Books

Angry parents object after Independence schools ban book

The Independence school board has removed the children's fiction book “Cats vs.  Robots: This is War” from elementary school libraries within the district because it features a nonbinary character.

The Independence school board has removed the children’s fiction book “Cats vs. Robots: This is War” from elementary school libraries within the district because it features a nonbinary character.

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Art Smith says the Independence school board sent a clear message to his children and others like them when it banned a book from elementary school libraries because it features a nonbinary character.

“The message, intentional or not, is loud and clear that you are too complicated, too controversial or too dangerous for a child to stumble across a description of who you are on their own,” Smith, the father of a nonbinary high schooler, told the school board Tuesday. “It’s hard not to feel like kids like mine are not welcome here.”

The meeting was standing-room-only, packed with parents on both sides of the issue.

Smith and several other parents and librarians are demanding that the school board rescind its 6-1 decision to remove “Cats vs. Robots #1: This Is War” from elementary school library shelves. In a letter sent to families last month, district officials said that the subject of gender identity may be “new to young readers,” and the decision was made to give parents a say over what their children read.

The district does provide free library cards to all K-12 students and families so they can access any material families wish at their local public library,” school board president Eric Knipp told The Star.

The book’s discussion of gender identity “is a very heavy subject,” said Bruce Gibbs, who served on a committee that recommended the book’s removal. “This is a heavy subject that is not appropriate for kids in elementary school.”

The book’s authors, Margaret Stohl and Lewis Peterson, have blasted the board’s decision. In a letter to the school board, the authors wrote that the book’s removal was “based on misinformation and represents an endorsement of a dangerous and discriminatory policy and bias.”

Some parents, many in LGBTQ Pride shirts, came to the meeting to support parents like Smith and beg that board members allow the book to return to shelves. Others thanked the board for its decision, arguing that such content is harmful to young readers and not age appropriate.

School board member Anthony Mondaine — the only one to vote against the book’s removal — made a motion to extend the public comment period to allow for more parents to speak. The motion failed when no board member seconded it.

The issue comes amid a nationwide push by some parents and politicians to ban from schools certain books that deal with gender and sexual identity, as well as racial themes. Across the Kansas City metro and country, parents have challenged books they deemed appropriate and too graphic for students.

Many librarians, students, teachers and the American Civil Liberties Union have fought back, arguing that such book bans violate students’ First Amendment rights. They also argue that all students should be able to see themselves reflected in the books available at schools.

In the Blue Valley district, for example, the school board this spring voted to keep two LGBTQ-themed books on high school library shelves, rejecting a challenge from a parent concerned about sexual content. Last year, the North Kansas City district temporarily removed two books with LGBTQ themes from its high schools after a parent objected. Dozens of students pushed backand the district eventually returned the books to library shelves.

In Independence, a parent in April challenged “Cats vs. Robots #1: This Is War.” On its website, the book is described as a “delightfully spun tale of robot overlords, secret feline agents, and Earthling humans who are in for a real catastrophe.” The book, with themes about STEM, is marketed toward children ages 8 through 12.

A nine-member committee, including Gibbs, reviewed the book. At Tuesday’s meeting, Gibbs defended their decision that the book is not age appropriate. He also argued that it is not clear from the book’s cover or description that it would include content about gender identity.

Author Lewis Peterson said in a tweet, in response to the Independence book ban, that three pages in the book directly discuss what it means to be nonbinary. Gibbs read aloud part of that section.

In the book, the nonbinary character, Javi, has to spend a lot of time explaining what “nonbinary” means. In an example of how those conversations typically go, Javi asks a girl, “You consider yourself a GIRL, right?”

She says, “Duh.”

Javi asks, “Okay, so that means you’re bad at science, want to be a mommy, and love pink.”

“Uh, says who? I love chemistry. I hate pink, and babies are gross and annoying.”

“Exactly! Says who! You should get to decide what you like, how you dress, what you do with your life!”

Javi goes on to explain that, “To me, gender is just a way to put people in one of two pre-defined boxes. But I don’t fit in either of those two boxes. So I am NONBINARY.”

After reading some of the chapter, Gibbs said the book “carries an underlying theme that children should be skeptical, skeptical and distrusting of adults, whether it be teachers, guardians or parents. And this book drives a wedge between children and adults with other things. It’s not appropriate and I find it deeply concerning.”

In the letter to families, district officials wrote that, “There are topics in the Cats vs. Robots book, including reference to non-binary sexual orientation, which are not evident from the title or cover information which may be new to young readers.”

In response, the book’s authors wrote that gender identity is not a new concept.

“Recognition of gender identities outside the ‘binary’ male or female goes back as far as 380 BC and is common in many cultures around the world, including the United States of America.”

They also wrote that considering nonbinary gender identity as a “sexual orientation” is inaccurate.

“This is blatantly incorrect, and a dangerous misconception often used to marginalize non-binary and other gender non-conforming communities. Gender identity is not a sexual orientation. We recommend the Board become more informed regarding gender.”

Smith, the father of a nonbinary student, pleaded with the district to keep books in school libraries that allow students to see themselves in the characters.

“I implore the board to trust me when I tell you that far more harm is done by removing this book than by allowing kids to find it when they’re in elementary schools,” Smith said. “Kids like mine need to be able to find people like themselves in books. Their friends need to be able to find those examples too.”

Smith asked that the board reverse its decision to ban the book, issue an apology to nonbinary children in the district and implement more diversity training.

Board members did not discuss their decision and have yet to indicate whether they would reconsider. Some parents have said they plan to continue showing up at board meetings to voice their opinions on the ban.

This story was originally published July 13, 2022 12:38 PM.

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Sarah Ritter covers K-12 education for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.

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