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Girls Who Code books 'banned' in some US classrooms

Culture wars may have come to gentle tales of tweens enjoying friends, fun, programming

Updated Books aimed at encouraging tween girls to code were removed or blocked from at least some classrooms in Pennsylvania's Central York School District, according to a free-speech campaign group.

The "banned" books, we're told, were the first four in the Girls Who Code series: The Friendship Code; Team BFF: Race to the Finish!; Girls Who Code, Lights, Music, Code!; and Spotlight on Coding Club!

The four tomes come from nonprofit organization Girls Who Code, which says it strives to close the technology industry's gender gap and change the image of "what a programmer looks like and does." The group works toward its goal with its books, summer camps, immersion programs, after school coding clubs, and more.

The Girls Who Code series is a mashup of The Babysitters Club and Computer Science 101. A group of four or five, depending which book in the series you are on, diverse tween girls navigate friendship, life, coding, and hackathons while the authors drop code fragments into the story line.

It's the type of stuff parents buy their kids in hopes of making IT seem cool.

But apparently not everyone found it aspirational. The four books ended up on freedom-of-expression advocacy group PEN America's Index of School Book Bans, which claimed the series was "banned in the classroom" sometime between July 1, 2021 and June 20, 2022.

Girls Who Code's founder Reshma Saujani pinned the ban on a group called "Moms for Liberty," which advocates for parental rights in schools and oversight of educational material.

Saujani detailed her reaction to finding the books on the PEN America list:

To be honest, I am so angry I cannot breathe. This series was our labor of love, our commitment to our community to make sure that girls – all girls – see themselves as coders. You cannot be what you cannot see, and this was our effort to get more girls, girls of color interested in coding. And it worked!!

The founder later tweeted: "Maybe they don't want girls to learn to code because that's a way to be economically secure." Saujani also vowed to fight back against the alleged ban through her other nonprofit, Marshall Plan for Moms.

The Register reached out to Girls Who Code, Moms for Liberty, and Pennsylvania's Central York School District to better understand the situation, and we did not receive a response in time for publication.

Online book reviews suggest the Girls Who Code books are innocuous. One review read:

My daughter is six and loved this book. She has been reticent to listen to or read chapter books lately, and she had me read this to her twice in one day. I liked there was conflict resolution, positive role models, and it felt grown-up enough to make her feel like she was peering into 6th grade. There were two examples when the character used the word 'suck' or 'stupid' but otherwise it was pretty tame.

Moms for Liberty (MFL) lists many instances of its members being quoted in conservative media, all of them featuring comment critical of topics such as sex education, inclusive gender language, and advanced college-level critical race theory modules.

As for banning books, MFL cofounder Tina Descovich told Fox News the group is only concerned with children's access to pornography and sexually explicit material in the school environment.

"I haven't seen any of our chapters that want to get rid of any books that help children find characters they identify with," said Descovich. She conceded "there are a lot of books in gray areas."

The Register was unable to find any signs of pornographic or sexually explicit material within reviews or summaries describing the Girls Who Code books.

Pennsylvania's Central York School District is reportedly in a critical political swing region where Girls Who Code has an active club.

One tweeter said their daughter had quite enjoyed the Girls Who Code summer coding program, though the netizen was unhappy with content the organization included in its mailing list, which in the past touched on abortion and the rights of transgender people.

"I love the missions to get girls interested in programming. I just do not appreciate it with a side of politics," said the mom. ®

Updated to add

After this article went viral, Moms for Liberty got back to us. It denied it was behind any effort to ban the kids' programming books, and said the tales are today available from the district's school libraries. We note PEN specifically said "classrooms" not "libraries," though, and that MFL acknowledged it seeks to "curate" materials children have access to, a softer word than "ban."

"The allegations that Moms for Liberty has worked to ban Girls Who Code are completely false," MFL cofounders Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice told us in a statement. "Furthermore, the Central York school district has confirmed the book is currently sitting on library shelves.

"Moms for Liberty will continue to fight for fundamental parental rights because curating age-appropriate content for a school library is not banning books, it is empowering parents to be involved in their children's education."

What appears to have happened is that the Girls Who Code series appeared on a list of books and other materials drawn up by the Central York School District that teachers were allowed to use in the classroom. This list was called the Diversity Resource List as it focused on titles written by or about people of color; indeed, the Girls Who Code series features protagonists who are young girls of color.

When there was some outcry over this list – ostensibly regarding the content of the materials – the district board told teachers to hold off using the catalog until it had been vetted. That was interpreted by freedom-of-expression and pro-diversity campaigners as a ban. Then in September last year, about a year after the list was withheld and amid criticism and community anger, the school district finally approved the list. Thus Girls Who Code is today allowed in classrooms.

One point of contention is that Girls Who Code reportedly appeared on a list of approved teaching materials drawn up prior to the Diversity Resource List, and when the latter was frozen, the earlier list was allowed to stand. Thus Girls Who Code would have been allowed in classes. However, it was also on the withheld Diversity Resource List, as an example of diverse literature, so this may have been seen as a ban.

PEN America insisted the books were at one point verboten, and confirmed the titles were reinstated in September 2021.

"These books were banned in Central York in 2021," the group told us in a statement. "Our understanding is that they were restored last fall, including the Girls Who Code series, after significant community outcry.

Removing books while they are under review is a ban

"PEN America's most recent report includes a list of all books that were banned during the 2021-22 school year, from July 2021-June 2022, including books that were banned for a limited or indefinite period of time. It is a record of all of the bans that were enacted over the course of the school year, many of which did cover books that are surprising targets, like the Girls Who Code series.

"Every book ban enacted, even if temporary, is a violation of students' freedom to read. 'Temporary' bans often become permanent, and the status of a book's availability to students, particularly in the absence of a neutral, established review process, is frequently opaque. Removing books while they are under review is a ban, is contrary to the best practice guidance established by the American Library Association and National Coalition Against Censorship, and because book removals preclude access, they are bans.

"Every ban limits students' access to those books, and can have a broader chilling effect. Tracking all bans is essential to understand the scope of restrictions being enacted on books across the country. Please see PEN America's definition of a book ban for further information."

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