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‘Gender Queer’ novel’s inclusion on reading list sparks debate in Barrington school district

A controversial book’s inclusion on a reading list has fueled outrage among some parents in Barrington Community Unit School District 220.

The graphic novel “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe has sparked similar debates at schools across the country, including Downers Grove High School District 99 and Antioch Community High School District 117. Earlier this year, the American Library Association named “Gender Queer” the most challenged book of 2021.

The book has been in the library collection at Barrington High School but is now undergoing a school-level review. That could result in a district-level review by a committee consisting of a parent, an administrator, a teacher and a school library information specialist, officials said Thursday.

Any district-level review and recommendation by the committee to the school board could lead to the book’s being left on the shelf, reclassified, restricted or removed from the collection.

In a letter to the school district community Thursday, Superintendent Robert Hunt said the controversy stems from an email to middle school parents encouraging students to read over the summer. The email included links to two book award lists created by the American Association of Illinois School Library Educators: the Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award 2023 and the 2023 Illinois Lincoln Award List. It also included the school district’s designated summer reading list for middle school students.

“Gender Queer,” a memoir about struggling with self-identity and coming out as asexual and nonbinary to family and friends, appears on the Lincoln list.

Hunt said the email explained that some of the books on the Lincoln list contain mature content “which is not appropriate for younger grades.”

The book is not part of the district’s curriculum, used in any instructional material or available in middle school libraries, Hunt wrote.

“While as a school district we do not want to censor texts that are available in our libraries, we need to be cognizant of both relevance and age appropriateness,” he wrote.

Hunt’s letter follows a contentious school board meeting Tuesday night at which many parents railed against the book’s inclusion on the summer reading list and in the high school library. One held up a sign with the crossed-out word “PORN” over the phrase “in our schools.”

“This is exactly (how) I would expect a pedophile to behave when approaching a child to normalize sexual behavior, to abuse them,” Nelda Munoz, who has children in fourth and sixth grades, said after reading a passage from the novel. “Stop sexualizing our kids. Stop abusing them.”

Sylvia Thoman, who has a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old in the district, said children’s brains have not developed enough psychologically or emotionally to fully interpret mature content.

“Our school libraries are not public libraries,” she said. “Schools are supposed to be safe environments for our kids. This pornographic content has no place in our schools.”

But another parent, Rachel Tuerck, said those objecting to the book shouldn’t get to decide what students from other families read.

“You may feel very strongly about a book, but your parental authority ends with your children,” said Tuerck, whose children include two Barrington High graduates and an incoming freshman. “Your parental authority does not extend to everyone else’s kids. Your parental authority does not extend to other adults. I might agree with some of the points made here this evening. But I want to decide for myself. I do not appreciate other people deciding to ban books on my behalf.”