Parents trying to get books yanked from school libraries deserve to be heard, Robert Gehrke writes

It may be a made-up controversy from the national right-wing playbook, but parents should have a voice.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

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In ninth grade English, we got to pick one of the books we would read that year. Thinking I was some sort of edgy renegade, I chose “The Catcher In The Rye,” a book that, because of some language and sexual topics, I had to get parental permission to read.

If I was hoping to be shocked or titillated; I was not. It did however resonate with the angsty, socially awkward, hormonally-challenged teen I was at the time, and taught me that everyone else, especially adults, were a bunch of phonies. It pretty much shaped that entire chapter of my life and I later briefly considered naming my firstborn after protagonist Holden Caulfield.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot for the last couple of weeks as the reactionaries from Utah Parents United are taking up their latest crusade — a quest to get controversial books banished from school libraries. Their hit list currently includes dozens of titles targeted for removal.

Because really we couldn’t have just celebrated Thanksgiving without our homegrown Puritans.

We know, of course, where this is coming from. It’s the latest move from the conservative fundamentalist playbook.

[Read more: How 9 books started a fight over censorship and pornography in this Utah school district]

In the Canyons School District, nine titles were removed from the district’s bookshelves based on a letter from one upset parent. Other parents are calling police departments to complain about the latest outrage and are organizing through social media to target other titles and other districts with the same treatment.

In my day, rock ’n’ roll, rap and video games hurt children. Now it’s masks and critical race theory.

Then there are, of course, books, which have been hurting children for hundreds of years.

With all this peril in the world, it’s a miracle a single child has ever made it to adulthood.

And I get it. It’s aggravating to see this same small, vocal group ginning up one controversy after another, attempting to foist their narrow agenda on the rest of us. It’s easy to be outraged at the outrage and meet fury with fury.

But what if — hear me out — they might have a point?

First, this is not banning books in the larger sense. The books still exist and are available elsewhere. It’s not even the same as removing them from public libraries. That would be more problematic. But I don’t think it’s a radical idea to suggest that material in school libraries should be appropriate for student consumption.

What does that mean? It means that the professionals who run school libraries, and the administrators in charge, need to be allowed to use their best judgment to stock shelves with relevant, diverse, engaging and informative materials.

But it also means that if you, as a parent, don’t like something on the shelves — whether it’s Webster’s Dictionary because kids could look up dirty words (don’t tell me you didn’t), or Dr. Seuss’s “Hop On Pop” because it might encourage violence against parents — you need to have an avenue to make the case why it shouldn’t be there.

If offended parents can present a convincing, clear argument and a panel of teachers or administrators, using clear, standardized criteria, agree, then the book will be pulled. If not, it goes back on the shelf.

Obviously, there are books with objectionable material that even progressive, open-minded parents wouldn’t want in school libraries. As a kid, I had a copy of “Little Black Sambo,” with ridiculously racially insensitive drawings, that I frankly don’t think would belong in a school library today.

None of this means that people should be calling the police to haul away books and arrest librarians, just that there needs to be a way to be heard. And I don’t have a problem removing the books temporarily while that process plays out.

And, honestly, some of the objections Utah Parents United has raised probably have merit.

One graphic novel, “Gender Queer” includes oral sex being performed in considerable detail. That very graphic novel was in libraries in some Canyons School District’s high schools.

Now, if anyone thinks that removing this particular book will shield kids from learning these subjects exist, that person clearly doesn’t understand: 1. High schoolers, 2. the Internet, 3. What happens when 1 and 2 meet.

In its entirety, that particular book may be valuable to some teens. But should it be available at school to 13- or 14-year-old freshmen? Should it require parental permission to check out? Or should it be yanked altogether?

That’s not for me to say, just like it’s not for you or some angry parent to say. We need a forum where objections can be raised, views can be aired, parents can be included, clear criteria established and decisions can be made.

In the Canyons District, the guidelines for what happens when parents object were a little unclear, but the district is now refining its policy, reviewing the material and will come to a conclusion. Other districts will likely find themselves in the same position, if they haven’t already, as the book battles inevitably spread statewide.

In the meantime, let’s stop calling the cops about books and calling people Nazis if we disagree with them.

Let’s focus a little more on parenting our own kids and not everyone else’s, to be glad if your kid actually cares about reading, and to take a deep breath while this process — as frustrating as it can be — plays itself out.

Maybe we even use the time to read a good book.