All Boys Aren’t Blue, Crank, Gender Queer, Looking for Alaska, The Haters and Where I End And You Begin are books that were recently challenged in the Rockwood School District, with all six books decided to be retained without restriction. Objections to most of the books centered around language and content that critics considered inappropriate. Multiple parents spoke out against these books during recent Board of Education (BOE) meetings on Oct. 21 and Nov. 18 at Crestview Middle School and Eureka High School. (Vijay Viswanathan)
Controversial books remain in Rockwood libraries despite challenges
Committees form to evaluate concerns, merits of each book
Parents and other community members came to a Board of Education (BOE) meeting on Oct. 21 and spoke about their disapproval of certain books available in school libraries across the district. In addition, six formal challenges were issued.
In response, Assistant Superintendent of Learning and Support Services Shelley Willott organized the formation of committees to evaluate the book and make a decision of whether or not a book will be removed from the library, as well as if any restrictions will be added to the book. Committees are comprised of community volunteers including parents, teachers, staff members and sometimes students.
On Dec. 16, Willott announced the committee decisions for each of the six books: All Boys Aren’t Blue, Crank, Gender Queer, Looking for Alaska, The Haters and Where I End And You Begin. Each committee decided that the books should remain in the libraries without restriction.
In addition, challenges have been submitted for three other books: Heroine by Mindy McGinnis, The Breakaways by Cathy G. Johnson and This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki. However, the decisions for these books will not be announced until January.
The process of book challenges begins when a parent becomes concerned about a book. The parent can reach out to teachers or librarians about the book and possible restrictions for it. If the parent feels that the issue is not resolved, they can speak to a principal and submit a form calling for the removal of the book.
“There’s a wide variety of reasons why people want books removed. Some of the more prominent ones that I’m seeing right now are language in the book and sexual activity,” Willott said.
After a challenge is submitted to the Superintendent’s office, Willott convenes a committee to discuss the book and make a decision regarding whether or not to remove or restrict it.
“I am acting as the designee of the superintendent to run the challenge process,” she said.
Every committee meets over Zoom to discuss the book. The discussion begins with five minutes allotted for the challenger to share their concerns with the committee. Then the committee discusses their thoughts on the book and the concerns raised before making a decision. The challenger is not included in this part of the discussion.
“It is a fairly democratic process and how the community decides what they want to keep in the library and what they believe should be removed,” Willott said.
Although the names of challengers and committee members are not disclosed by the district, both Language Arts Department Chair Lisa Donovan and librarian Jane Lingafelter shared that they were a part of committees, though they did not specify which book they were each tasked with evaluating.
“[The committee members] are supposed to have read the book in its entirety and then also discuss the merits of the book [to] weigh it against whatever their complaints are,” Lingafelter said.
Donovan gave further insight into the workings of the committee, including that the committee doesn’t know the nature of the concerns until they meet, in order to prevent them from developing a bias before reading the book for themselves.
“They don’t tell us anything specific to look for when we read it. They want us to go in with an open mind. We don’t hear the parent’s complaints beforehand, we only hear it in a committee meeting. They don’t want us to already have an opinion when we come to the meeting,” Donovan said.
If the committee decides for the book to remain in the library, parents are still able to restrict their child from checking it out.
“Parents are always welcome to say, ‘I don’t want my kid to read these titles’, and we can put a note on Destiny so that they don’t check out those materials,” Lingafelter said.
This process is available for all books, not just those that have been challenged. However, this process has been criticized by community members at the BOE meetings as well as in the formal challenges.
The challenger for The Haters said, “Parents can restrict specific titles, but the parents would need to know the title to know what to restrict.”
The same challenger also questioned how books are chosen to be included in the library.
In the first quarter of the 2021-2022 school year, the librarians added approximately 660 titles to the Lafayette library’s collection. When it comes to deciding what books to add, Lingafelter and librarian Nichole Ballard-Long follow Rockwood policies to determine whether the novel is a good fit for students.
“When we’re looking at buying materials, it has to be something that fits our collection, a need for our students either curricular-wise or for recreational reading. It’s something that has been reviewed professionally, has won awards occasionally and something that a teacher or a student requests,” Ballard-Long said.
Some of the challenged books have won or been nominated for awards.
The challenger for Where I End And You Begin said, “Just because it’s an award nominee does not mean it is right for our children.”
Ballard-Long stressed that the Language Arts Department, along with librarians, does not choose books purely based on the content in the books.
“We are certainly not making choices to try to scar kids or to expose them to things that their parents would be disapproving of. We’re really just trying to open [the students’] eyes with some literature that might [allow] them to see the world,” Donovan said.
Donovan believes most complaints at the recent BOE meetings which focus on the content of the book have not been entirely accurate.
“I think some of the accusations have been a bit exaggerated. I think teachers and librarians give thoughtful time to choose books that will help kids in any way possible,” Donovan said.
LHS community holds differing opinions on challenged books
One of the parents who addressed the school board with concerns about some of the books is Sara Barnard. She specifically questioned The Haters and All Boys Aren’t Blue due to what she claimed was inappropriate content in the novel.
“The explicit nature of what I’ve read is beyond amazing. I just can’t believe that it’s available for a kid because it’s damaging for them,” Barnard said.
Barnard said schools should be neutral zone for children. Although she said she supports children’s book preferences, she believes topics addressed in the books should be brought up at home instead of in school.
“I do support inclusion of all children and their preferences and all of those things,” Barnard said. “But, a school ground needs to be a very neutral area. It just isn’t the platform where [this content] should be available, bottom line. I find that that’s something for a parent, outside of the home, to be reading or having their kid read on their own.”
Rockwood parent Stacy Turner hoped to attend the Dec. 16 BOE meeting in support of repealing the mask mandate, but after not being able to get in due to capacity limits, she ended up talking to other community members about not only the mask mandate but the controversial books in the library as well.
“They’re just as angry [with the board] as I am,” Turner said.
The Dec. 16 board meeting was the first that Turner attended, but she now plans on coming to more meetings and getting involved with other causes, specifically the library book controversy.
“It needs to be taught by the parent, not by teachers. I don’t feel like it needs to be readily available in a school. They’re supposed to be teaching history, math and science, not porn or oral sex. It’s not the school’s place, it’s the parents’ place,” Turner said.
Turner specified that even with smartphones and the internet making information more available than ever before, schools should still try to limit students’ exposure to sexual topics as much as possible, similar to how some parents put extra restrictions on their children’s devices to filter what they can and cannot find.
“It should be limited as much as possible. I don’t think it should be available if my child just wants to go to the library and pick something out. A lot of parents have their children’s phones with parent protection so they don’t see those things,” Turner said.
There have been many mixed opinions throughout the Lafayette community on the book complaints brought up at school board meetings and through official challenges to have books removed from the schools. While some people believe the topics in these books should be addressed in the home and not in school, others think that the books should not be banned for all Rockwood students.
Lingafelter said these books should be available to students.
“I believe in our First Amendment right and the freedom to read what you choose to read. All the books that are in our library are books that you may read by choice. If you don’t want to read any of the books we have, you don’t have to or are not required to,” Lingafelter said.
In addition, Lingafelter said parents should discuss these controversial topics with their children if they feel that they are uncomfortable with them reading these books. From there, a parent can make a decision on whether or not to restrict their child’s access to these books.
“I think parents have a right to make a decision on what their child reads, and if they are uncomfortable with what their child is reading, I think it’s a great opportunity to have a discussion about what it is they’re reading,” Lingafelter said. “Ultimately, if a parent doesn’t want their child to read a particular book, they can let us know and we’ll put that information on their record.”
Junior Liv Loyd has read Looking for Alaska and said restricting books only limits a student’s chance to get other perspectives.
“I’m honestly furious that there’s people that are challenging books, period. Books are stories that tell people either from fiction or from real life and help elaborate a point or a view that needs expressing towards. Banning a book is cutting off and dismissing that view point no matter how graphic or not a subject matter will be. Every story needs to be told if the author feels it’s important to be heard,” Loyd said.
Loyd also said the parents who are challenging the books are close-minded to certain aspects of society today.
“Just because a book is titled young adult, doesn’t mean it’s just targeted towards teenagers. It’s referring to the age of the character present in the novel,” Loyd said. “the school isn’t ‘pushing an agenda,’ it’s rather the parents ignorance and lack of wanting to learn or [lack of] being open-minded with how society is being shown today.”
Though some challenges criticized similar subjects across the books, each challenge was evaluated separately by distinct committees.
In addition to various Rockwood school district libraries, each book is also available at many St. Louis Public libraries as well as St. Louis County libraries.
The concerns of each challenged book, as well as details of the committee’s comments and rationale, are included below.
All Boys Aren’t Blue
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson was published on April 28, 2020. The book consists of a collection of essays detailing Johnson’s coming of age as a black and LGBTQ+ man.
The challenger argued the explicit sexual content of the book, more specifically the depictions of “explicit sex acts, positions, molestation, sodomy, incest and sex abuse.”
“The issue is not with the author, it’s the sex scenes,” the challenger said. “It is up to parents to determine what their children can read. The only way to assure that is to remove these types of books from the library.”
The committee decided not to remove the book or add any restrictions. Their comments conveyed that they found value in the book as a depiction of a specific minority experience that could help those struggling with similar challenges as the author.
One committee member said, “[The author’s] purpose in writing the book was to tell his story to help those who may have to navigate some of the same experiences that he had.”
As for the abuse depicted in the book, the committee specified that the author condemned his abuser’s actions.
One member read from the book, “I want to reiterate his actions were wrong, and I was a victim. Make it a requirement to hold your abuser accountable.”
Committee members also said this message was important for students who may have experienced similar abuse, providing a novel that can help teach students to understand their own situation.
In Crank by Ellen Hopkins, published in 2004, a high school junior is introduced to drugs and becomes addicted, leading her down a dangerous path, where she later becomes pregnant as a result of sexual assault while she was under the influence of drugs.
The challenger primarily criticized the inclusion of scenes that depicted drug use and said, “the author seems to encourage these activities.”
In the committee’s rationale for their decision, one member said, “I did not find it glorifying at all. It is a cautionary tale.”
Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe is a graphic novel that portrays a character’s coming of age and adulthood as a non-binary and asexual person. It was published on May 28, 2019.
Five different challenge forms were submitted for this book. The main criticism was that the challengers believed certain images in the book qualified as pornography.
One challenger said, “Students become curious and they become more sexually active when exposed to this type of material. The book does not teach abstinence as Rockwood should be teaching.”
However, the committee believed that the material of the book did not constitute pornography.
“In order for something to be considered pornography, its sole purpose has to be to pleasure and excite sexually. This book was not meant to be erotic or entertaining, but to be used as information. It was not used to arouse. It does not meet the criteria of pornography. These are normal thoughts of sexuality for teenagers,” one committee member said.
The committee also believed that the “benefits outweighed the concerns” when it came to Gender Queer.
“I look at the book and think that if my child had these questions about themselves, I would want them to read it,” one member said.
Looking For Alaska
Looking For Alaska by John Green was published on March 3, 2005. It chronicles a student at an Alabama boarding school who becomes involved in a world of pranks as well as substance abuse and sexual activities. The story is centered around the tragic death of Alaska, the main character’s crush, and whether or not her death in a drunk driving accident was accidental or a form of suicide.
The challenger criticized the inclusion of alcohol, tobacco, casual sexual activities, drunk driving and suicide.
“The author knows no bounds,” the challenger said.
In response to the assertion that the book was pornographic content, one committee member said, “None of the sex scenes were exciting or designed in any way to get someone excited, which is the purpose of porn.”
One reason the committee valued the book was due to its depiction of grief and trauma in response to Alaska’s death.
One member said, “I lost a really good friend in high school. They left a party and were killed and this brought me back to that. I realized I was trying to figure out why all that time and coming back now and revisiting what I was going through during that time was refreshing to see. That’s how you mourn. If I would have found this at a younger age, it would have been even more helpful.”
The Haters by Jesse Andrews, published on May 23, 2016, tells the story of three musicians at a prestigious jazz camp who run away to form a band and go on a cross-country tour.
The challenger claimed the book was “sexually explicit and child porn,” criticized the “gross” language, as well a scene depicting date rape, in which a character was too high on drugs to consent to sexual activity.
One committee member highlighted the importance of a black character who had been adopted by a white family, a type of character “not often represented in books.”
The committee member also said, “I saw the alcohol fueled-date rape as a cautionary tale on what could happen if you drink too much. The friend stopped it when it went too far.”
Where I End And You Begin
Where I End And You Begin by Preston Norton, published on June 4, 2019, focuses on two teenagers, Ezra and Wynonna, who each have a crush on the other’s best friend, accidentally swap bodies and plan to use the predicament to help each other woo their respective crushes. The pair, who initially resented each other, end up developing a close bond.
The challenger said, “The dialogue in this book contains foul language,” and “There are references to private parts and sexual acts.”
The book was a Gateway Readers’ Award Nominee for the 2021-22 school year, and part of the criticism centered on the fact that a Rockwood teacher assigned students to read any two books from the award nominee list, despite these books not being on the 6-12 RSD approved list of books for classroom assignments. The teacher has since amended the assignment to include more books from the approved list.
Despite the criticism, the committee believed the book should remain in the libraries without restriction.
“The concerns vs. value don’t really match up. The concern is over language and not the actual content of the book. The value far outweighs the concern,” one member said.
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