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When school book bans become 'a community attacking itself'

DeKalb High School's library
Peter Medlin
DeKalb High School's library

On one of the last pages of Maia Kobabe’s comic memoir “Genderqueer” -- Kobabe teaches a comic drawing course for junior high kids. Kobabe uses gender-neutral “ey/em/eir'' pronouns thathave been around for decades and simply drop the “th” off of “they/them/their.” In the book, ey think about telling the students that ey are nonbinary. Maybe some of them have never met a nonbinary adult? Maybe it would help one of them feel less alone? Kobabe decides not to say anything and is scared a parent could complain and get em fired.

Under two years after “Genderqueer”’s publication, it’s the most-banned book in the country. The award-winning coming of age memoir has been removed by 30 school districts after protests from some angry parents. It was the subject of a recently-rejected obscenity suit in Virginia.

When asked about the bans earlier this year, Kobabe said “What I’m learning is that a book challenge is like a community attacking itself.”

That’s been the case in the suburban Barrington 220 school district, where “Genderqueer” was challenged this summer.

School board meetings often became political battlefields when districts were forced to reckon with pandemic mitigations like masks.. And at some schools like Barrington, book bans replaced the pandemic as the big, lightning-rod issue. Parents protested the book, while other parents counter-protested to keep it. Both sides accused each other of bringing in people who don’t live in the district as artificial community support. Someone opposed to the book even emailed a detailed death threat to members of the school board.

It culminated with a tense August meeting where accusations flew during public comments and the board ultimately voted to retain the book at Barrington High School’s library. Several board members and school administration did not return WNIJ's request for comment.

Summer Lopez is chief program officer of free expression and organization at PEN America -- a prominent free speech advocacy group. She says they used to respond to maybe five school book challenges per year. Now, she says, banned book numbers have shot into the stratosphere.

“In the period from July 1, 2021, through March 31, 2022, we saw 1,586 book bans that had occurred in 26 states and 86 school districts, all over the country,” she said.”

Lopez says book bans are a step away from democracy. She says those bans, along with state legislation like Florida’s so-called “Don’t’ Say Gay” law, are part of a larger politicization of taught in schools that PEN America calls “The Ed Scare.”

Lopez says a significant percentage of challenged books are about race or racism or feature LGBTQ protagonists.

Two of the final pages of Maia Kobabe's coming of age memoir "Genderqueer"
Oni Press
Two of the final pages of Maia Kobabe's coming of age memoir "Genderqueer"

“Genderqueer” is a comic book, so it can be easier and more evocative to pick out an image you find objectionable than to do the same with a text paragraph of a prose book. There’s also disinformation that the book features pedophilia and incest, which it does not. The memoir does talk about sexuality and shows sexual situations some parents deem inappropriate.

One Barrington parent says she’s opposed to the book being in the school library for that reason. She says it’s simply too explicit for high schoolers. She says she’s not opposed because of anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry.

“We have friends of many races. We don't hate any of these people," she said. "We're just concerned about pornography in school."

Others asking for the book to be banned are linked with right-wing parent groups that share anti-LGBTQ+ slurs.

Summer Lopez at PEN America says parent’s concerns are understandable and there are mechanisms to discuss their child accessing a book with the school. In Barrington, some board members have said parents can already restrict students from checking out certain books.

“Where the problem comes in is where the parents decide that what they feel is right for their child is right for all children," said Lopez, "to essentially make that decision on behalf of other parents who may feel differently."

But even parent restrictions can be tricky. She says they often see challenges to books depicting child abuse. For students experiencing abuse, she says those books can help them identify what’s happening and get out. If they need parent permission, they might not get access.

“I think there's, there's sort of a failure to think about all the different contexts in which books are so important for children," she said. "And even the challenging ones, and often, especially the challenging ones, are actually a critical part of children's development and education."

Brian Prigge is a parent with kids that go to Barrington 220. He spoke at school board meetings in support of “Genderqueer.”

“I think the biggest takeaway from this is that we're not talking about core curriculum. We're not talking about things that are being forced upon kids,” he said. “We're talking about things being available in school libraries, or public libraries.”

Even though school is now back in session, the challenges continue. Two more books are under review in Barrington. Contentious public comments will return. If “A community attacking itself” is what Maia Kobabe called book bans, who gets hurt the most?Kobabe says, it’s the teen readers who may not have the money to buy those books if they’re not free in libraries, and queer readers who may be afraid to bring home a book with a title as obvious as “Genderqueer.”

Peter joins WNIJ as a graduate of North Central College. He is a native of Sandwich, Illinois.