SJ School Board clarifies book review policy after parent comment on ‘pornographic’ book

During public comment of the August St. Joseph School Board meeting, district parent Valerie Gehrke asked the district to be aware of a book she felt was pornographic in nature. On Monday, Gehrke returned to the board to thank the administration for removing the book from the library.

The only issue, however, was the book has not been removed from circulation.

Addressing the confusion toward the end of the September school board meeting on Monday, Saint Joseph Superintendent Jenny Fee said the book, “What Girls Are Made Of” by Elana K. Arnold, has not been removed from circulation, but was checked out by the media center specialist as part of a regular review process. It had not yet been formally challenged.

“I wanted to clarify that procedure, because I believe there’s some misconception,” Fee said. “We have not officially pulled that book. … If someone wants to challenge a book that’s in our libraries of classrooms, we have a very established process.”

Fee referred to NEOLA board policy 9130, which lays out the criteria for challenging instructional materials at the school. 

“If someone came [to challenge material], first they would have to have a conversation with a classroom teacher or media center specialist,” Fee said. “Once the form is filled out, we create a committee … and that committee reviews those books under certain criteria.”

Fee also said any book that is challenged will remain in circulation until the conclusion of the review process.

The book “What Girls Are Made Of” was a 2017 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature Finalist. The National Book Foundation described the book as an examination of what it means to be a girl, a woman and a physical object: 

“This challenging work invites readers to look within themselves and explore their own identities and imperfections,” said the judges. A strong backbone of feminist mythology gives the novel an extra layer of depth and pain. The result is both devastating and healing, and altogether unforgettable.” – Judges citation

At the August meeting, Gehrke strongly disagreed with the book being on school shelves, saying the book was too sexually explicit for children to be reading.

“It was pornography,” she said. “It’s nothing I would every want my daughter or son or any other child reading. It made me think about … the content level that might be accessible to our students.”

She asked the board to clarify their review process for what gets included in the library.

“I would encourage you, if you have not heard of that, take a peek,” Gehrke said. “Just don’t show your children it, because I would hate to have a child read that and be upset, or ask a lot of questions that they weren’t ready to ask yet.”

This week at the board meeting, Gehrke said she had a list of 39 more books she found to have explicit sexual content.

“I was shocked and surprised,” she said. “Some of the books that we have in circulation, if I’m only looking at the high school level right now, have the “adult” rating, which is obviously pretty concerning. I’m hopeful that maybe we can get some of that stuff out and keep stuff in there that’s more appropriate for our school-aged children.”

Another parent, who only identified herself as Stephanie – a parent of two high schoolers – disagreed during public comment.

“I’m reading it and there is some sexual content, but there’s such a bigger point to that book,” she said. “It’s a great book. It’s about girls questioning what love means, where they stand in society and what their role is in all of it. … The fact that there is 39 more books up for debate is troubling to me.”

By Ryan Yuenger