Illustration by Jessica Turner.

Eighth-grader Chloe Clemens told her mom she was concerned about one of her friends as she was getting ready for bed one evening. At Richardson North Junior High that day, Chloe’s friend told their teacher she was worried about a book she was reading that had “so many F-words in it.” 

The book, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, was among 10 books that students could choose to read and discuss for an assignment in the gifted and talented English, language arts and reading class. The F-word appears in the story 39 times.

Chloe’s mother, Sherry Clemens, knew about the assignment because some of the books on the list could only be read with consent from parents. Chloe had chosen a book that didn’t require parent permission, and Sherry assumed the books that came with permission slips explored “hot topics” or were “a little more mature,” she said in an October interview with Blaze Media. (Sherry Clemens, who is running for the RISD District 2 seat, declined to be interviewed for this story.)  

When Chloe made the comment about her friend, Sherry’s curiosity was piqued. She began researching the books her daughter was exposed to in school, Googled a few, and told Blaze she “couldn’t believe it.”

A former elementary teacher in Forney ISD, Sherry Clemens started asking questions of the Richardson North Junior High and the RISD administration — including Lindsay Mikulas, the director of English language arts. Eventually she made her concerns public at the Sept. 20, 2021, RISD board meeting. 

“How is it my daughter could be reading books with major profanity and sexual content that in the end, [Mikulas] said because it was the goal of RISD to reach all students,” Sherry Clemens said at the meeting. “I demand better for my children. You focus on education. I would tell you to stay in your lane, but guess what, you’re not even in the right direction.” 

That wasn’t the end of the discussion. Parents, including Sherry Clemens, started sharing graphics on social media, warning families to avoid books they find pornographic, obscene or traumatic. 

But other parents take the opposite view. 

Mother Julie Robinson, who has a seventh-grader in RISD, recently started a banned book club called Fahrenheit 450, one degree short of the temperature that author Ray Bradbury believed would spark the auto-ignition of book pages. Any books that have been banned at some point or another are fair game. 

“The effects of banning books are catastrophic since it limits knowledge, the right to free speech and freedom of thought,” Robinson says. 

Sherry Clemens started the discussion that led RISD to evaluate its guidelines for selecting books at a time when groups throughout the country are wrestling with the same issue: Who can determine which books are appropriate for which children. And these debates over what makes it on the library shelves are wrapped up with religious beliefs, political ideologies and social issues.  

RISD’s response  

After the board meeting, RISD looked at the book list and decided that two of the books, Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina and Everybody Sees The Ants by A.S. King, were inappropriate for junior-high students. They were removed from the classroom, and RISD apologized that they were offered in the first place. Mikulas says they also checked to see if those titles were available at any other junior high school.  

“This was not just a blanket, ‘we’re removing books,’” says Tabitha Branum, the interim superintendent of RISD. “It was still allowing those books to be available where we believe that they were either age or developmentally appropriate.”

Both titles were supplementary materials and chosen by the teacher. These are different from adopted materials, which are used as the main source of information in courses after a year-long review process, an opportunity for parents to preview and a presentation to the board of trustees. 

Some books that had been approved by parents were removed right after the board meeting but were later returned. Branum says the District followed up with the parents, who consented to allowing their children to finish reading the books. 

“If the parent did give permission, who are we to take those books out of their hands?” Mikulas says.

RISD assembled a committee of educators and parents to begin developing a set of criteria that District employees should consider when selecting supplemental materials. 

“What questions, what things are they thinking about to make sure that those resources are appropriate developmentally, in terms of maturity and really are tightly aligned to the curriculum,” Branum says. 

The committee members aren’t creating a checklist; it’s more of a lens for employees to look through, or guardrails to help guide the decisions. They also don’t want this process to become a way to edit out or remove diversity from materials available to students, Branum says. 

“We still want to have a breadth of books that reflect the diversity of our student population,” Branum says. “We still want students to have lots of choice. We want them to have books and characters that they can connect with and relate to.” 

RISD wants to make sure parents have confidence that teachers have thought critically about materials they provide students, Branum says, and that the materials are going to be a “good choice” for their children. 

But parents still have “complete choice,” Mikulas says, and the District has seen that when students select their own texts, they read more. 

WHY PEOPLE MIGHT SUPPORT BOOK CENSORSHIP

Parents in RISD and other places challenge books because of their content. 

Gender Queer: A Memoir was published in 2019 and received the ALA Alex Award and Stonewall Book Award-Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award in 2020. But what some parents may have found problematic are its cartoon depictions of sexual situations, plus discussion about determining gender identity and sexuality. In an interview with NBC, author Maia Kobabe said the book wasn’t meant for elementary-aged children but was appropriate for high-schoolers. 

However, Gender Queer isn’t included in any of RISD’s campus libraries, according to an online search.   

The F-word appears in Burn Baby Burn 10 times, and the book references intercourse and drug use. Libraries at all four of RISD’s high schools have this book, but no other campuses do.

Another book, Everybody Sees The Ants, deals with suicide and bullying. The question, “If you were going to commit suicide, what method would you choose” is presented at the beginning, and characters provide answers throughout the book. In another part of the book, a boy is held down in a locker room, stripped of his clothing with his legs held apart and is photographed. Like Burn Baby Burn, it’s only available to RISD’s high-school students.

Class Act, the first graphic novel to receive the John Newbery Award, is available at elementary, junior high and high schools across the district. It was written by Jerry Craft, an African-American author who grew up in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Craft said he “wanted to illustrate the things that kids like me had to face on a daily basis — like teachers confusing you with another kid of color, or classmates being afraid to come to your house because they assume you live in a bad neighborhood.”

Craft’s book has been challenged in Katy ISD, among other places, where some parents were opposed to it because they said it promoted critical race theory (CRT), which they say is “toxic, dangerous and should not have a place in our schools at all.”

WHY PEOPLE MIGHT OPPOSE CENSORSHIP

Reading increases our experiences of others, our emotional experiences of others,” says Ann Batenburg, an associate clinical professor of gifted education at Southern Methodist University. “It helps us to empathize with others who are unlike us.”

It’s an idea echoed by RISD parent Jennifer Tidmore, who has a junior at Richardson High School and a sixth-grader at Hamilton Park Pacesetter Magnet. Tidmore says she doesn’t believe any group or individual should be able to dictate which information is available to others. She also says it’s not possible to become a critical thinker without being exposed to opposing perspectives.

Neither of Tidmore’s sons have read any of the 17 books on the list that circulated on Facebook, but it’s not because she has prohibited them from picking up those texts. 

“They have complete freedom to read anything they’d like to read. Always have,” Tidmore says. “If they want to put the time and work into reading, they are welcome to anything they’d like to choose.”  

Book banning isn’t necessary, Batenburg says. Students can delay reading certain books until they’re older. Also, parents have the right to ask for alternative materials for their children, and schools usually accommodate that request, unless it’s especially burdensome to the school. In RISD, parents can decide which books their children are able to check out from school libraries.

And Batenburg says book bans really don’t accomplish their purpose. 

“Anytime you ban a book, it’s instantly more popular,” she says.

Kobabe’s Gender Queer is one example. In an interview with Slate, Kobabe said the book was selling better than ever, though it was being challenged in multiple states.

THE LEGAL ISSUE

The judicial branch has weighed in when parents, school boards and students clash over who can choose which books students can access and when.

In 1975, board members of the Island Trees Union Free School District in New York obtained a list of books they believed to be inappropriate for some students. They removed the books from libraries at the high school and junior high school, with some parents saying the books were anti-American, anti-Christian and antisemitic. 

The school board assembled a committee of parents and school staff to review the 11 books and determine whether they should stay in the libraries. The committee recommended that five books should be in the libraries, two should be removed and one should only be allowed with parent permission. The committee didn’t have an opinion on another and couldn’t agree on one. 

But the school board decided nine of the books should be removed, one could return to the libraries, and one could be read only with parent permission. Island Trees students sued the board, and the case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1982 that the New York school district and other school boards “may not remove books from school libraries simply because they dislike the ideas contained in those books.”

The court also cited the 1943 case West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, ruling that school boards can’t “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion.”

However, the court ruled in Island Trees v. Pico that school boards “might rightfully claim absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values in schools.” 

Five years after the New York case, parents in Tennessee claimed the contents of a required reading series offended their and their children’s religious beliefs. The court ruled in Mozert v. Hawkins County Public Schools that the school district could require students to use the reading series. Exposure to ideas that opposed their faith didn’t mean students had to believe or act on them.

State and local school officials have substantial influence over curriculum, which they can use to “transmit community values” to teach students to respect authority and social, moral and democratic ideas.

But it’s a different story when it comes to school libraries, where students can test or expand on information they learn. In that case, courts have limited officials’ ability to remove books. The exception is that school boards can prevent students from accessing certain books if they contain offensive language or are psychologically or intellectually inappropriate for the age group.

That’s what happened in RISD, and the lingering discussion has permeated the school board election. 

At an April 10 RISD District 2 candidate forum, incumbent Eron Linn said he was against removing books, that he believed all students should have access to as much information as possible to educate themselves about different topics. 

“As a student of history, I don’t know any society that’s benefited from banning knowledge,” Linn says. 

Vanessa Pacheco, another candidate for the District 2 spot, says she doesn’t support removing books and that she trusts librarians to select the right materials. 

“They should be stocked with all kinds of books for all kinds of kids,” she says. 

When Sherry Clemens addressed the issue at the April forum, she said she is not in favor of banning any books and appreciates the freedom of speech but thinks the RISD board should set guidelines for book selection. 

“We have to keep our students’ minds safe,” she says.

The issue hasn’t been resolved across the state or country, let alone RISD. But Branum offers some common ground. 

“The most important thing that I keep hearing is that there is an absolute agreement that we want to have a variety of texts for our students to choose,” she says. “We want our libraries to have books that reflect what our kids are experiencing, that have characters that look like them, that are materials that relate to our kids and help foster a love of reading. I think our entire community agrees on that.”

BOOKS IN QUESTION

Earlier this year, a post warning RISD parents to prevent their children from reading 17 books circulated on Facebook: 

Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe 

All American Boys by Jason Reynolds & Brendan Kiely 

Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina 

Parachutes by Kelly Yang 

Far From The Tree by Robi Benway 

Everybody Sees The Ants by A.S. King 

All Boys Aren’t Blue by George Matthew Johnson 

Flamer by Mike Curato 

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds & Ibram X. Kendi 

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender 

George by Alex Gino 

Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison  

Class Act by Jerry Craft 

Every Day by David Levithan 

Fighting Words by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley 

How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon 

On the Come Up by Angie Thomas

HOW BOOKS ARE CHOSEN

According to RISD’s guidelines, all materials, regardless of where they’re used, including in classrooms or school libraries, should: 

Support and be consistent with the general educational goals of the state and district.

Meet high standards for artistic quality and/or literary style, authenticity, educational significance, factual content, physical format, presentation, readability and technical quality. 

Be appropriate for the subject area and for the age, ability level, learning styles and social and emotional development of the students for whom they are selected. 

Be designed to help students gain an awareness of our pluralistic society. 

Be designed to provide information that will motivate students and staff to examine their own attitudes and behavior; to understand their duties, responsibilities, rights and privileges as citizens participating in our society; and to make informed choices in their daily lives. 

Library selections: are key to instruction; are appropriate in terms of students’ understanding and reading levels; reflect the interests and needs of the campus community; have literary or artistic value; and convey information accurately and clearly.

Supplemental materials: Special attention is required for that address “a sensitive or controversial issue.” These should be examined by school staff and the principal. If there’s a need for a formal review, a committee of an administrator, central subject area specialist, teacher, parent and library & information technology educator should determine whether the material in question is appropriate. 

WHAT’S TRENDING

If it seems like book challenges are becoming more common, that’s because they are.

The American Library Association recorded 729 incidents where library and school materials and services were challenged last year. Up from 156 in 2020, it’s the highest number of challenges since the ALA started tracking them 20 years ago.

Among the 1,597 books challenged or removed, most were by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ people, the ALA found. Gender Queer, Lawn Boy and All Boys Aren’t Blue were the top three most-challenged titles. 

These cases are happening in cities as close as McKinney, where in February a couple called for the removal of 282 books, claiming they were pornographic and had instances of bestiality and sodomy. 

Questions are coming from elected officials, too. Texas state Rep. Matt Krause sent a list of 850 books about racism, sexuality and gender to superintendents in November 2021, as part of an investigation into which books school districts have. 

The Texas Education Agency released in April guidelines school boards can use to select and review library materials, in response to a request by Gov. Greg Abbott to find a way to prevent “pornography and other obscene content” in schools. 

Batenburg cites the country’s political divide as one reason for the uptick. 

“Every time in our history when there’s been a big push forward in terms of civil rights, there has been almost an immediate backstepping or backlash,” Batenburg says. “And this is just part of that.”