A stack of controversial books sits in Wise Blood Booksellers in this photo illustration captured Nov. 22 in Kansas City, Missouri.
A Liberty Public Schools parent is raising money to stock Little Free Libraries with books that have been challenged or banned, including many of the titles pictured. Several of the books were temporarily pulled from the Goddard, Kansas, school district after a parent complained. (Photo illustration by Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

As a parent of a Liberty Public Schools student, Erin Sameck knew other parents in local districts were objecting to books they considered inappropriate. 

Some complained to school boards and district leaders, leading to books being temporarily pulled from shelves in a few districts — like North Kansas City and Goddard, Kansas — and reviewed in others. 

But one or two parents in a Liberty school district Facebook group threatened to take matters into their own hands, Sameck said. They posted that they would tell their children to check out books they found objectionable, and then “lose” them so no other students could read them. 

Worried that students might lose access to books — especially those about LGBTQ people and people of color — Sameck started a GoFundMe campaign called Help Get Banned Books in Little Free Libraries

She aims to get books that have been challenged in Kansas City-area districts or elsewhere in the U.S. into as many Little Free Libraries as possible, making it easier for students to access them even if they disappear from school and public libraries. 

“I’m not telling people they shouldn’t have conversations about their kids reading those books, but I don’t think it’s fair to remove them,” she said. “I think parents need to be ready and willing to have those conversations with their kids.”

Sameck is one of many parents, educators and students defending books that have been challenged. 

In recent years, educators have made a concerted effort to diversify the reading materials children encounter, whether in the formal curriculum or in school or classroom libraries.

“That’s harmful to a child to not see themselves, to not see literature as a way of understanding their experiences, their histories, their communities,” said Nora Peterman, an assistant professor of language and literacy and urban teacher education at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

“But it also does harm to children who maybe do see their experiences, maybe they’re always the protagonist … they’re missing out on the opportunities to grow and to learn and to develop understanding as well.”

Educators say students need inclusive libraries and curriculums 

Peterman said that when teachers consider what students should read, they shouldn’t start with the books. 

Instead, they first should look at the students themselves and consider what impact they want literature to have on those students. 

“There’s very few books that I would say, ‘This is a great book, every child should read it,’” she said. “Every child might read it, but they won’t all enjoy it, or grow, or learn from it necessarily.”

When educators choose books that all students read as part of the curriculum, Peterman said, every student should feel like they belong in a reading class and that their identity is depicted in books. 

Classroom libraries — collections of books that not all students read — present an opportunity for teachers to add additional materials that reflect students’ experiences or help them develop “empathy and understanding and care” for other cultures and experiences, she said. 

Books sit on a shelf Nov. 22 at Wise Blood Booksellers, 4045 Broadway Blvd., Kansas City, Missouri. Educators say it’s important for students to have access to a variety of books so that every child can find stories that engage them and reflect their experiences. (Zach Bauman/The Beacon)

It’s also important for teachers to know their students and point them toward books appropriate for their individual developmental level. “What’s terrifying to one 7-year-old might be hilarious to another 7-year-old,” Peterman said. 

While all English and language arts teachers she knows want students to love reading, Peterman said attention to diversity and inclusion issues can vary by district, school or classroom. Funding can be a barrier for teachers who want to add books to their classrooms but may have to purchase them themselves.

This year, Kansas City, Kansas Public Schools completed a project to raise awareness of diversity and inclusion issues in books. A committee of staff and teachers conducted an audit of books in the elementary school curriculum.

Darcy Swan, KCKPS director of curriculum and instruction, said the reading curriculum the district audited was being phased out for reasons unrelated to the audit, but educators wanted to practice recognizing bias in books, distinguish between “teachable” and offensive bias, and prepare to hold nuanced discussions with students about reading materials.

For example, Swan said that if illustrations in a book of African folk tales seem stereotyped, teachers might consider whether the author and illustrator come from the culture they depict and whether the book contains inaccurate cultural representations or erroneous historical information.

And while educators likely wouldn’t rule out a book that depicted only traditional nuclear families, they should think about the family types students come from and find representations of those as well. 

Teachers should prepare to explain their decisions and to discuss potential bias or stereotypes with students, Swan said. “What we want to do is honor our professionals to make professional decisions, but give them the right professional development to do it.”

Banned books make it harder to include all students

Swan said KCKPS isn’t alone in its concern for equity and inclusion in reading materials. 

Companies that provide curriculum already strive to avoid bias and represent various identities, she said, meaning KCKPS rarely has to flag those issues when looking for new materials. 

But Peterman said she’s worried that publishers that have started to diversify the stories they tell will reverse course in light of challenges, seeking “mass appeal.” 

“When you read about these stories of books getting challenged in a lot of different schools and districts and libraries, it’s often the same titles that you see every time,” Peterman said. “Why is that? It’s because there’s not that many titles, actually, there’s not even that many options for children.” 

In recent months, parents and politicians across the country have complained about schools using books they deem inappropriate. In the Virginia governor’s race, an ad by candidate Glenn Youngkin included a parent who wanted Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” removed from a high school English class. 

Youngkin, whose campaign focused heavily on school curriculum issues, defeated incumbent Gov. Terry McAuliffe, becoming the first Republican to win a statewide election in Virginia in over a decade.

In Johnson County, supporters of conservative school board candidates in the Olathe, Shawnee Mission and Blue Valley districts described as “pornographic” an excerpt from “All Boys Aren’t Blue” in which author George M. Johnson recounts having consensual sex with a man as a college student. 

After parents objected to the book’s presence in high school libraries, the Shawnee Mission School District changed its book complaint process.

In Missouri, the Northland Parent Association has also referred to books it opposes as “pornography.” The group’s Facebook page includes excerpts of sex scenes from graphic novels and videos of parents reading passages from books to school boards. 

American Library Association’s list of Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020

  1. “George” by Alex Gino
  2. “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You” by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds
  3. “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
  4. “Speak” by Laurie Halse Anderson
  5. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie
  6. “Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story About Racial Injustice” by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin
  7. “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
  8. “Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck
  9. “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
  10. “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas

The Northland Student Association has responded with a petition against banning books, particularly in the North Kansas City and Liberty public schools. Parents and community members at a recent Liberty school board meeting also spoke against book bans.

Earlier this month, North Kansas City Schools pulled “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and “Fun Home,” a graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, from circulation to review them. In a Nov. 19 letter to parents, the district said it would return the books to libraries Nov. 22 but allow parents to fill out a form restricting their children from checking out specific books. 

Both novels were also on a list of nearly 30 books removed from circulation for review in the Goddard, Kansas, school district. The district later reversed its decision to remove the books. 

Some parents and educators say books that certain parents criticize are a source of support for students or can help engage them in learning because they are relevant to their lives. 

An eighth grade literacy and language arts teacher in the Olathe school district, who asked to remain anonymous because of fears of retaliation from school board members and candidates, said she’s seen a positive impact from books related to police violence, like “All American Boys” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. 

“I have seen a lot of students in my classroom when they read those become very engaged with reading, and then able to connect to many things that are going on in their world outside of a book, which I feel like is kind of the first time they’re able to do that and to have difficult conversations,” she said of Angie Thomas’ books. 

Many other books parents have challenged contain LGBTQ characters. That includes “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” which is about growing up Black and queer. 

Johnson, the book’s author, said it includes sexual content to educate teens about consent, safety and avoiding sexual abuse and so Black queer students, who aren’t often represented in TV and film, can have something to relate to.

Sameck said it’s also important for students like her eighth grade son, who is white and cisgender, to become better allies by learning about others’ experiences. And some of the books parents criticize, such as “Crank,” a cautionary tale about meth use, have other positive messages, she said.

But even if she doesn’t personally like a book, Sameck said, she wouldn’t want to ban it. 

“If I’m going to support books for books’ sake, I’m not going to nitpick on whether they have a valuable life lesson or not,” she said, pointing out that a student might find value she doesn’t see. 

That’s why the Olathe teacher who asked to remain anonymous doesn’t believe schools should remove controversial books. 

“You are not aware of what other children may need and their literary experience,” she said. “I also don’t think it’s at all educationally appropriate to never be exposed to another side. If you’re only reading materials that’s directly in line with what you’re getting at home, I just don’t really see that being a strong education.”

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Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member. Follow her on Twitter @MariaFBenevento.