© 2024
Virginia's Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hanover Girl Scout fights censorship with 'Banned Book Nooks'

One of Hanover student and Girl Scout Kate's "Banned Book Nook" at Morr Donuts in Mechanicsville, VA.
Brad Kutner
Radio IQ
One of Hanover student and Girl Scout Kate's "Banned Book Nook" at Morr Donuts in Mechanicsville, VA.

As Virginia School Boards and libraries face debates over the content of the books on their shelves, one Hanover County student is pushing back. A Girl Scout, this student is hoping to put banned books in the hands of those she says need it most.

Reading a book is usually a silent activity, but if you tuned into the Hanover County School Board meeting in June, you’d hear the sounds of “ey’ votes removing 19 titles from the school system’s libraries.

The vote is also what got Hanover student and local Girl Scout Kate thinking.

“Personally, the idea of censorship to me is appalling and I think it's terrible,” she told Radio IQ in an interview at children’s bookstore BBGB in Richmond’s Carytown District.

Kate, we’re using only her first name because of her fear of online attacks, is 17 and first started watching county meetings as part of a high school civics assignment. A Girl Scout of 12 years, she spoke with her troop leaders, local librarians and educators, and even sympathetic members of the county’s Board of Supervisors to develop Free to Read, an effort to give access to banned books via in-person free libraries, called banned book nooks. It’s also her Gold Award project, the highest award a Girl Scout can earn.

Among the titles she carries are "Sold" by Patricia McCormick— McCormick donated some books to the cause— and “This Book Is Gay” by Juno Dawson. Both are award winning, and both were removed from school shelves for their sexual content by county officials, but Kate says they offer insight for kids in need or who want to learn more about the world.

“Understanding that that’s a reality for kids, even younger than high school, is really important,” she said.

Notably Kate isn’t providing all 19 books that were banned in June. Two titles by Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club among other acclaimed but graphic works of fiction, were among those left off the list.

“I think those books should still be available, but I thought resources should be better spent in my case,” she said.

Among those participating in the project is Josh Morris, co-owner of Morr Donuts in Mechanicsville. Josh and their partner Caitlin were thrilled to participate, but faced a wave of online hate after they opened the banned book nook next to their donut counter.

“I find that it’s strange that it's a donut shop that is a place in a county that offers that support to people," Morris said. "If that's what it has to be then we’re here for it, yea know?”

BBGB Books, where Radio IQ interviewed Kate, is also doing its own display in support of Kate’s work. Owner Jill Stefanovich said she’s been supporting “banned books” in her children’s bookstore for years.

Among her favorites is “Itty Bitty Kitty Corn,” a book about a kitten who sees themselves as a unicorn.

“People say this book is grooming children to see themselves as something they are not,” Stefanovich said, before suggesting the fight against such books is an attempt to target the most vulnerable of youth.

“Having the books representing them to be pulled, what does that do for them?” she asked.

On the other side of the debate over removing books are folks like Moms 4 Liberty of Bedford County chair Amy Snead.

“There’s lots of questions to be raised about what the content is and whether those are appropriate in a school setting,” she said after standing behind Governor Glenn Youngkin when he signed the state budget last month. “I think there’s also a conversation to be had about when a book is required reading for a classroom when a teacher says, ‘you have to read this book,’ and that level of reading might not be appropriate for a 9th grader or 10th grader.”

Snead and other Moms for Liberty members were in town to speak in support of his school policies limiting transgender students’ access in schools, and said they were invited to stand with Youngkin by his staff.

In a statement a spokesperson for Youngkin said “Parental notification of sexually explicit material is not the same as the banning of books in schools.” Parental notification and opt-out policies were already in place before Snead and her group got involved in local school meetings. And Youngkin did not respond to questions about Hanover’s removal of books.

Snead said there were no books removed from Bedford County, but reporting from WSET suggests that wasn’t from a lack of trying.

"It didn't sit well that these had been reviewed without the complainant being a part of those conversations," Snead said after books she complained about were kept on the shelves.

In Front Royal, in the Shenandoah Valley, similar fights over the content of books almost saw the doors of the Samuels Public Library shuttered last month. The fighting got so intense local GOP leaders had to call for peace, but a deal was eventually reached after the library agreed to more parental supervision in children’s book rentals, and the addition of a county-appointed member on the library’s board.

“This is a positive outcome for all Warren County residents,” said Melody Hotek, president of the library’s trustee board. Local conservative had pushed for more control on the library's board, but the single seat was among the compromises.

And Hanover is likely well on their way to banning more books from its schools. Tuesday night the school board approved the creation of a Library Materials Committee made up of citizens approved by the board. Complaints will first be filed with the school before being handed to the newly empowered committee. They’ll make the call to remove books subject only to appeals to the school board itself.

Kate, meanwhile, thinks all this public fighting and intervention is a symptom of a larger issue.

“They’re pouring all their energy into attacking the schools and school libraries when they should be having conversations with their kids about what they think about these issues,” she said. “If that’s what you’re trying to change, the solution is to communicate more clearly with your children.”

The Banned Book Nooks, available at Morr Donuts and Think In Ink in Ashland, are only part of Kate’ project. Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent protecting student demonstrations, she plans to bring some of the banned books directly into Hanover County Public schools via student-run reading groups in the coming weeks.

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

Brad Kutner is Radio IQ's reporter in Richmond.