The Orange County Schools Board of Education voted on Monday to keep three books — which focus on themes including racism, segregation and gender identity and include sexually explicit content — in its high school libraries' circulation.
The board's vote came after a complaint was filed in October and subsequently reviewed by school and district-level committees over the past few months for each of three books — "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe, "Lawn Boy" by Jonathan Evison and "Out of Darkness" by Ashley Hope Pérez.
The board unanimously voted in favor of keeping each book in the school district’s libraries. These same books, and others that include themes of race, sexual orientation and gender identity, have been challenged in school districts across the country for months.
"Gender Queer" is a memoir that features Kobabe's experiences from adolescence to adulthood and finding acceptance for eir identity as a nonbinary and asexual individual and also serves as a guide on gender identity.
Wake County Public Libraries banned the book in December, but returned it to circulation this month as the county looks to revise its review policy.
“As a librarian, I don’t ban books,” Brenda Stephens, board vice chairperson, said. “I try to get books in the hands of as many people as possible because we need to learn from them.”
At the special meeting on Monday, board member Hillary MacKenzie cited the challenges faced by many transgender and nonbinary youths as reasons for supporting books such as "Gender Queer" remaining in school libraries.
“Transgender and nonbinary youth face elevated risks for depression, thoughts of suicide and attempts of suicide compared to youths who are cisgender and straight,” she said.
Stephens said it was important to note that the books were under discussion for their presence in high school libraries.
“We’re not talking about putting Gender Queer or any of these books in the hands of a 6-year-old,” Stephens said. “We’re talking about our high school here.”
Board members continued to discuss their thoughts on the books. "Lawn Boy" is about a 22-year-old Mexican-American and his journey to figure out who he is while grappling with his sexuality and racism in America. "Out of Darkness" is a work that fuses facts about the 1937 New London school explosion with broader themes of racism, segregation and the importance of family.
Board member Sarah Smylie said "Out of Darkness" has "serious literary value" for the school district's high school libraries.
“If you read the book as a whole, while it does include some painful scenes, including sexual assault, it is clearly not written with the intent to appeal to prurient interests," Smylie said. "Instead, this is a moving and informative piece of historical fiction that helps one better understand the experience of what it was like to live in Jim Crow-era Texas as a Black or Mexican-American young person."
An Orange County high school student wrote a statement to be shared with the board on Monday.
“Seeing these books on the shelves makes me feel like there is a place for me,” the student wrote. “LGBTQ kids deserve to be seen. Nobody likes to feel alone and keeping these books on the shelves will ultimately save lives.”
At the meeting, Smylie noted that there has recently been a surge of challenges to these books, which she said has come from groups masquerading as parents’ rights groups, who appear to be targeting books with themes relating to underrepresented groups.
“The vast majority of the books being challenged are either about people who are LGBTQ or are about people who are Black, Latino or Indigenous," Smylie said. "These are the characters that these organized groups don't want students reading about.”
In November, the American Library Association released a statement condemning what it described as a “dramatic uptick in book challenges and outright removal of books from libraries.” From June 1 to late November, the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom tracked 155 censorship incidents.
“It’s troubling that all of the challenges that are coming forth are coming to these very distinct groups, and of course, I’m a part of that, and it’s not a good feeling,” Stephens said.
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