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Harlem Valley concerns about queer book banning

HARLEM VALLEY — Today, people in this country, and around the world, take comfort in knowing there are people willing to fight for free speech and to raise awareness of those who look to limit it — in all its forms. That includes book banning.

While book banning may not always make the headlines on a daily basis, it is still a real and present danger. The Millerton News spent a few weeks in June — LGBTQ Pride Month — interviewing those fighting to raise awareness of book banning, particularly queer book banning.

In May, Oblong Books Co-Owner Suzanna Hermans, which has its main location in Millerton, sent out a message in the store’s weekly e-newsletter. She referred to the book banning “crisis” taking place across the country, with schools pulling books from classrooms and libraries — especially those written by Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ authors.

“It’s something that’s always been happening,” Hermans said. “Every year, books are challenged in schools, but there’s been a large wave of it happening over the last year or so. Frequently the books… are usually challenged by parents…

“It’s one thing if a parent says their child can’t read a book, but when they say no child should read this book is where we have a problem.”

One book that’s made the list in the last few years is “Melissa,” (previously published as “George”), by Alex Gino. It tells the story of a transgender girl who wants to play Charlotte in her school’s production of “Charlotte’s Web,” but meets with resistance in her school community.

“It’s such a wonderful and loving book and has such a positive message,” Hermans said, “and the fact that it has been challenged in so many schools is disheartening.”

The graphic memoir “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” by Maia Kobabe is another banned book. The manager of Oblong’s Rhinebeck location said the Wappingers School District pulled the book from its library, and Hermans wrote to its school board and superintendent to encouraging them to “educate themselves and reconsider.”

In response, she was told they weren’t necessarily in opposition of the book’s ideas, but felt the images “were too graphic” for the library.

Rather than reading the books, Hermans said she’s found people who challenge books “often cherry pick” a passage and have “an intense response” without reading it in its entirety or understanding the context.

“I can understanding that there are things that people want to keep from their children,” she said, “but if we take a moment to look around us, there’s so much going on in the world that is infinitely more painful, more challenging, which our kids are experiencing in their lives every day.

“It’s so important they have these stories available to understanding not only what’s going on in their own lives, but to build empathy and understanding for other people. These stories are safe ways for kids to experience new ideas.”

Hermans added when queer children and children of color see these stories challenged, they internalize the idea that their stories are somehow bad, dirty or unworthy of being told or that their voices aren’t important.

As a bookseller, she said she makes sure Oblong’s shelves include such stories. She works with schools and libraries and regularly presents books by queer and BIPOC authors.

In the North East (Webutuck) Central School District, its librarian, Beth Murphy, said the district has never banned a book.

“The district has always given professional courtesy that the library is the specialist aware of the needs of our students,” Murphy said. “I know I have colleagues in other districts that are having problems and I know they’re allowing parents in Texas to pull books from libraries, and it shocks me. It truly, truly shocks me because words in a book never harm a person.”

Murphy admitted she was approached 20 years ago by a parent unhappy about  a book; to this day, the book remains on the shelf.

The Millbrook Library on Friendly Lane is run by Library Director Courtney Tsahalis. She believes everyone should be trusted to make their own decision about what to read, as outlined in the American Library Association Freedom to Read Statement.

“Limiting people’s access to books does not protect them from life’s complex and challenging issues,” Tsahalis said. “Books can be used as tools to explore other viewpoints, as well as mirrors to reflect personal experience. We believe that people should be trusted to make their own decisions about what to read and work to maintain a collection that reflects a diversity of viewpoints on a variety of subjects.”

Ren Babcock is a rising sophomore at Stissing Mountain Junior/Senior High School. She opted to write about queer books for her submission to the Friends of the Pine Plains Free Library’s 2022 Young Writers Contest.

Her piece, “Stop the Banning of Queer Books,” ultimately won first place in the contest’s academic non-fiction category.

Ren gave her insight on queer books and their being banned. She said she personally thinks queer books are an “amazing” resource.

“The recent surge of popularity of these books makes me feel very happy, especially that queer content is amiable to people of virtually any age,” she said. “Every time I walk into a bookstore or library, I have found at least one queer book, which makes me feel accepted and represented.”

Ren said she wanted to call attention to all of the positive aspects of queer books and how they educate people on information that’s not available in school.

“The representation in queer books provides queer people with a place in libraries or bookstores that others are automatically given,” she said. “If you let the books be in public places where people can access them if they choose to, it isn’t forcing people who do not want to read them to read them. I would like those intent on banning queer books to consider that queer books help more than harm. They help… queer people feel safe and well represented and they can educate others on important topics.”

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