When parents and others first learn of a campaign to ban a book, they may be faced with its most controversial passage — such as a sex scene or a graphic illustration.
Critics around the Kansas City region who have sought to remove books from school libraries or classrooms have posted those segments on social media, read passages out loud at school board meetings and even turned controversial material into a poster.
The Redacted Readers, a book discussion group launched by Liberty Parents for Public Schools, thinks parents need more context — how the scene fits into the story and whether that affects its meaning — to form educated opinions on books.
And so once a month, members of the group get together to discuss works that have been banned or challenged.
Although members are welcome to attend if they haven’t had time to read each month’s book, the group discusses each book as a whole, weighing whether it has value and belongs in schools.
“If you don’t look holistically at a book, you can attack many, many books,” said Carroll Makemson, a retired school library coordinator with 34 years of experience in Liberty Public Schools. “But when you read them in their entirety, and read anything that might be objectionable in context, you see it differently.”
The club’s discussion of ‘Looking for Alaska’
Context played a key role when the group convened in September to talk about “Looking for Alaska” by John Green.
About a dozen members met over Zoom for an open and wide-ranging conversation that lasted more than two hours.
Some members related the book’s content to personal experiences such as childhood loss, teenage experiences with alcohol and sex, and their efforts as parents and educators to help children navigate difficult topics.
When group members read a controverisal sex scene in relation to the rest of the book, most weren’t alarmed. Several thought it was laugh-out-loud funny.
The author of “Looking for Alaska” has emphasized that the awkward scene is juxtaposed with a more passionate, but less R-rated, kissing scene.
“In context, the novel is arguing really in a rather pointed way that emotionally intimate kissing can be a whole lot more fulfilling than emotionally empty oral sex,” Green said in one video.
The themes of death, suicide and youth substance abuse were more sobering for group members and led them to express concern for the book’s teen characters and young readers.
But some members said books with heavy themes could help young people process situations they may already encounter, such as peer pressure, sex or the death of a loved one.
“One of the roles of fiction is to introduce students to characters who are different than themselves, who experience events and parts of life that are different than their own,” Makemson told The Kansas City Beacon.
That can prepare children for something as simple as meeting a gay person for the first time, she said, but also for more challenging situations.
“If parents are getting a divorce, if a child has read about how single-parent families or dual-custody families operate … then the child has some background for it,” Makemson said.
“Vicarious experiences help us deal with real experiences.”
Challenges to books
Beth Farr, co-founder and executive director of Liberty Parents for Public Schools, said the book discussion group was formed during the most recent spring semester because “everybody was so sad and disappointed that people were coming after books.”
In 2021, groups such as the Northland Parent Association and some school board candidates pushed for certain books to be removed from schools, while others defended them.
This year, a new state law that targets books with sexually explicit visuals has prompted some local districts to remove several graphic novels.
Also in 2022, the Independence school board voted 6-1 to remove a book that featured a nonbinary character from the district’s elementary schools. The board followed a recommendation from a committee made up of parents, staff and a board member.
The Redacted Readers read that book, “Cats vs. Robots Volume 1: This is War,” because they have a particular focus on titles that have been challenged or banned locally.
Attempts to remove books from schools aren’t new, Makemson said.
Early in her career, a group calling itself Concerned Parents of Liberty tried to remove “Go Ask Alice,” a cautionary tale about drug addiction presented as the authentic diary of a teenager and published in 1971.
“It got really, really ugly,” Makemson said. “They stood at the grocery store, reading sections of the book, just like you could do with ‘Looking for Alaska’ … and they even copied a couple pages and passed them out.”
Parents also sued the district, and someone put bags of manure on the doorstep of the home where Makemson and her husband lived.
But that situation was the exception.
In more than three decades of working in school libraries, Makemson saw numerous titles challenged. They included a surprisingly macabre Halloween ABC book, the Harry Potter series and a careers book for middle schoolers. She also witnessed objections to all books portraying single-parent families and to all fairy tales.
Several books were removed, recategorized or restricted to certain ages, but many remained on the shelves. The biggest difference Makemson sees between challenges of the past and challenges today is the aftermath.
“For decades, people accepted decisions,” she said. “And they accepted them gracefully — at least in public … But now it’s kind of like if you made a decision that the people didn’t like, you could expect phone calls, you could expect letters, it might even lead to verbal assault.”
The value of a book club for banned and challenged books
Makemson said one of the reasons that she appreciates the Redacted Readers and the overall Liberty Parents for Public Schools group is that it provides “mutual support” and gives her the courage to speak out in the current climate — such as when she addressed the Liberty school board to talk about librarians’ selection process for books.
Farr said there have been differences of opinion during the group’s monthly meetings, but participants have generally agreed that each book it has discussed has value.
In addition to “Looking for Alaska” and “Cats vs. Robots,” books read so far include:
- “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez
- “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George M. Johnson
- “Melissa” (previously published as “George”) by Alex Gino
There are 55 people on the group’s email list, but meeting attendance has ranged from about four to 14, Farr said.
“You don’t have to come in pro-books necessarily,” she said. “But you need to come in pro-willingness to listen to all sides, and (with) an openness to wanting to learn — to learn about the books, the authors, our community.”
Members register online to be added to the email list, and don’t have to live in the Liberty district. Staff members, retired staff members such as Makemson and at least one recent LPS graduate have attended meetings. Students need parental permission to join.
“This isn’t a discussion that just needs to happen in the Liberty School District,” Farr said. “It’s a discussion that needs to happen everywhere, especially together in the Northland.”
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