ImagineIF Trustees Attempt to Censor Children’s Book About Racism

While the American Library Association celebrates the freedom of reading through its “Banned Book Week,” an annual campaign to raise awareness of the growing catalog of books plagued by attempts to remove them from public schools and libraries, hit The ImagineIF Board of Trustees met Thursday to consider a motion to remove another book from its collection — the third challenge Flathead County’s library system has faced in the past year.

The latest complaint, centered on the book Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham, was filed by a Flathead County resident who wrote that the text was “prejudiced and hostile to people of different ethnicities.”

“This book creates shame and judgment in children while exposing them to the problem of racism,” the written complaint reads. “Honestly, as an adult, the comments made me uncomfortable.”

The complainant did not defend her claims in the board meeting.

Not My Idea is a children’s picture book that explores racism, racial justice and “how power and privilege affects the lives of white children,” according to one review. It received critical acclaim and is part of a children’s series in which Higginbotham explores the difficult issues of divorce, death, sex and racism. The book has also sparked a backlash and has been challenged in libraries nationwide and has been cited by Texas lawmakers as reason to support a bill restricting how schools can teach controversial subjects.

Cover of Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham

During public comment at Thursday’s board meeting, several community members spoke out against restricting or removing material from the library’s collection, saying they deserved the right to make their own reading decisions.

“It’s so simple, if you don’t like the book, don’t look at it,” said Valeri McGarvey. “I am not afraid that my children and grandchildren will learn about racism.”

Only one person, Trish Pandina, spoke out in favor of removing the book, which she says “teaches kids to hate.”

The board’s discussion of the title began with a motion from the newest trustee, Carmen Cuthbertson, to remove the book from the collection.

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This is the second time the board has made requests to remove a book from the library’s collection. In January, the trustees voted on two book challenges, Lawn Boy and Gender Queer, unanimously voting to keep the former while voting against the latter. The final vote to remove Gender Queer has been held indefinitely pending changes to the library’s collection policies.

Cuthbertson brought “Gender Queer” the first challenge before her appointment to the library’s board of directors, making this the second title she wanted removed.

“Contemporary children’s nonfiction that promotes a race-based worldview doesn’t belong in the 21st-century library,” Cuthbertson told Not My Idea.

“In my definition of book banning, removing a book from a public library that results in you having to buy it is not a ban,” Cuthbertson said. “My definition of prohibitions is what a totalitarian government does.”

Carmen Cuthbertson at a meeting of the ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees in Kalispell on December 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead beacon

Middle Tennessee State University’s Free Speech Center defines the book ban as “an individual, government official, or organization removing a book from a library, school reading list, or bookstore shelf because they object to its content, ideas, or subject matter,” adding that ” Opponents of publication, to counter accusations of censorship, sometimes use the tactic of restricting access rather than demanding the physical removal of books.”

Trustee Dave Ingram submitted an amended motion to limit access to the book rather than remove it outright, saying he felt it was unsuitable for its intended audience.

“Children in this age group are not willing to question such concepts critically,” says Ingram.

His suggestion was to confiscate the title at a library consultation under video surveillance, but to make it freely accessible on request.

“I believe this material poses a potential threat to the safety and tranquility of our parents, our well wishers and staff due to the sensitive nature of the issues,” Ingram said. “These include shame, judgment, collective guilt across generations, instilling fear and mistrust of law enforcement, instilling doubt in the goodness of one’s family, and racism.”

ImagineIF director Ashley Cummins turned down his proposal.

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“If we seize materials that someone thinks are inappropriate, we don’t have a big enough shelf or desk,” Cummins said. “It’s very subjective and I get multiple complaints every day.”

Cummins and associate director Sean Anderson pointed out that the board recently passed policies that specifically state that it’s the responsibility of parents to monitor what their children check out and read.

“I have a feeling our library is embracing [the role of parents] when it puts out those kinds of materials,” Cuthbertson said. “A library should not foist extremist material on children.”

“When it comes to adult materials, I understand that the library may order books I don’t care about, books I disagree with, books on controversial subjects, books with extremist views,” Cuthbertson added. “In this way we broaden our horizons by encountering material that shows us a new idea, different opinion or experience. But I feel very strong when it comes to other people’s children. This thought process does not apply.”

At times, an obviously angry Anderson would shift his chair to turn his back on the board members.

“I think that’s an inappropriate decision that you’re discussing here,” Anderson said. “It’s disgusting.”

ImagineIF Library Board Member Doug Adams speaks at a meeting of the ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees in Kalispell December 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead beacon

At one point in the discussion, CEO Doug Adams interjected his experiences growing up in the South, including what he described as his own prejudices. He recounted his refusal to go to a swim against another school that had mostly black competitors, adding, “I was never proud of that fact.” He also recounted that when he was in Charlotte, North Carolina, when bus service began carrying black students to public schools during desegregation, and how he watched racial riots break out ahead of him.

“I’ve dealt with fear of race my entire life,” Adams said, adding that he’s had good friends and ex-girlfriends who have been black in the years since. “I have chosen to confront my own racism because it is the right thing to do.”

“What offends me about this particular book is that she thinks people should have a false sense of guilt about the color that God made them,” he added. “And is this book appropriate? is it good for kids I do not think so. But is it dangerous? I don’t feel like it is.”

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Adams stated he would not vote to remove the book, instead calling for the creation of a special “parent resources” collection that would include “Not My Idea” and other books for parents to borrow for their children.

“While I appreciate this attempt at finding a middle ground, my concern is that it feels very much like vindicating the other comments that have been made by trustees,” countered Anderson. “This motion is made out of fear, distrust and contempt for these materials, out of the belief that they are dangerous and harmful to children. And that absolutely goes against the policy of this library.”

Sean Anderson, Principal Librarian, ImagineIF, attends a meeting of the ImagineIF Library Board of Trustees in Kalispell on December 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead beacon

The recently amended Collections Development Policy states that “selection decisions should not be influenced by the possibility that materials might be accessible to minors…The classification should in no way constitute a value judgment about the material…or subjectively identify particular philosophies.”

When Anderson urged Adams that board members make motions that violate board policy, Adams responded that they were entitled to their own opinions.

The implementation of a new section for “Not My Idea” was approved unanimously.

A fourth book challenge for Why Children Matter by Douglas Wilson is still in the early stages of the review process and will be discussed at the October Board meeting.

“I don’t think that reflects well on the library,” Director Cummins said after the meeting. “I’m glad the book was preserved without restrictions, but I think there are other potential problematic implications. I think there could be problems with what follows this book into this collection.”

Cummins said the details of the new collection, including where it will be located, what additional titles it will contain and who will make those decisions, will be discussed by the collection development team in October

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