A librarian in the Kent School District is defending several books that have been challenged over their content.
Gavin Downing has been an educator since 2006, and has been a trained and endorsed librarian for roughly a decade. He has worked as the librarian at Cedar Heights Middle School in Kent for nearly four years, where he is trusted to curate the collection of books openly available to students in the library.
Recently, Cedar Heights Middle School’s library and the books that Downing had curated for the collection became the topic of controversy after a student reportedly raised an issue with a book for containing sexually explicit scenes and scenarios.
“Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts),” by Lev A.C. Rosen, “If I Was Your Girl,” by Meredith Russo, and — less publicly — “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George Matthew Johnson were all books that were temporarily removed from the library and subjected to further review by the district. The principal of CHMS allegedly removed the books after the concerns were raised.
The books in question were all cited as being sexually explicit, but they also all notably feature LGBTQ characters and themes. This is raising concern among the community that the school administration may be intentionally or unintentionally removing literary representation of already marginalized groups.
There is legal precedent to prohibit removing books for religious, ideological or political reasons after the 1982 Supreme Court Case – Board of Education, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico. In summary, the case decided that books could be removed for nondiscriminatory reasons such as “vulgarity” or “educational unsuitability,” but the school administrators challenging a book would have to make a case for why, if taken as a whole, the literature lacks literary, artistic, political or scientific value.
Downing said the precedent set by Board v. Pico in 1982 further establishes that public school libraries represent a bastion of free speech in which a diversity of opinions, world views and experiences are available for students to explore, learn and to be challenged.
As part of his education, Downing had taken higher education courses in topics such as library collection development and library ethics — courses that help prospective librarians make responsible and informed decisions on what books to either add to the public collection, or which books to remove.
According to Downing, there are many factors and moving parts that go into book curation decisions. When deciding which books to add to the library, Downing said he has to do extensive vetting and research, including reading reviews and summaries. He takes suggestions from students because he believes that student requests regarding literature deserve to be fulfilled.
“[As librarians] we are trained, and use our knowledge,” Downing said. “What we are selecting generally is in line with the best practices.”
Downing said that the removal or “weeding” of books out of the library is done for a variety of reasons that include being in worn-out condition, not being checked out enough by students and inaccuracies — which typically occur in non-fiction Kent Reporters in which facts or research may be outdated.
Curious about the forbidden
Downing keeps a display shelf in the library to showcase a variety of the most commonly banned books in the United States, a symbol of his disbelief in the censorship of literature.
“Those books usually go very quickly,” he said, as students are naturally curious about the forbidden.
Of the books in the library that have been publicly challenged, and the one that has been privately censored, Downing said they are among the most carefully and diligently vetted in the whole library.
He said he felt it was important for the library at his school to include literature that shows LGBTQ representation and that deals with the issues and themes experienced by these characters because there are many students who openly identify as part of the LGBTQ community at Cedar Heights Middle School — as well as many that are not open about it.
“I am prepared to defend it,” said Downing. “Even more now than I was before.”
The first book to be challenged is called “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts),” by Lev A.C. Rosen. This book features a 17-year-old gay protagonist who writes a sex advice column and deals with “very mature topics, very frankly,” according to Downing.
The story’s main character explores sexuality in what Downing described as an “authentic way.” He said the sexually-curious main character learns about sex in a way that many young people do: hearing rumors, media portrayals, and experimentation.
Downing and reviewers of the book have noted that the book includes medically accurate depictions of sex, but also stresses the importance of consent and safe practices and reinforces one’s choice to not have sex.
The second book, “If I Was Your Girl” by Meredith Russo, features a transgender character and explores issues that the character experiences, including sexual assault and suicidal themes.
Downing said he felt this well-reviewed book was an important addition to the school’s library because there are transgender students within the Cedar Heights Middle School community.
The first two books mentioned were publicly part of the Kent School Board’s decision to formally review both books, but Downing said the third was more privately censored.
Downing said he ordered “All Boys Aren’t Blue” by George Matthew Johnson, a series of “memoir-manifesto” essays following Johnson’s journey growing up as a queer Black man.
He ordered this book, but when the package including this book and others arrived, Downing said someone had gone through the package and removed the book without telling him. He later saw the book on the desk of a school administrator.
Downing said since the debate over the books was raised within the greater community of Kent, he has felt support from some colleagues regarding his role and choice in selecting certain books for the library, but he is aware that others “clearly do not.”
“I wasn’t respected for my expertise from the beginning,” Downing said.
Downing challenged that notion that the books are in question simply because of sexually explicit content. He pointed to many other books that may meet the same definition, be it the “Twilight” books by Stephenie Meyer, or the popular “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher. Downing contends that sexually explicit content is present in commonly-read literature ranging from biology textbooks to the bible.
In the end, Downing said he believes the decision on what a student should read is ultimately up to that student.
“I believe you have the right, if you don’t like it, put it down,” said Downing. “You are the best person to decide.”
He said the themes, situations and scenarios that parents may want to protect their students from experiencing are exactly what they need to be exposed to in order to be able to cope, adapt, or endure the adverse life experiences that no parents can protect their children from, no matter how many books their children aren’t allowed to read.
“I don’t think those are contradictory viewpoints,” Downing said. “Providing those different viewpoints is there to help protect.”
Kent School District’s statement claimed these books would still be available for students while the literature is being reviewed by the Instructional Materials Committee. KSD said that in selecting educational materials, staff are cautioned to preview such materials thoroughly and to give due consideration to the maturity level of students; appropriateness of language; bias against racial, gender, ethnic, or other social groups; the degree of violence, nudity, or sexual explicitness; and other sensitive issues.
“While there has been media coverage and public discussion focused on the adults involved and the policy and procedure, as a district our foremost concern is for the student at the heart of the matter,” said Interim Superintendent Israel Vela in the written statement. “Now we follow the process, and ultimately, I trust in my staff, our Instructional Materials Committee, and our school board to see the book challenges through and follow board policies and procedures to make the decision that is in the best interest of all of our students.”