VUSD committees review challenged books

(Rigo Moran)

Visalia Unified School District puts together committees to review books challenged by the community to determine what materials are worth keeping in its school libraries

VISALIA – Visalia Unified faces the “challenge” of balancing the needs of students when it comes to library books that received community complaints.

The school district, like many other school districts, has a policy in place that requires committees be put together to review “challenged books” to decide if the material is appropriate for high school students. A book is considered challenged when it has content community members take issue with, such as lewd topics or inappropriate behaviors not deemed suitable for students.

One of the books that was brought to attention recently is “This One Summer,” a book about two young girls finding themselves and their sexuality in the face of conflict. It is not confirmed why the book was challenged by community members; however, there are a variety of topics in the book that some could consider concerning, such as underage drinking, smoking, slut shaming and teen pregnancy.

“Most of the content for this book that has been flagged through Common Sense Media, or Kirkus Reviews, is not related to queerness,“ Erika Hawkyard, The Source LGBT+ Center’s program director said.

Once a book has been challenged, whether it be by a community member, parent, school staff member or even by a student, it is then submitted for review and assigned to a challenged book committee, who review the book’s content to determine whether or not the book needs to be restricted from students.

Hawkyard, who has a master’s degree in library and information science and is also a former librarian, explained that the only time the book really touches on LGBTQ+ representation is with the implication that one of the main characters is interested in girls; as well as the acknowledgment of other kids in the book having lesbian parents.

“If someone is challenging this book on those grounds, then to me, that’s an indicator of homophobia,” Hawkyard said.

Any community member can challenge a book regardless of their connection to the school, according to Visalia Unified. All they need to do is fill out a form to challenge the material as inappropriate, and have the book reviewed by a challenged book committee. Each committee is made up of at least seven community members and/or staff members to review the material.

Hawkyard herself is on two challenged book committees for Visalia Unified; she is on the committees for the books ‘Me, Earl and the Dying Girl,’ and ‘The Black Flamingo,’ and believes that her presence on the committees is an indication that the policy is inclusive.

“I certainly feel that the fact that I was included in this process shows that there is a concern about making sure that queer voices are heard and represented in this process,” Hawkyard said.

However, this also creates potential for some community members to try and prevent kids from having access to certain books for reasons other than concern for their wellbeing. Hawkyard explained that the American Library Association Office of Intellectual Freedom said 17% of challenges are from religious and political groups, as opposed to 30% being from parents and 28% being from kids.

“Anyone can issue a book challenge, so it makes sense for committees to be composed of more than just parents as well,” Hawkyard said.

Hawkyard also broke down the importance of why school libraries need books with good representation of underrepresented communities. She explained that most kids seek out content that is within their maturity level and has characters they can relate to; she also said libraries are democratic institutions where parents, librarians and kids should be able to discuss the needs of the child, as well as figure out what is appropriate for them without making that the standard for all kids.

As an example, Hawkyard noted that if a parent and child wanted to find a coming-of-age story about Christian girls, a librarian would be able to find those books easily. She continued to explain that kids learn how to find appropriate content when parents model and teach how to find material that fits within their values and maturity level.

“I think we’re putting responsibility for what is (considered) a parental issue onto a school library,” Hawkyard said. “But I do think a challenge committee is an opportunity for us to have a community conversation about those facets, and hopefully decide to keep the book in the library.”

Visalia Unified did not confirm the reasons behind the complaints challenging “This One Summer.” The school district only said that it was challenged for concerns that it might not be appropriate.

“Our policy gives us an avenue to review and identify books that may truly not be appropriate for students of a certain age, while also recognizing that we have due diligence as a public institution to provide students with their right to have a whole-rounded picture of the world and access materials of their choosing,” Visalia Unified Superintendent Kirk Shrum said in an emailed statement to The Sun-Gazette.

According to Visalia Unified, not only has the district had this policy for challenged books for years, many other schools do as well to make sure reading material is appropriate. While the school district makes it clear they will respect parents’ wishes when it comes to the type of material they let their children read, that is not what the challenged book committees are for.

“Challenging books is an avenue to alert our district of a book that is truly inappropriate for all students,” Visalia Unified representatives said in an emailed statement to The Sun-Gazette.

Start typing and press Enter to search