"Lawn Boy" on the shelf at the Glade Spring library. Courtesy of Washington County Library.

Washington County is the latest epicenter of a statewide surge in attempts to ban books from public libraries. A local official has mounted a vigorous campaign to have the coming-of-age novel “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison removed from a local public library. 

Mark Matney.

Mark Matney, a conservative activist who has served as the county’s commissioner of revenue since early 2020, turned to Facebook after he discovered the book on the shelf of the Glade Spring library branch late last year. “The Washington County Public Library has ‘Lawn Boy’ on the shelf a book that talks about two fourth graders having sex,” he wrote in a Dec. 10 post. “The book is not in the adult section, it is in the juvenile section.” (The library denies this.) He then urged his 5,000 followers on the social media platform to “please call the library” and “demand they remove this and any other book like it.” 

Published in 2018, “Lawn Boy” tells the story of Mike Muñoz, a young adult Mexican-American who is going through a phase of self-discovery after a difficult childhood. The book has been praised by critics and won several prizes, including one of the American Library Association’s Alex Awards in 2019, as one of the 10 “best adult books that appeal to teen audiences.”

“Lawn Boy.” Courtesy of Washington County Library

In a phone interview last week, Matney said that he first heard of the book in the news about a controversy in Fairfax County last November, where the local school division decided to return “Lawn Boy” and another book – “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobab – to its high school libraries after a review into complaints that the books contained sexually explicit language and scenes that weren’t appropriate for a juvenile audience.

The incident was preceded by a similar quarrel in Texas in September, where the mother of a high school student raised concerns about the content in “Lawn Boy,” saying “the book was full of obscenity and sexual content.” Consequently, three people filed reports with the local police, but a spokesperson for the school district said at the time that the book was not present in any curriculum, but was available in some classroom libraries for checkout.

Matney’s original Facebook post. The library says the book has always been in the adult section.

Matney said that he found a list of controversial books on the Internet and compared it to the online inventory of the Washington County library. “That’s when I found that “Lawn Boy” was in the juvenile section,” he said. “I immediately went on Facebook and asked people to call them and have them move it out of the children’s section, and by 1 p.m. that day, it was back in the adults section.”

Matney said that he found a total of 159 LGTBQ-related books in the library’s inventory, including “tons of books where two homosexuals were having sex.” But as a First Amendment supporter, he wouldn’t push for the removal of those, despite the books’ offensive nature, Matney said. “I believe in free speech, although I don’t like those books I would never ask them to be removed.”

“Lawn Boy,” however, is a different case, he said, adding that he purchased a copy of the book, although he did not read all of it. “The parts that I did see were pretty sickening to me,” Matney said. “I don’t think anybody should be reading it because it’s pedophilia material because it is about fourth-graders having sex at a church camp, and that’s crossing the line for me. To me, that doesn’t belong in society, period.”

Most of Matney’s followers commenting on his Facebook post were equally appalled. “Absolutely unbelievable that our taxpayers money is being wasted on such evil personal and material,” one wrote. “The devil at work!” wrote another. One commenter suggested calling the members of the library’s board of trustees. “Get their names and post their home numbers. All this crap is designed to promote your children into homosexuality and a perverted lifestyle,” the man wrote.

When asked why the writings offended him, Matney referred to an article by North Carolina based writer Monica Chen titled “’Lawn Boy’ IS pedophilic. Here’s why,” in which the writer argues that the book’s “pedophilic, exploitative and abusive elements go beyond the swear words and the sexual passages.”

Evison, the book’s author, addressed the controversy around his novel in an interview with Katie Couric Media in May. “The claim is categorically false,” he said of the pedophilia allegations. “The scene in question involves the adult narrator reflecting on a sexual encounter from his youth involving another youth, not an adult. The scene is not graphic in its depiction, though the language is somewhat crude, and for reasons that are clearly salient in the context of the narrative.” 

Molly Schock, the director of the Washington County Public Library, in a phone interview pushed back against Matney’s claim that “Lawn Boy” was on the shelf in the juvenile section. “That book was originally placed in the adult fiction collection, and that book has always been there since we got it in 2018, it was never moved,” she said.

Schock said that following Matney’s Facebook post the library received “maybe two or three calls” from local residents who said they had seen the post, but who did not want to leave contact information. “We definitely were not inundated with calls,” she said.

In February, after Matney filed a so-called reconsideration request to have the book removed from the library, Schock met with the library’s four-member reconsideration committee. “We went over reviews of that book and its selection criteria, and the committee unanimously determined that selection policy had been followed and that the library would retain ‘Lawn Boy.’”

At a meeting of the library’s board of trustees in March, the panel reviewed the committee’s report and by a 5-1 vote decided to uphold the recommendation to retain the book. The lone vote against keeping it on the shelf was cast by Matney’s wife, Senah, who is a board member. “We have not received any calls since, no one else has presented other reconsideration requests,” Shock said. “To us, this matter is finished, but the Matneys continue to discuss that book in a public form and they continue to express their dissatisfaction with the library in general.”

Last month, some followers of Matney’s cause aired the grievances  at a local board of supervisors meeting. But the county has not taken any action, and the library’s sole copy of “Lawn Boy” remains in the adult fiction section at the Glade Spring branch. 

Anyone with a library card can request the book, including from other branches, Schock said. “I think that libraries are defending intellectual freedom and the right of the readers to have access to materials that have a space on the shelf,” she said, adding that the library’s sole copy of the title has “circulated a bit” since the controversy started.

Matney’s effort to have a book he deems controversial banned is just one of many in the commonwealth. A recent investigation by the Richmond Times-Dispatch revealed that at least 23 Virginia school districts have taken books off shelves in the past two years.

And in Virginia Beach, Tommy Altman, formerly a candidate for the GOP nomination to run against U.S. Rep. Elaine Luria in the 2nd District, wants to restrict access to two books in privately owned bookstores. A circuit court judge in May found probable cause that the two titles that can be found in school libraries in the city are obscene. 

Lisa Varga, executive director, Virginia Library Association. Courtesy of VLA.

The November election of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who ran on a platform of allowing parents more control over their children’s curricula and education, has emboldened many more to speak up and try to get certain books removed, said Lisa Varga, executive director Virginia Library Association.

“We have seen a dramatic rise in book challenges, and that’s concerning, because the entire concept of intellectual freedom on which a library is based is that no one person gets to decide what people can and can’t read,” Varga told Cardinal News. 

Library boards don’t select their books in a vacuum, but based on reviews, awards, and on the idea that a certain title fulfills some sort of informational need, background and perspective, Varga said. “’Lawn Boy’ has earned its place, based on the fact that it already went through reconsideration. If we were to allow individuals to make decisions about what books are worthy or not worthy, we wouldn’t actually have a library that meets the needs of a community.”

And the recent efforts are part of a much larger strategy, Varga said. 

“It isn’t just about individual titles,” she said. “A lot of names of books are being circulated online, and people are being encouraged to show up at their school board meetings or their libraries to complain about these titles. But many of these books have not actually been fully read by the people showing up to complain about them. The mission is to create chaos and confusion.”

And attempts to ban books – particularly those with LGBTQ characters and people of color, or about race and racism – are not unique to Virginia. Two million students in 86 school districts across the country have had their access to books restricted because of book bans this school year, according to a new report by PEN America, a free speech advocacy organization.

“Typically when we have seen these challenges they come from folks who have lost some sort of control over something in their professional or personal life, and they decide to focus on books, and that this is the thing that is going to save humanity,” Varga said. “But it’s not, you can’t control what people read and how they interpret what they have read. Our goal as librarians is to make sure that all of the information is available for all of the residents of a community, and that we have these shared resources.”

Matney, however, said that his mission is misunderstood. “When people on the other side are talking about this issue they are saying I’m trying to ban books, but that’s not true,” he said. “I’m trying to ban a book, which I think crosses the line. As Christians we got to stand up for the children, because to get children involved in sex, that’s just wrong, it’s immoral, and it goes against God.”

Whether his effort will succeed, Matney doesn’t know. “Officially, this is the end of the situation,” he said. “I’m just making people aware. It’s out of my hands.”

Markus Schmidt is a reporter for Cardinal News. Reach him at markus@cardinalnews.org or 804-822-1594.