As attention mounts to proposed textbook bans nationally, a suburban Northwestern school district voted by a narrow majority Tuesday night to reject an offer to remove two books from the district’s high school library.
In a 4-to-3 vote, the board held flaming, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about a Filipino-American teenager struggling with his gay identity. You also keep This book is gay, a non-fiction book on gender and sexuality. The board accepted a recommendation from the school’s Advisory Committee of Experts that the books be preserved after it was found that they did not meet profanity and pornography standards.
“It is our job to represent the more than 8,000 students in our district,” said board member Erin Chan Ding. “What do we say when we pull out a book like this that has already been reviewed, that has already been selected as available – not taught, not explicitly shown – but is available for students who want to read it?”
But during a lengthy and sometimes heated debate, board members were divided on whether the books were appropriate content in the school. At one point, someone in the audience called a board member who advocated running the books as a “pedophile.” Board members discussed the current options for parents to prevent their children from reading certain books, but some were concerned they were not going far enough.
“I understand that we can say, ‘Let’s deregister my child so my child can’t borrow this book.’ That’s fair,” said board member Steve Wang. “My child can also go to the library, not borrow the book, take the book off the shelf and read it… It’s not okay for my child.”
Wang called the books obscene but did not agree to a total ban. Some expressed concern that removing the books would have a negative impact on LGBTQ students. Board member Katie Karam said she has no problem with inclusive books but thinks the content is wrong for the school.
“I don’t think it’s the county’s job to teach children how to perform sexual acts,” she said, referring to it This book is gay.
Some bookkeeping advocates agreed that some content is shocking, but it is up to parents to talk to their children about what is appropriate for them. Chan Ding argued that both books have value, especially for students who may identify as LGBTQ.
The fight over these books comes as more attention across the country focuses on attempts to ban books, with the vote taking place on Tuesday during what has been called “banned book week.” The annual national event celebrates the right to read and highlights the harms of censorship.
According to a. 2,500 individual books were either permanently or temporarily banned from US classrooms or libraries, affecting 1,700 book titles report this week from PEN America, a group that advocates for free speech. Illinois saw as many as 10 book bans, according to the report, well behind Texas and Florida, which saw the most bans, between 500 and 1,000.
In Barrington, residents and audiences at Tuesday’s meeting were just as divided over the proposed book bans as the board. Barrington High School graduate Chase Heidner said the books “normalized” pornography. Supporting the removal of the books is not anti-gay, she told the board, but to protect the mental health of students.
“I’m here because I want to protect kids, period,” she said. “That includes children who are part of the LGBTQ community and I think with these books they need more protection than ever.”
Some parents described sexually explicit portions of the book and questioned its educational value for students. They argued that there are other ways to be inclusive without giving access to “vulgar” material.
Some parents stressed that these two books are not part of a curriculum but are simply available in the school library. Parent Paul Rudnicki told the board that the books did not meet the definition of obscenity and pornography. He said a book shouldn’t be removed just because others don’t agree with it.
“There are many books that I wouldn’t recommend to people, but I’m sure they’re on the shelf somewhere,” he said. “That’s the beauty of how the library works. You can go in, rummage around, pick up a book and put it down when you don’t want to read it.”
Parent Brian Prigge said it hadn’t escaped his notice that these books were to be removed during national banned book week.
“The irony is dripping that we are dealing with a book in which an LGBTQ youth is seriously contemplating suicide during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and Banned Books Week,” he said.
Prigge said the district chose #WeBelong220 as their theme this year. He said discussing the removal of books that marginalized students may identify with goes against that message.
“We’re talking about whether or not our LGBTQ youth should be represented in our library and whether they should have access to materials they can identify with,” he said. “The theme of these books is that they all deal with LGBTQ issues.”
In August, Barrington School Board members faced a vote on another book ban. They decided to keep the book Gender Queer in the library of Barrington High School. The graphic memoir, written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe, has been the focus of much book debate across the country, including in the suburb of Downers Grove. Last year, District 99 Community High School administrators also decided to keep the book on the district’s shelves. In Barrington, complaints about a book are submitted to the district school library information specialist and are reviewed by an advisory committee, which makes the recommendation to the school board.
In recent debates, according to the American Library Association, most books were by or about Black or LGBTQ authors. According to the ALA, there were 681 attempts to ban or restrict books from January through August 31 of this year. The association believes 2022 will surpass last year’s attempts to censor library resources, when there were 729 attempts. It also finds that more than 70% of attempts to restrict books targeted multiple titles, in contrast to previous years when previous challenges aimed to restrict a single book.
PEN America also noted that some attempts to ban books over the past year were part of a coordinated campaign by well-resourced advocacy organizations, most of which have only emerged since 2021. One of those groups, Moms for Liberty Lake County, pushed for a restriction Gender Queer in the Barrington School District. PEN America found that at least 20% of the book bans in the last school could be directly linked to the actions of these groups, “with many more bans likely being influenced by them.”
The PEN report also lists the most commonly prohibited items. About 41% of banned titles last year focused on LGBTQ issues; about 40% had protagonists or prominent colored supporting characters.
“There are people who are exploring their identities, different types that don’t have access to that information to be able to do that,” said Emily Knox, an associate professor in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. “It’s a very chilling effect that I’m very concerned about.
Knox is concerned that the voice of some driver book bans could dictate harmful decisions. Some libraries may choose not to include certain books to avoid conflicts.
She also stressed that having a particular book in the school library doesn’t mean people have to agree with its message. Some students might identify with the material. Others might refer to these books to learn more about their classmates.
“I think what parents are really responding to is the idea of books as permission structures, that you’re going to think reading about it is okay,” Knox said. “It doesn’t fit with my value as a parent, they might say, so it should be taken away.”
According to Knox, Banned Books Week also marks the case of the US Supreme Court Island Tree School District vs. Pico. The 1982 court ruled that school boards should not remove books to stifle ideas. Knox said attempted censorship during this period focused on books that touched on racial issues.
“We’ve come a long way, a long way, but we’re also still talking about many of the same issues that arose in this Supreme Court case,” she said.
Susie An covers the training for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.