Last month, a Wake County school board meeting once again became a political battleground as a few angry parents railed against library books featuring LGBTQ characters.
Bolstered by an October video from North Carolina lieutenant governor Mark Robinson, parents challenged four books available in school libraries, calling them “pornographic” and “sexual conditioning.”
These kinds of challenges aren’t new. The fight over what children should and shouldn’t be allowed to read has been going on for decades. From 1990 to 1999, the series that was most challenged nationwide was Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz, according to the American Library Association. At that time, the book was said to be disturbing, immoral, and Satanic.
Thirty years later, not much has changed. Today, the fight is over books like Melissa (formerly published as George) by Alex Gino and Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe. Arguments, however, are the same.
Parents say these books should be taken off library shelves because they’re inappropriate, morally objectionable, or divisive. Critics say these books will confuse children or teach their child to think a certain way. But are these objections really valid? How old does a child need to be to read books dealing with sex, racism, or queerness?
What are children reading?
In the list of books that are popular among middle schoolers, fantasy series like Harry Potter rank number one, according to Wake County librarians. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was checked out 1,372 times last year across the county’s 23 public libraries. Melissa, on the other hand, was checked out only 118 times.
“Reading is basically an escape from reality,” says Sophia Dexter, 14, a student in Wake County Public Schools. “I enjoy imagining the stories in my head while I read. I like fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction.”
Sophia is currently immersed in the Nyxia trilogy, a sci-fi dystopia about characters trying to escape the machinations of an evil corporation. She doesn’t often pick up biographies or books like Melissa, but she doesn’t think they should be banned from the library, she says.
“Books like that are inclusive,” Sophia says. “I don’t see a problem with putting LGBTQ books in an elementary school. It’s something [students] need to learn about too.”
In middle school libraries, two of the most popular books are true-to-life novels, checked out as often as Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson fantasy adventure series, according to Kendra Allen, director of Library Media Services for Wake County.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney chronicles the life of middle schooler Greg Heffley, who struggles to cope with bullying, social anxiety, and puberty. Wonder by R.J. Palacio recounts the story of Auggie, a boy born with a severe facial difference, as he tries to fit in at his new school.
Books like these are popular because they’re relatable, says K-5 librarian Kelly Bahoric.
“[Diary of a Wimpy Kid] is making light of some of the hardships of being a middle schooler,” Bahoric says. “I think the kids like to laugh at the situations they might find themselves in every day. They’re a big deal in the moment, but looking back on it later you can always laugh about it.”
Likewise, stories about young characters dealing with illness, disability, or even death can help children cope with difficult situations that might arise in their own lives. Reading can be a safe way to explore such issues before facing them in reality. In the same way, books featuring Black or gay characters might help children who are Black or gay with issues they face.
What should children be reading?
Sophia’s mother Marie Dexter says now that her daughters are older, she doesn’t always know what they’re reading. But that’s not necessarily a cause for concern. Dexter trusts her daughters’ judgment when it comes to picking out books.
“[Sophia] will just all of a sudden talk about whatever book she’s reading that the library or the school has recommended,” Dexter says. “And we’re okay with that.”
Dexter says she’s comfortable with her children reading books with sensitive subject matter as long as she can talk to them about it. There are certain topics she doesn’t think her children are old enough to read about yet—namely, sex—but if either of her daughters wanted to check out a book with more mature content, she wouldn’t be against it.
“If it’s something that’s controversial, [Sophia] knows she can come talk to us about it and we’ll have a discussion,” Dexter says. “If we say, ‘We don’t think you should read that,’ it’s because we don’t think it’s age-appropriate yet. It’s got too much mature subject matter for you and you’re just not ready.”
When it comes to books featuring characters who are Black, Hispanic, gay, transgender, or otherwise diverse, Dexter is supportive.
“It’s good we read these stories, because we can be more empathetic,” she says. “We can’t crawl inside somebody’s head to necessarily understand [their feelings and thoughts]. But a book can help transport us to that world and be in their space for a little while … so when we go out, we can be more understanding of others. That’s what reading is supposed to teach us.”
Challenged books in Wake County
So far, efforts to remove LGBTQ books from Wake County schools and public libraries have floundered. In Wake County schools, Gender Queer, Melissa, and Jonathan Evison’s semiautobiographical coming-of-age novel Lawn Boy remain available for students to check out.
Although a formal complaint was filed about Lawn Boy in November, it was ultimately rejected by school staff and administrators, according to a letter from Allen, the Wake school system’s library media services director.
Per the school district’s policy, Lawn Boy was reviewed by a committee composed of teachers, parents, and school staff, including the librarian and principal. When parents appealed the committee’s unanimous decision to keep Lawn Boy in the library, the district’s senior review committee (composed of senior administrators) again decided the book should remain available.
The book “bears literary merit as a work of fiction” and “contributes to the diversity of representation of characters and experiences in the library collection,” committee members wrote in their report.
Following another formal complaint, Melissa is also currently under review by district committees, although the message sent by Wake County administrators about challenged books seems clear. After the committee makes its recommendation, parents do have the opportunity to direct a final appeal to the Board of Education. (Wake school board members did not respond to requests for comment before the INDY’s print deadline.)
Although Gender Queer was removed from Wake County public library shelves in December, it was quickly reinstated after backlash from librarians. Library administrators are now reviewing their book selection and removal policy.
The national movement to censor queer content
In the past year, the American Library Association has seen a big spike in challenges to books about race and LGBTQ characters, says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
“We’ve observed an unprecedented number of challenges this fall, particularly to books dealing with LGBTQIA themes and books dealing with race, the history of racism in the United States, or reflecting the experiences of Black people,” she says.
Some of these challenges stem from the misguided debate over teaching Critical Race Theory in schools, according to Caldwell-Stone. The campaign to censor books is also led by conservative groups like No Left Turn in Education and Moms for Liberty, whose members filed criminal complaints against the Wake County Public School System over Gender Queer and other books.
“One of the things that’s often lost in the debates over these books is that we’re not talking about putting Gender Queer in the hands of a five-year-old or a 10-year-old,” says Caldwell-Stone.
“We’re talking about books in high school libraries available to children 14 and up. By 14, young people are already engaging in dating behavior or even sexual activity, and are exploring things like gender identity and sexual identity. To pretend that these are topics that adolescents are innocent of is a little disingenuous.”
Still, the right of a parent to guide their own child’s reading is fully recognized by the American Library Association, says Caldwell-Stone. It’s when parents start trying to take books off public shelves that they run afoul of the First Amendment, she says.
The First Amendment protects not only freedom of speech but also a freedom to publish and a freedom to access what is published, says Caldwell-Stone. That right applies to minors as well, she adds.
Like Dexter, many parents might want to keep their child from reading graphic or sexual content until they’re older. Some others may want to prevent their child from reading books that conflict with their beliefs about the LGBTQ community. But there’s a difference between forbidding your own child from reading a certain book and taking that book off the shelves entirely.
“As public institutions, both schools and libraries have to serve everyone in the community. And we live in a multicultural, diverse society these days,” Caldwell-Stone says. “I promise you, almost every public high school has gay teens or transgender teens who deserve to find good information on the shelf that reflects their lives.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.