As attention on proposed school book bans grows nationally, a northwest suburban school district Tuesday night voted narrowly to reject a bid to remove two books in the district’s high school library.
In a 4-to-3 vote, the board kept Flamer, a semi-autobiographical graphic novel about a Filipino-American teen struggling with his gay identity. They also retained This Book Is Gay, a non-fiction book about gender and sexuality. The board accepted a recommendation by a school advisory committee of experts to keep the books after determining they didn’t meet the standards for obscenity and pornograpy.
“It’s our job to represent the more than 8,000 students in our district,” said Board member Erin Chan Ding. “What are we saying if we pull a book like this that has already been vetted, that has already been selected to be available — not taught, not explicitly shown — but available to students who want to read it?”
But during a lengthy and sometimes heated debate, board members were split over whether the books were appropriate content in school. At one point, someone in the audience called a board member who supported keeping the books a “pedophile.” The board members discussed the current options for parents to restrict their children from checking out certain books, but some were concerned they didn’t go far enough.
“I understand that we can say ‘Let’s opt my child out so my child cannot check this book out.’ That’s fair,” said board member Steve Wang. “My child can also go to the library, not check the book out, pull the book off the shelves and read it … For my child, that’s not OK.”
Wang called the books obscene, but did not agree with an outright ban. Some voiced concerns that removing the books would have a negative impact on LGBTQ students. Board members Katie Karam said she doesn’t have a problem with inclusive books, but she finds the content wrong for school.
“I don’t think it’s the district’s job to teach children how to perform sexual acts,” she said referencing This Book Is Gay.
Some supporters of keeping the books agreed that some of the content is shocking, but it’s up to parents to talk to their kids about what is appropriate for them. Chan Ding argued there is value in both books, specifically students who may identify as LGBTQ.
The fight over these books comes as greater attention around the country focuses on book ban attempts, with Tuesday’s vote taking place during what’s known as “Banned Books Week.” The annual national event celebrates the right to read and highlights the harms of censorship.
Last school year, 2,500 individual books were banned in the U.S classrooms or libraries, either permanently or temporarily, affecting 1,700 book titles, according to a report this week by PEN America, a group advocating for free expression. Illinois logged up to 10 book bans, far behind Texas and Florida that saw the greatest number of bans, between 500 and 1,000, according to the report.
In Barrington, residents and audience members at Tuesday’s meeting were split about the proposed book bans just like the board was. Barrington High School alum Chase Heidner said the books “normalized” pornography. Supporting the removal of the books is not anti-gay, she told the board, but about protecting the mental health of students.
“I am here because I want to protect children, period,” she said. “This includes children who are among the LGBTQ community, and in fact, I think they need more protection now more than ever with these books at their disposal.”
Some parents described sexually explicit portions of the book and questioned the educational value to students. They argued there are other ways to be inclusive without providing access to “vulgar” material.
Some parents emphasized these two books are not part of any curriculum, but simply available in the school library. Parent Paul Rudnicki told the board the books did not meet the definition of obscenity and pornography. He said a book shouldn’t be removed simply because others don’t agree with it.
“There’s plenty of books I wouldn’t recommend people read, but I’m sure they’re on the shelf somewhere,” he said. “That’s the beautiful part of how the library works. You can walk in, browse around, pick a book up, put it back down if you don’t want to read it.”
Parent Brian Prigge said it’s not lost on him that these books were being considered for removal during national Banned Books Week.
“The irony is dripping that we’re dealing with a book in which an LGBTQ youth seriously considers suicide in the book during Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and Banned Books Week,” he said.
Prigge said the district this year chose as its theme #WeBelong220. He said debating removing books that marginalized students may identify with goes against that message.
“What we’re talking about is whether or not our LGBTQ youth should be represented in our library, and whether they should have access to materials that they can identify with,” he said. “The theme among these books is that they all deal with LGBTQ issues.”
In August, Barrington school board members faced a vote on another book ban. They opted to keep the book Gender Queer in the Barrington High School library. The graphic memoir, written and illustrated by Maia Kobabe, has been at the center of many book debates around the country, including in suburban Downers Grove. Last year Community High School District 99 administrators also decided to keep the book on district shelves. In Barrington, complaints about a book are filed with the district’s school library information specialist and reviewed by an advisory committee, which makes the recommendation to the school board.
In recent debates, most targeted books were by or about Black or LGBTQ authors, according to the American Library Association. There have been 681 attempts to ban or restrict books from January to August 31 this year, according to the ALA. The association believes 2022 will outpace last year’s attempts to censor library resources, when there were 729 attempts. It also notes that more than 70% of the attempts to restrict books targeted multiple titles, unlike previous years when past challenges aimed to restrict a single book.
PEN America also found that some attempts to ban books last year were part of a coordinated campaign of well-resourced advocacy organizations, the majority of which only surfaced since 2021. One of those groups, Moms for Liberty Lake County, pushed to restrict Gender Queer in the Barrington school district. PEN America found that at least 20% of the book bans last school could be directly linked to the actions of these groups, “with many more bans likely influenced by them.”
The PEN report also itemized the subject matter banned most frequently. Some 41% of the banned titles last year focused on LGBTQ themes; some 40% had protagonists or prominent secondary characters of color.
“There are people who are exploring their identities, various sorts, who won’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 University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. “It’s very much a chilling effect that I am very concerned about.
Knox is concerned the voice of a few driving book bans may dictate harmful decisions. Some libraries may decide not to include certain books to avoid conflict.
She also stressed that having a certain book in the school library does not mean people have to agree with its message. Some students might identify with the material. Others might look to these books to learn about their classmates.
“I think what parents are really reacting to is the idea of books as permission structures, that if you read about this, you will think it’s okay,” Knox said. “It doesn’t match with my value as a parent, they might say, therefore, it should be taken away.”
Knox says Banned Books Week also marks the U.S. Supreme Court case Island Tree School District vs. Pico. The 1982 court decided that school boards could not remove books to suppress ideas. Knox said the attempted censorship during that time focused on books that touched on topics of race.
“We’ve come far, a long way, but we’re also still talking about a lot of the same issues that came up in that supreme court case,” she said.
Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @soosieon.