual sex in a diagram. And many parents, including me, disagree with that, whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual sex.”

    – Attorney General John O’Connor

Most of O’Connor’s concerns seemed to be whether illustrations and pictures in some of the books crossed the line into obscenity. Asked whether the obscenity statute would apply to written material as well, O’Connor hedged.

“I guess it could. Some of those things are questions of what’s appropriate. It may not be pornography, but it still may not be appropriate,” O’Connor said. “A lot of the effort seems to be, in some circles it’s considered cool to expose kids to drawings of, say, homosexual sex in a diagram. And many parents, including me, disagree with that, whether it’s homosexual or heterosexual sex.”

Oklahoma Republican lawmakers have introduced several bills this legislative session that seek to place new restrictions on school library standards. The bills come as Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor reviews dozens of books found in public school libraries to determine whether they violate state obscenity laws.

House Bill 3092By House Speaker Pro Tempore Rep. Kyle Hilbert, R-Bristow, would require school libraries to “be reflective of the community standards for the population the library media center serves” when acquiring new materials.
Senate Bill 1640By Sen. Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, would codify the existing school materials challenge policy into law.
Senate Bill 1142By Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, would require schools to remove all library books that have “as their primary subject the study of sex, sexual preferences, sexual activity, sexual perversion, sex-based classifications, sexual identity, or gender identity or books that are of a sexual nature that a reasonable parent or legal guardian would want to know of or approve of prior to their child being exposed to it.” Any parent who believes a school has such a book can submit a written request for its removal and it must be removed by the school within 30 days. Staff may be fired and the school could be subject to a $10,000-per day fine for failing to remove the material within 30 days.
House Bill 4012By Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, would create a district-level community standards review committee for school materials, allow parents to appeal school board decisions on books to the state board of education, and require a rating system similar to movies for books in schools.
House Bill 4013By Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, would expand the definition of obscene materials to include books, articles, magazines, drawings, paintings and any written material.
House Bill 4014By Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, would allow parents to review their children’s library records.
House Bill 4317By Rep. Wendi Stearman, R-Collinsville, would prohibit the State Board of Education from adopting school library and literacy subject matter standards that are developed by a national organization and provides critical thinking and literacy standards for students.
House Bill 4328By Rep. Wendi Stearman, R-Collinsville, would require schools to post all library materials online, as well as curriculum materials, teacher training materials, and lesson plans. A school could lose accreditation for failing to comply. Much of the bill’s language is copied word-for-word from model legislation offered by the conservative think tank The Manhattan Institute.
Senate Bill 1654By Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, would ban schools from carrying books on “lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues or recreational sexualization,” defined as “any form of non-procreative sex.” The bill also prohibits schools from administering surveys on sexuality or gender.
Senate Bill 1823By Sen. Shane Jett, R-Shawnee, would prohibit businesses from knowingly targeting minors with content or messages with obscene material or sexual conduct under the Oklahoma Consumer Protection Act.

The switch to virtual learning during the coronavirus pandemic put parents in a more attentive role to what their children were reading, several state lawmakers running library standards bills this session told The Frontier.

The increased scrutiny is part of a new trend in education activism that has resulted in packed, fiery school board meetings across the country. 

Cherity Pennington, president of the Oklahoma Library Association, said few of the lawmakers who are running these bills have consulted with librarians to see how materials are selected, the training that goes into selecting materials and how age-appropriate standards are applied.

“It’s always concerning to me when people try to make decisions without talking to the trained professionals who are charged with evaluating and developing library collections,” Pennington said.

Sen. Rob Standridge, R-Norman, said he consulted with David Barton, the founder of WallBuilders, an organization best known for its promotion of a Christian nationalist history of the United States, in writing Senate Bill 1142. The legislation would prohibit schools from carrying books that focus on sex and introduce harsh penalties for ignoring parental complaints, such as firing for school employees and a $10,000-per day fine for districts. 

“I think there is a move around the country to give parents a little bit more control over what’s given to their children,” Standridge said. “Something that historically parents have always had the final say, but for some reason, over the last few years, schools have eroded that privilege away.”

Standridge said he got the idea for the bill after hearing concerns from parents who showed him excerpts of some of the books in schools. As an example, Standridge provided a rape scene in the novel “The Bluest Eye,” which he said was part of the reading curriculum at some Oklahoma high schools. Since its publication in 1970, the book has often landed on the American Library Association’s list of most-challenged books.

During a recent meeting of the Reclaiming Oklahoma Parent Empowerment group at Fairview Baptist Church in Edmond, Rep. Sherrie Conley, R-Newcastle, said that she met with O’Connor about reviewing school library materials, and submitted a list of books found in Oklahoma school libraries for him to review. 

Conley, who has worked in the education field since the early 1990s, has introduced several pieces of legislation on library standards this session, including House Bill 4013, which would expand the scope of the state’s obscenity law to cover books and other written materials.

Conley believes the bill is needed to strengthen Oklahoma’s obscenity law so “there’s no confusion — it does apply to a book.”

The legislation is a companion bill to what Conley called her “dirty book bill,” House Bill 4012, which would create a new way for parents to challenge school curriculum and library materials. The bill would create a district-level community standards review committee and introduce a rating system similar to movies for books in schools.

“You know, we have ratings on video games, we have ratings on music, and we have ratings on movies, why do we not have ratings on books?,” Conley said. “And so for me, it is more about you know, just protecting the innocent.”

OLA President Pennington said she believes the bill is “unnecessary” because all accredited schools in Oklahoma are already required to have a way for parents to challenge materials. Many also have a review board and parents can appeal a decision to the school board.

Conley told parents gathered at the recent Reclaiming Oklahoma Parent Empowerment meeting at Fairview Baptist Church that she believes some books are part of a larger, coordinated effort to desensitize children to sex and indoctrinate them with leftist beliefs. 

“I don’t know where you stand on understanding what Agenda 21 is, or Agenda 2030 or any of that, if you look at what the agenda is, for the United Nations, they want to take our children and turn them into a sovereign person to where they are not under the guidance or direction of their parents,” she said. 

Asked after the meeting to clarify who was behind the indoctrination, Conley said she was not sure, but the culprits could range from the United Nations to the American Library Association to billionaire George Soros.

“It has to be something sinister. In order for it to be widespread across the country. It has to be somebody who was wanting to hurt kids,” Conley said. “Because the teachers that I know, that I have taught with and worked with for 30 years in Oklahoma education, they love children. And until I had exposed some of this to my friends, they were like, Sherrie, what? What is this?”

Pennington said it is the job of the library to offer a wide array of viewpoints and experiences to the public, not to indoctrinate people.

“Libraries do not seek to indoctrinate anyone on any point of view. We are committed to providing all viewpoints and age-appropriate materials,” she said. “Anytime you have one person or one group trying to prevent all viewpoints from being represented in a library, then you run the risk of challenging your own democracy. Our democracy is built on the free information available to its citizens. And libraries are committed to making sure that all viewpoints are represented.”

Full list of books under review by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office:
A is for Activist written and illustrated by Innosanto Nagara
The Every Body Book: The LGBTQ+ Inclusive Guide for Kids About Sex, Gender, Bodies and Famililes by Rachel E. Simon
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe
Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison
Forever by Judy Blume
Queer: A Graphic History by Meg-John Barker and Julie Scheele
Be Gay Do Comics by The Nib
Two Boys Kissing by David Levithan
Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts) by L.C. Rosen
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
Bad For You by Abbi Glines
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver
George by Alex Gino
Speak by LAurie Halse Anderson
Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
For Black Girls Like Me by Mariama J Lockington
You Should See Me In a Crown by Leah Johnson
On Thin Ice by Michael Northrop
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White
Fairest: The Lunar Chronicles: Levana’s Story by Marissa Meyer
House of Furies by Madeleine Roux
I Was Here by Gayle Forman
Hold Me Closer by Will Grayson
Whatever by Michel Houellebecq
Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich and Steven Levenson
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Symptoms of Being Human by Jeff Garvin
Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
Red White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Zenobia by Morten Durr
Mastiff by Tamora Pierce
Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen M McManus
Burned by Ellen Hopkins
Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
Infandous by Elana K Arnold
Broken Things by Lauren Oliver
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
All American Boys by Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Bless Me Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Crank by Ellen Hopkins
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J Maas
Suicide Notes by Michael Thomas Ford
By the Time You Read This I’ll Be Dead by Julie Anne Peters
Milk and Honey by Rupi Kaur