Removing Books from Schools

Nearby districts react to challenges

A vote by the Wappingers school board last month to remove a copy of Gender Queer: A Memoir from the library at John Jay High School injected the district into a national culture war, while battle lines also form in other Hudson Valley communities. 

Along with Wappingers, the Carmel, Mahopac and Yorktown school districts are reviewing books, spurred by parents who have complained that the titles contain graphic images, profanity, sexual language and, in one case, critical views of the police. 

Gender queer

Gender Queer was the most challenged book last year, according to the ALA.

On April 5, Carmel’s school board voted to uphold their superintendent’s recommendation that Gender Queer remain in the Carmel High School library, despite complaints that some of the book’s images are too explicit. The Arlington school district, facing the same complaint, also voted at a special meeting on March 31 to keep the book. 

Although book challenges are not new, the complaints reflect a surge driven by conservative organizations such as Moms for Liberty. The group, based in Florida, describes itself as an adherent of “parental rights” and lists chapters in Dutchess and Putnam counties.

The American Library Association said on April 4 that it had documented 729 challenges to books held by school, public and university libraries in the U.S. in 2021, the highest number since the association began compiling an annual list of the most challenged books 20 years ago.

Most of the targeted books are by or about Black or LGBTQIA+ people, said ALA President Patricia Wong, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex and asexual, and the plus sign, which represents any other gender identifiers.

Gender Queer, a 2019 graphic novel by Maia Kobabe, topped the ALA’s 2021 list, which also includes Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison; All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson; The Bluest Eye, the first novel by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison; and The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas, which was adapted in 2018 into a film. 

Most-Challenged Books

Below is a list of the 10 most-challenged books in school libraries in the U.S. in 2021, according to the American Library Association, and whether Beacon High School and Haldane High School have them on their shelves.

1. Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe
Challenges: LGBTQIA+ content, sexually explicit
Beacon High School: No
Haldane High School: No

Lawn Boy2. Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison
Challenges: LGBTQIA+ content, sexually explicit
Beacon High School:  No
Haldane High School: No

3. All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George M. Johnson
Challenges: LGBTQIA+ content, profanity, sexually explicit
Beacon High School: No
Haldane High School: Yes

4. Out of Darkness, by Ashley Hope Perez
Challenges: Depictions of abuse, sexually explicit
Beacon High School: No
Haldane High School: No

Hate U Give5. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Challenges: Profanity, violence, “anti-police message,” “indoctrination of a social agenda”
Beacon High School: No
Haldane High School: Yes

6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Challenges: Profanity, sexual references, use of derogatory term
Beacon High School: No
Haldane High School: Yes

7. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews
Challenges: Sexually explicit, “degrading to women”
Beacon High School: Yes
Haldane High School: Yes

Bluest Eye8. The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
Challenges: Child sexual abuse, sexually explicit
Beacon High School: Yes
Haldane High School: Yes

9. This Book is Gay, by Juno Dawson
Challenges: LGBTQIA+ content, sexual instruction
Beacon High School: No
Haldane High School: No

10. Beyond Magenta, by Susan Kuklin
Challenges: LGBTQIA+ content, sexually explicit
Beacon High School: No
Haldane High School: No

Although no one has recently challenged books in the Beacon, Garrison or Haldane school districts, according to administrators, the nearby challenges concern Dede Farabaugh, director of Desmond-Fish Public Library in Garrison. That is reflected in a new Banned Book Club that the library launched on Thursday (April 21). The first selection was the two-volume Maus, a Holocaust-themed graphic novel that was removed in January from schools in McMinn County, Tennessee. 

The removals are not just about the individual texts, but threaten the larger freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment, said Farabaugh. “When you’re banning a book, you’re denying someone else their First Amendment rights,” she said. “No person gets to decide for another what is not appropriate.” 

The First Amendment was central to a U.S. Supreme Court case that originated on Long Island when students in Nassau County sued the Island Trees Union Free School District after the school board removed books deemed “anti-American, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and just plain filthy.” 

In its 1982 decision, the court ruled 5-4 that while school boards can remove titles that are “educationally unsuitable” or “pervasively vulgar,” they could not legally exclude books “because they dislike the ideas.” 

Tom Carrigan, a Cold Spring resident who spent 18 years as a librarian at Fox Lane High School in the Bedford Central School District in Westchester County, said he was “very aware” of book challenges. “Censorship has a long history and there have been waves of people trying to ban one book or another,” he said.

How Local Districts Handle Book Complaints

Complaints must be submitted in writing to the superintendent, who may designate an Instruction Material Review Committee to “investigate and judge the challenged material.” The committee will forward a recommendation to the superintendent, who will issue a decision. The decision may be appealed to the school board, whose decision will be final. 

Complaints are to be submitted in writing to the superintendent, who will notify the school board. The superintendent will designate a committee, including the building principal, to “investigate and evaluate the challenged material according to the principles and qualitative standards stated in district policy.”

Complaints are to be submitted in writing to the superintendent, who will notify the school board. The superintendent will designate a committee, including the librarian and building principal, to “investigate and evaluate the challenged material according to the principles and qualitative standards stated in district policy.” 

The unanimous Wappingers school board vote on March 14 to remove Gender Queer came in response to a complaint filed in January by a woman named Pat Whalen. John Jay High School’s copy had never been checked out, the district said. 

Whalen named as complainants “concerned parents and grandparents” and Moms for Liberty, and said they objected to “all content” in Gender Queer and considered the book, which has images depicting a sex act, inappropriate. 

Whalen addressed the board on Dec. 20, calling Gender Queer “pornography and pedophilia.” In her comments, she referenced the Nuremberg Codes and said she had heard “that there are children as young as the fifth grade who come home and tell their parents that half their class identify as bisexual.” 

“It’s disgusting and it should be in a porn shop, not in a high school library,” she said of the book. “They’re [students] supposed to be taught academics, not sexual identity.” 

The complaint was reviewed by the district’s Instructional Review Committee, comprised of a parent, a librarian, two secondary teachers, an elementary teacher, three administrators and the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. 

Although the committee determined that the book was purchased for the library in accordance with board policy, Superintendent Dwight Bonk on March 12 said he was upholding the complaint. 

He said that while he did not agree with the objection to “all content” in the book and had no problem with “either the ideas or message of the book,” he found it to be “educationally unsuitable” because of “several extremely graphic, sexually explicit images depicting sexual acts.”

How Districts Select Books
Beacon, Haldane policies emphasize diversity

When Cold Spring resident Tom Carrigan joined the Bedford Central School District as a high school librarian in 1996, the district was defending itself against a federal lawsuit filed by two sets of parents and a guardian. 

Each alleged that the district violated their Roman Catholic beliefs by promoting “Satanism and occultism, pagan religions and a New Age Spirituality,” citing activities such as readings about the Buddha, Earth Day, the Magic: The Gathering card game and yoga. 

A federal appeals court dismissed the case in 2001, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal. “A lot of teachers were deposed, [along with] students and administrators,” Carrigan recalled. 

Carrigan, who spent 18 years as a librarian at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, recalled the case on Tuesday (April 19) as he talked about the process school librarians use to select books and a nationwide resurgence of challenges to books at local districts. 

“The first thing you do when you’re hired at a district is to check that there will be a book selection policy that’s approved by the school board, so there is a process,” he said. 

The Beacon and Haldane districts have each posted their policies, including ones covering book selection, on their websites. Both follow the same blueprint: a declaration of learning goals and a general process. 

Among the goals endorsed in Beacon’s policy for the selection of library materials are to: “enrich and support” the curriculum; “stimulate growth in factual knowledge, literary appreciation, aesthetic values, and ethical standards”; prioritize “principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice” in material selection; and “promote the understanding and appreciation of culture, class, language, race, ethnicity and other differences.” 

The district’s librarian and library media specialist are charged with developing the collection, “based on recommendations of the professional staff and suggestions of students and parents,” with building principals making the final selection. 

“Materials will not be excluded because of the race, nationality, political opinions or religious views of the author,” according to Beacon’s policy. 

Haldane’s book selection policy is generally the same, in some spots mirroring the language in Beacon’s policy, while noting that one of its goals is to provide materials “on opposing sides of controversial issues so that young citizens may develop, under guidance, the practice of critical reading and thinking.” 

Carrigan said he would consult department deans at Fox Lane, and research books partly by reading reviews in The New York Times, the School Library Journal and Choice, an American Library Association publication.

“You want to support kids becoming lifelong learners,” he said.

The outcome at Carmel was different. 

Just before the board approved, by a vote of 5-2, keeping Gender Queer, Vice President Matt Vanacoro said some of the pictures made him uncomfortable but “if one kid sees that book and it helps them, then we did our job.” 

“I certainly don’t feel comfortable knowing that my students who are trans have a higher likelihood of being depressed, have a higher likelihood of feeling isolated or feeling alone,” he said. 

Gender Queer is also one of eight books at Yorktown High School that an ad hoc committee began reviewing in response to complaints about “vulgarity.” The others are: All Boys Aren’t Blue; Beyond Magenta; Jack of Hearts and Other Parts; Looking for Alaska; Out of Darkness; The Bluest Eye; and The Hate U Give

The reviews for Looking for Alaska and The Hate U Give have been completed, and it was determined that each will remain available to students, according to the district. The committee reached the same determination following a complaint about Lawn Boy in the library at Mildred E. Strang Middle School. 

Challenges to books have been receiving pushback from some parents, several of whom addressed the board in Yorktown when it met on Feb. 7. 

Jeremy Newberger told the board that his daughter loved The Hate U Give, a novel that centers on the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager by a white police officer. It has been challenged for “profanity, violence, and because it was thought to promote an anti-police message and indoctrination of a social agenda,” according to the ALA. 

“This is hysterical, partisan nonsense,” said Newberger. “It inspired her in a way a book can and should. She did not then decide to hate police after reading it.” 

Another parent, Gary Stallings, defended Gender Queer. He said he teaches medical students at the New York Medical College in Valhalla about LGBTQ topics and he decided to read the book after being told that it was on the list of those being reviewed. He found the book well-written and touching on difficult topics that face doctors who treat LGBTQ patients, including ones who tried to commit suicide “because they had nothing to relate to growing up,” said Stallings. 

“Yes, there’s some pictures that some parents may not appreciate for younger children,” he said. “I’m OK with that. But the work in its entirety, to me, covered essential topics that someone who’s struggling would benefit from greatly.” 

In Mahopac, a school district committee is reviewing about a dozen books that have been challenged, Tom McMahon, president of the Mahopac Teachers Association, told the Journal News last month.

“Books in schools are not randomly chosen,” he said. “They are chosen by trained professionals who have completed years of schooling and have even more years of experience in ensuring well-rounded libraries based on student need and interest. These professionals, our school librarians or library media specialists, should be trusted to do what they have been trained and hired to do.”

Even the appearance of a removal can ignite emotions. The Marlboro school district faced a backlash after, in February, a motion by a board member to add two books — The Poet X and Dear Martin — to the Marlboro High School curriculum was not seconded, meaning it could not be voted on. 

The board voted to adopt the books at its March 3 meeting, during which Board President John Cantone apologized, saying members “unintentionally failed to approve” the books because of “procedural mistakes and failure to follow meeting protocol.” 

He also said a news article about the  February meeting triggered an “onslaught of very hateful and ugly emails” and “social media attacks accusing us of everything you could think of — practicing exclusionary tactics, racism, homophobia, Aryan dictatorship, collusion.” 

“Words like book-banning are a flashpoint across this nation, and to use them to describe what happened was not an accurate reflection of what had happened,” he said.

11 thoughts on “Removing Books from Schools

  1. Sometimes seemingly insignificant trends grow into dangerous precedents. Democracy or autocracy!

  2. As you reported, the Wappingers school board last month voted to remove Gender Queer from the library at John Jay High School. The board of a neighboring district, Arlington, voted 7-1 to keep the book on its high school shelves. In both cases, the complaint was submitted by a woman named Pat Whalen, who has been jump-ing from district to district to challenge the book.

    With the support of two other students in our district, I launched a petition at asking the district to re-consider. It received more than 1,000 signatures in the first week from students, parents, peers, teachers and librarians, men-tal health professionals, authors, activists, Dutchess County Pride and Dutchess County Youth Council members, the New York Library League, the New York State English Council and the National Council of Teachers of English. The author, Maia Kobabe, offered her support on the Instagram page of Oblong Books in Rhinebeck.

    While the book raises potential concern for some, we feel it is an important resource for students going through similar ex-periences in life. It also provides a unique opportunity for students who wish to learn about others and gain empathy. It is a parental duty to determine what is suitable material for their children and to enforce those decisions, but it is not appropriate for one parent to determine what is suitable material for all other families and students. In other words, if you don’t want to read the book, don’t check it out. But don’t take away that resource from other students, as it could be highly useful for them.

    Zhang is a junior at Ketcham High School and a member of the Dutchess County Youth Council.

    • It isn’t clear who Pat Whalen is, or her relationship to the school. Do the Beacon, Haldane and/or Garrison library policies require that any complaints come directly from students or parents of students in order to be considered legitimate?

  3. I wish you had spoken to LGBTQIA+ students or other LGBTQIA+ individuals about what the removal of Gender Queer means to them — means to us. The lack of openly queer voices in the article means we are only spoken about as something controversial or upsetting and never heard from directly.

    When I was a 16-year-old lesbian, it meant the world to me to read openly gay poems in high school Latin class and to know they were talking about someone like me. It also felt terrible to read the numerous homophobic books in our school library that claimed that being gay was a mental illness or morally heinous, on par with being a murderer.

    Finally, you mention that “a sex act” is depicted in Gender Queer, the book that was removed. I thought you should have included, for context, whether there are any books in the school library depicting heterosexual, cisgender sex acts. Given what I know of English literature, including popular young adult graphic novels, I suspect there are.

  4. There is an insidious argument taking place in schools around Putnam County, the Hudson Valley and nationally. It is new in terms of its target and old in terms of its goal, which is to silence.

    On the one side, parents ostensibly object to explicit sexual content being made available to children via school libraries. On the other, parents, students and community members make a number of arguments: No one is even checking the book in question out; the book is educational; LGBTQ+ teens deserve access to such books; parents and community members are misrepresenting the role of such books in education — they are not part of the curriculum, and to take one book off the shelves is a slippery slope that could lead to many others being under threat.

    What is getting lost on both sides of the debate is the true value of the book itself, and, by extension, the many other books, past present and future, that have been, are being, or will be targeted for similar reasons.

    Gender Queer is described by the publisher as a “journey of self-identity, which includes the mortification and confusion of adolescent crushes, grappling with how to come out to family and society, bonding with friends over erotic gay fan fiction, and facing the trauma and fundamental violation of pap smears.”

    There are scenes in the book that deal with sex, and there are graphics that depict sexual acts. But the book is not about sex. In fact, the main character ultimately identifies as asexual. But like The Color Purple, The Bluest Eye, Lolita, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Sula and on and on, the book includes sex and sexuality — and rape and incest and other sexual violence — because they are inextricable from life.

    Children are thinking, wondering about and trying to figure out these topics from a very early age. Anyone who has ever had extensive conversations with a 5-year-old knows this. By the time they are middle- and high-school age, there is no number of books we could ever ban that would keep kids from actively engaging in a quest to learn more about sex and sexuality. To deprive them of access to well-intentioned and educational sexual content so that their sole source becomes the internet is ill-advised.

    Trans and non-binary kids do not see broad representations of their sexual identities on TV, in movies, in books, etc. Cis-gender kids — and even gay and lesbian kids — do. It is so pervasive, in fact, that parents barely even see it. Instead, they see this book not because of its graphic content but because its title made that first parent who brought that first challenge look inside the book in the first place.
    How many other books in the school library include descriptions of sex acts that parents have never thought to worry about? The Perks of Being a Wallflower? The Kite Runner? Are we going to ban all books that include any reference to sexual acts? Our children will become wildly under-educated and myopic if so.

    Teenagers are not the property of their parents. They are individuals, and schools are meant to be an outlet and safe haven for kids who may not be able to share their thoughts or desires at home. This is why there are mandatory reporting rules — parents’ rights over their children have limits. They cannot beat or abuse them, and they cannot chain them to a pole in a basement surrounded only by parentally sanctioned books. They can home-school them. But they cannot and should not be able to dictate what is available in school libraries.

    Let schools do their job and, please, don’t fall for the faux outrage of these purportedly well-meaning parents who are making arguments that history has taught us time and time again are simply wrong. Because, like Judy Blume’s classic, in 30 years, we will all be looking back and laughing at the level of negative attention this award-winning and arguably life-saving book has generated.

    McDermott is the founder of Putnam Pride.

  5. Thanks to our local librarians for fighting this censorship. Aren’t these the same people screaming about “cancel culture”? [via Instagram]

  6. What are people afraid of? Consider the possibility that sexual variety and preference is not only natural but a form of evolution? Oops, did I say a bad word? Shame on me.

  7. Your story quotes Tom McMahon, president of the Mahopac Teachers Association, who said that “books in schools are not randomly chosen. They are chosen by trained professionals who have completed years of schooling and have even more years of experience in ensuring well-rounded libraries based on student need and interest. These professionals, our school librarians or library media specialists, should be trusted to do what they have been trained and hired to do.”

    The message conveyed to me by that statement is that taxpayers and parents have no business expressing their opinions about which books should be in schools — that is the domain of government employees, who are “trained professionals.” Taxpayers and parents have no say in the matter but must instead trust those government employees, and accept whatever they decide. Or, more simply, shut up, and genuflect before the experts. These government employees are not entitled to anyone’s unquestioning trust.

    Taxpayers and parents should instead feel free to exercise their right to express their own judgments and opinions about which books should be in schools. No “trained professionals,” even those with “years of schooling” and “even more years of experience” can preempt that right. That is how it goes in a democratic republic.

    • Respecting the training and skillset of educators and librarians does not equate to denying parents’ input. Respect is a two-way street and educating our children is a collaborative effort.

  8. That we’re even discussing this absolutely floors me. There are bigger and more immediate and pressing issues than worrying about LGBTQIA+ books in school libraries.

    Parents, wake up. If you are a parent of an LGBTQIA+ teenager, there’s a good chance your child is being bullied by narrow-minded classmates and even teachers. Teachers are quitting in droves because the emotional needs of the children during this horrible pandemic are out of their scope, especially with all the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers. Has everybody time traveled back to the Dark Ages? It sounds like Pat Whalen needs to get a hobby and get educated.

    Fear and ignorance will make you do crazy things. Be part of the solution and not another clueless person spouting conspiracy theories under the guise of “concern for the children.” They are the ones the children need protection from.

  9. I was watching the East Fishkill town board meeting when a member of the conservative group Moms for Liberty addressed the board (see video at 18:30), stating “teachers and librarians cannot be trusted to make decisions on materials being made available to children.” She also addresses the fact that in the past year a book had been banned from our local high schools in the Wappingers Central School District, and I am sickened that I live in a school district that has upheld a book ban. This is not what I would have expected, and truthfully it breaks my heart.

    I am a retired teacher who taught in this district for 18 years, and lived in this community for most of my life. In my years of experience I had the good fortune of working with some of the best educators in our state, and have always been proud of this district with its supportive parents, high graduation rates, extracurricular activities, and a music program with a national reputation.

    I am extremely disappointed, disturbed, insulted and angry at the town board that did not stop this person from maligning our librarians and educators. As a retired teacher, I strongly believe we need to trust teachers, librarians and all other public school personnel to do the jobs they were trained to do.

    Our community needs to know what’s going on. People in our community need to know that when you do a little bit of research, you can easily see that the Moms for Liberty is a hate group. I believe our town and school board of education should speak out in a single voice saying that hate has no home in East Fishkill, NY and the Wappingers Central School District!