Michigan Information & Research Service Inc.
Michigan Information & Research Service Inc.

Books Being Called Off High School Library Shelves: War On Culture Or Explicitness?

05/10/22 08:56 AM By John Reurink

(Source: MIRS.news, Published 05/09/2022). At one southern Macomb County Higher school, an advanced English literature teacher once offered Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale" as an independent reading option for her older high school students.             

The book illustrates a dystopian world where women are abused as breeding props. 

When a curious and mature student would come to her for a reading recommendation, she would potentially offer Jeffrey Eugenides “Middlesex,” a Michigan-based story of an individual who devolved hermaphroditism – a sex disorder where male genitalia appears during adolescence – from their parents' incestuous relationship. 

She doesn't any more. Due to fear of social pushback, she kept these titles away from school grounds. 

"I'm a very non-confrontational person, so if I were to be confronted about something that my student would choose to read…I think it would be very upsetting to me," she told MIRS, explaining some of these pieces are "important (pieces) of literature, and to keep it away from a student who wants to read it…it's just an absolute injustice to me." 

Last fall, the American Library Association (ALA) acquired an "unprecedented" 330 reports of book challenges, with many including multiple book titles. Also, 44% of book challenges – or a formal call to remove books from easy public access – take place at high school libraries, with 39% being initiated by parents.   It was amid this backdrop the described teacher opted to stay anonymous.

Some individuals have called the recent influx of book challenges as "part of an effort to stoke all culture wars." Contrastingly, vocal community members have unleashed a battle cry that books are attracting teenagers to the likes of sexual deviance, hatred toward the United States or substance abuse. 

According to PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists) America, a report looking at 86 school districts across 26 states from July 2021 to March of this year, the data on banned books showed: 

- 41% of banned books featured protagonists or prominent secondary characters who were people of color, 22% also directly addressed issues of race and racism. 

- 379 – or 33% – of banned book titles boldly addressed LGTQ themes or had LGBTQ protagonists or prominent secondary characters.

Glen Young – a retired English teacher who worked at Petoskey High School in Northern Michigan for 30 years – told MIRS "anytime you challenge a book or you try to remove it, it brings renewed attention to that book and suddenly people are interested in reading it." 

However, Young also said these efforts to eliminate books from high school library shelves are far from unprecedented, but have attained a new color in today's present-day political climate. 

"People have been trying to challenge certain reading books forever, and they often went after authors of color," Young told MIRS. "Those same forces of censorship are going after books that deal with anything to do with gender if it doesn't align with their perfect nuclear family idea." 

He also said if a parent were to approach him with an issue regarding a book that was part of his curriculum, "I would expect that the parents would have read the entire book, and not just cherry-pick sections of it out of context that they think are inappropriate." 

Parents Involved In Book Challenges: 'Accusations Of Anti-Inclusion Are Far From The Truth' 
 During the Feb. 7 board of education meeting atRochester Community Schools (RCS), a woman named Carol Beth Litkouhi – the mother of two students within the district – said the accusation that parents challenging these books "are opposed to creating an inclusive environment" is "unsubstantiated and false from everything I've seen." 

"It's wrong to slander a group of parents like this. I'm also sorry to those of you who've been misled and may not have realized that what you've been called to defend is sexually explicit material at school," Beth Litkouhi said. "What parents are objecting to is sexually explicit content in school libraries." 

She presented a clip from a graphic novel that is being challenged at the RCS District, displaying two naked individuals participating in oral sex. 

"I know kids can find this stuff elsewhere, but schools are educational institutions, and not all libraries provide the same kinds of content. Our schools and libraries should be held to a higher standard than the World Wide Web," she said. 

Beth Litkouhi also contributed to FOX News, explaining why she filed a lawsuit against the district for failing to honor her Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain the teaching materials for a "History of Ethnic and Gender Studies" class. 

Conservative Sen. Lana Theis (R-Brighton)  – chair of the Senate Education and Career Readiness Committee – told the MIRS Monday Podcast last month that parents have been messaging her office in distress,  expressing fear that their children are being exposed to sexual intense materials without guardians being made aware. 

"When you get to the middle and high school space, the sexualized books are pornographic in nature," Theis said. "They're desensitizing kids to highly sexualized conversations that are incredibly inappropriate, and then as you get a little bit further on in school, there's extraordinarily prornographic content. Books that talk about child rape, the child experiencing sexual gratification from that rape…it's justifying sexual abuse." 

At Least 16 Books Being Challenged At RCS District 
At least 16 high school library books have been called to be eliminated from the shelves within the RCS District, according to a toolkit connected to the recently created Free to Read Rochester group. 

The Oakland County group was established in April of this year by two retired English teachers from Stoney Creek High School, which serves more than 1,500 students in Rochester Hills. 

When asked about Rochester Community Schools' policies and procedures for reviewing materials, the district shared: 

"An Educational Materials Review Committee is recommended by the Library of Michigan as an industry standard to maintain effective school libraries. The RCS review committee is (composed) of teachers, administrators, parents, and the executive director of secondary education. This committee, in partnership with the curriculum department, uses deliberate and thoughtful decision making to review any challenged library resources and make recommendations to the superintendent." 

Cofounder Gayle Martin, who left the education field in 2018, said on top of these books not being featured within a course curriculum, some of the books had rested on the library shelves for years and were never checked out. 

For example, the book "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by lesbian cartoonist Alison Bechdel – a graphic memoir focusing on the author's relationship with her father, who she discovers was gay and had committed suicide – was majorly neglected by library visitors. 

The same book is being challenged at Troy Athens High School for being pornagraphic, while it had been checked out in the high school library three times in the last six years. 

"First of all, it's reductive to call these books pornography just because they had some sexually explicit scenes in them. That does not make something pornography," said Victoria PHELPS, a Rochester resident and a Stoney Creek High School alumnus. 

When Phelps was younger, her household prohibited her from reading the "Harry Potter" novel series due to religious criticism it received for promoting magic and witchcraft. She would also be excused from many classroom movie screenings because she was "very sensitive to violence" and "would get physically nauseous." 

Now, Phelps is the designer of the aforementioned toolkit, and is virtually pursuing her master's degree in library information science at Georgia-based Valdosta State University. 

"When you're saying that these books are inappropriate for minors and you're saying that those people's real life stories are inappropriate, especially people in the LGBTQ community and people who are survivors of sexual abuse, that's a harmful message to send to our students and even to other adults in the community," Phelps said. 

For instance, the graphic novel version of "The Handmaid's Tale" with illustrator Renee NAULT was challenged for a depiction of a sexual assault. 

"When you're selecting materials for a collection, you always need to make sure that you have a collection that represents – especially in public schools – a diverse array of experiences," Phelps said. "In public schools and public libraries, it's best to have titles that are going to feature some transgender characters, and some titles that are going to feature more conservative, Christain main characters." 

Nonetheless, books like 2016 "The Haters" by Jesse Andrews – about three young musicians escaping jazz camp in pursuit of a worthwhile performance experience – and 2019 "The Black Flamingo" by poet Dean ATTA – about a university student of color entering the drag community – are being scrutinized as "inappropriate for minors" or "sexually explicit." 

"No one was making kids read them or anything like that," Martin told MIRS. "It just so happened that there was an English teacher in the library when the principal came in to grab the books. She was immediately texting us." 

After being involved in a chaotic group message, Martin and her cofounder Emily Sommer – who retired after 2020 and is the mother of a 10th grader at Rochester High School – posted an Amazon list on Facebook to send copies of the challenged books to high school teachers, who could keep them in their classroom libraries. 

Martin shared her Amazon link on a Saturday morning and by Sunday evening, she saw social media posts calling her "disgusting" and that Martin and Sommer "should be arrested for distributing pornography to minors." 

She said "the only people who have ever forced children to read these books or listen to the books are the parents who read them aloud" at this year's school board meetings and have been circulating some of the books' most explicit clips as a warning of sexual indoctrination. 

“Unfortunately, our fear is that it's going to start with what I think the parents' feel as a kind of low hanging fruit. They're going after library books that they're calling sexually explicit, and they're targeting books that are LGBTQ. We have no doubt that it won't stop there," Martin said. 

Sommer, who is a member of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English (MCTE), said she just started participating in meetings to host statewide programs "so we can do a little bit of community building so people who are either worried about book bans or who are facing them, can network with other teachers." 

As a parent, Sommer said her son's history and English teachers "especially have been fabulous about encouraging curiosity, and I just don't want them to stop doing that." 

"(Reading) is often a gateway for success, people who are readers have a much easier time in all subject areas – not just in an English class and not just as a hobby – it really carries over that ability to sustain your attention and the empathy-building that happens," Sommer said. 

Overall, Rochester Is Merely A Fragment Of The Ongoing Series Of Book Challenges
The Greenville Public Schools Board of Education was requested to remove the 2005 book "Looking for Alaska" by John Green for its exploration of sex, first love and drugs and alcohol at a bording school. The 2012 book "Me, Earl and the Dying Girl" by the aforementioned Andrews was also requested for removal for use of profanity and discussions of sex acts. 

The Hudsonville Public School district in Ottawa County was requested to remove "Half of a Yellow Sun" by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie from an optional book club reading list for high school juniors and seniors due to its retellings of the Nigerian Civil War during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Sommer said she believes present-day educators feel there's a "real danger that they could make a comment that gets misconstrued or misrepresented, and it would really open them up to attack." 

'I think there's a lot of walking on eggshells right now," Sommer said. "The word 'witch hunt' is so overused, but there are folks who are looking at lists of books that can be challenged and then literally calling the librarian saying 'do you have any of these books?' Like it's not personal. It's much more going after the institution and less protective of their own individual kids."