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Spotsylvania County book controversy gets national attention

Spotsylvania School Board Meeting
Spotslyvania County livestream
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Dozens of people spoke at Monday's school board meeting

High school students navigating the world of social media and pandemic mitigation are overloaded with screen time and loud voices. So the idea that a teenager might find solace or inspiration in the pages of a book, well that's a welcome development to Tamara Quick, who said this at a recent School Board meeting in Spotsylvania County. "I read an excerpt from a book recently that I want to share: 'I don't mind him not talking so much because you can hear his voice in your heart the same way you can hear a song in your head even if there isn't a radio playing the same way you can hear those blackbirds flying when they're not in the sky."

The book she's quoting from is 33 Snowfish by Adam Rapp, which won the award for Best Book for Young Adults from the American Library Association. Not everyone is a fan, though. During a recent School Board meeting, one parent said she found the book in her daughter's available online reading and found it "disgusting." That prompted the Spotsylvania County School Board to yank it from the shelves and launch an audit.

"If I find out any are thrown away or slip by I'm going to be perturbed about that," school board member Kirk Twigg said at a recent meeting. "I don't expect that to happen. Just cooperate with me. I'm sure I've got other colleagues here and I'm sure we've got hundreds of people out there that would like to see those books before we burn them."

School Board member Rabih Abuismail went even further. "I don't want to even see them. I think they should be thrown in a fire." Abuismail later told the Free Lance-Star that he shouldn’t have said that and that he misspoke. But the book burning controversy in Spotsylvania was already ablaze.

Book burning was a tactic of the Nazis in the 1930s, and the idea that two Spotsylvania School Board members would advocate for it prompted hours of testimony from students, teachers and parents at a subsequent meeting. One of the speakers was Megan Marshall, a teacher who says book burning isn't a good look. "Who is going to want to come and work here when they research this county and see that a School Board member called to burn books?"

Heather Baker is a parent who was appalled at the idea that her School Board members want to round up books and burn them. "This is an act of dictators, emperors and despots. This is seen throughout history as a way to censor thoughts and ideas and to oppress minorities."

Monday night the School Board voted to rescind its earlier decision, halting the audit for potentially sexually explicit material that might be in school libraries. But there may end up being more chapters to this story. n January, Spotsylvania will have a new School Board with a new majority, and that School Board might end up having this conversation all over again next year.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has reported for NPR, the New York Daily News and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has a master's degree in American Studies from Florida State University, and he is a former adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College. He is the author of four books.