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Student journalists weigh in on book challenges

Editor’s note: The Northview Public Schools Board of Education is awaiting a recommendation from a review committee whether to keep eight challenged books available as optional reading for students in grades 7 to 12. The final decision will be made by Superintendent Christina Hinds and is expected to occur before winter break. The challenge comes from Cal Morton, a community member and Kent County Moms for Liberty chapter member who ran unsuccessfully last year for a seat on the district’s school board. In his June complaint, Morton cited the books’ sexually explicit matter.

The following is an editorial by Addison Forbes on Northview High School’s student news site, The Roar. It was originally published there on Dec. 1.

Northview Addy Forbes is a senior at Northview High School and editor-in-chief of the ROAR, a position she has held for two years. Addy has committed to the Air Force Academy, where she plans on swimming and getting her degree in behavioral science to pursue a Ph.D. in neuropsychology. She joined journalism because she wanted to improve and expand upon her writing skills, but fell in love with telling people’s stories through articles. 

This article is an editorial from the Roar writers. It contains the opinion of the entire staff. If you are not up to date on Moms for Liberty pushing the removal of eight books in the district, please read this news piece first.

Moms for Liberty’s biggest argument is that these books are pornography. Not that the books are pornographic, or contain some explicit scenes, but that these books, in their entirety, are pornography. Moms for Liberty claims Northview is illegally distributing pornography to minors. 

This is a serious accusation, and definitely not one to be thrown around lightly. This is a crime that breaks federal law, where individuals convicted will face severe disciplinary action, which includes hefty fines and possible imprisonment. 

‘At the core, these books were put on the shelves by teachers that we trust with our children’s lives and well-being.’

— Parent Matt Blumke

For one, these books are not pornography. They aren’t. It’s as simple as that. Although the books contain explicit material, they are not “intended to cause sexual excitement,” as defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary.

Half of the books being reviewed are memoirs. Memoirs are not fantasy; they are not fiction; they are not made-up stories. They are accounts of memories and experiences their authors went through. “Push” by Sapphire, one of the books Moms for Liberty is trying to remove, is a story of a young black girl who is physically abused and raped by her father. 

That is not pornography; that is rape. It is not erotica; it is incest. This is not material aimed to sexually excite its audience; this is someone speaking up about a real situation that happened to them.

Without the realism and rawness created through the inclusion of this material, these books would not be half as good as they are. Taken out of context, sure, the explicit content may be inappropriate. However, it fails to “lack serious literary value,” which is needed for something to be deemed pornography, as defined by the government.

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in Literature in 1993 for her work in bringing “life to an essential aspect of American reality,” follows a young Black girl who obsesses over the beauty standards of society. She lives a life of loneliness and longing, and eventually goes insane from her obsession. She was also raped and impregnated by her father. 

Morrison was given the highest literary award in the world for the way she brought complexity and authenticity to her books, by not skipping over the parts that are sensitive and difficult to read. 

In addition, “The Bluest Eye” has been recommended by AP Literature and Composition recommended exam reading lists since 1975. Is that not more than enough “literary value?”

Without this harder material, these books would not be as powerful and their message of inner strength would not be as impactful for their readers.

Every single one of these books contains a greater message that far outweighs a few pages of explicit content. They tell a tale of resiliency and inspire individuals to overcome great challenges and difficulties. They allow those who feel isolated and alone to recognize themselves in strong, relatable characters. They provide a bridge to understanding different socioeconomic statuses, races, identities and familial situations. 

As awful as the material in the books are, children do grow up in unfortunate and unsafe conditions. That’s why they’re memoirs; that’s why they’re realistic fiction. Removing something that helps kids feel less alone in the world just doesn’t make sense.

Finding yourself in a character is a wonderful thing, especially when the book teaches resilience and strength, just like every single book Moms for Liberty is pushing for removal. 

Northview is an incredible district. We offer so much diversity, not only culturally, but in the form of each individual being unique and equally important. Books offer representation in the form of characters who are gay, transsexual or straight; atheist or religious; Black, Asian or white. Most of these books Moms for Liberty are trying to remove represent these minorities. Taking these books away would tear apart the representation Northview has worked so hard to provide.

‘Removing something that helps kids feel less alone in the world just doesn’t make sense.’

The First Amendment in the Constitution of the United States explicitly grants individuals the right to write, publish, read and view whatever material they please.

These are the rights our country is founded upon. This is the freedom we continue to exercise through our publication, The Roar

Removal of our right to choose what we read might pave the way for future revisions of our rights. Our basic human principles, as citizens of this country, are being threatened by this requested restriction. More pertinent to us at The Roar, what does it mean for young adults like ourselves, who exercise our First Amendment rights daily? If we write about LGBTQ+ topics, abuse and sexual harassment, will we too be censored?

Let’s get back to the books.

To start off, these are not required books. These are choice books that aren’t part of the curriculum. No one is forcing anyone to read them. 

We are blessed at Northview to have the freedom to pick books that align with our interests. We do not have to roll over a select few choices, year after year, in a way that puts students and teachers off of books and discourages kids from reading in general. 

When students pick up books, they choose a specific one because it speaks to them. If they end up not liking it, or if a book is too graphic for them, students are more than able to put that book down and pick another one. 

Shelli Tabor teaches English 12 and Advanced Placement (AP) Research and serves as the district’s teacher union president. She believes it imperative that Northview continues to add books dealing with modern topics to our classroom library shelves.

“If I can’t show a love for reading — isn’t that what I’ve been tasked to do? To build a library and help kids make good book choices that work for them,” Tabor said. “We know that kids read more when they have a high interest in their books, and so we try to keep stuff current and we try to get new stuff. We want things that you would have to be on a waiting list for at Kent District Library.”

ROAR Editor-in-Chief Addison Forbes

Often, classroom libraries are the main source of reading materials for students. Taking away an essential resource in child development is unfair, especially to those who can’t afford to buy books or transport themselves to a library.

Furthermore, teachers give content warnings for books that contain difficult or explicit material. On an individual basis, they have a good understanding of their students’ interests and maturity level. Teachers are not going to recommend a student something they would not be able to handle, the same way no one would recommend the 1,298-page “War and Peace” to a second-grader. 

This trust in a teacher’s competency to guide teens’ reading is essential for every parent. This is the same trust that allows them to send their children to near strangers to educate them for seven hours a day. 

An elementary school, a middle school and a high school will not have the same reading level and maturity. Books between grade levels will differ with reading level and subject matter.  For these reasons, 7th and 8th-grade classroom libraries are different from a high school’s; however, at the high school level, we should be mature enough to handle adult content. 

After all, we are young adults “preparing for life’s next step,” as the quote in the cafeteria states. At all levels, we need to trust teachers to know their students.

Matt Blumke has attended and spoken at every Board of Education meeting since Moms for Liberty began to request limits for choice reading. Blumke, a thirteen-year district resident, has two students attending the high school. He thinks books are an essential outlet for teens familiar with adversity, and offer a unique positive coping mechanism.

“At the core, these books were put on the shelves by teachers that we trust with our children’s lives and well-being,” Blumke said. “And they are thriving here because they are entrusted with the ability to say ‘that book has issues,’ but maybe they know somebody [that went through the same issues,] maybe it happened to them.”

Additionally, if parents want to modify the reading material their child has access to, they are more than welcome to contact their child’s English teacher to make sure both parents and staff are on the same page.

Ultimately, parents should be the ones making decisions about what their individual child is reading. Not other parents, not community members, not people who just moved to Northview.

Because why would we remove our choice in reading when it helps us become better people?

Read more from Northview: 
Above the fold: student journalists make headlines with big wins
Local students push for change in wake of school shooting

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