Parents push schools to pull books with transgender, same-sex content

Kent County

“My Footprints,” by Bao Phi (left) and “George,” by Alex Gino (right).

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — In two West Michigan school districts, parents recently pushed to remove books they deemed inappropriate.

“Books are being read in the schools that are normalizing and celebrating homosexuality, transgender, LGBTQ+…. ” wrote a parent on the Facebook page of a group trying to recall some Forest Hills school board members.

“(They’re) putting ideas in the kids heads that people are bullied and mistreated for their sexual orientation, heritage/race, and if they are female. Why is it necessary to put these ideas into little minds and the minds of our children? How is this different than reading a book that is teaching/normalizing a religion?” the mom continued in the post dated Dec. 6.

A tipster sent Target 8 screenshots of the conversation on the group’s private Facebook page.

The Dec. 6 post was referring to the book “My Footprints,” by Bao Phi, which features a Vietnamese American girl who’s bullied about her ethnicity and her same-sex parents; She has two moms.

Pine Ridge Elementary in Forest Hills Public Schools was considering the book for its monthly schoolwide read aloud.  

“This book is being read to all students at Pine Ridge this week. Please join me in sending an email to (the principal) and ask that a less controversial book be picked. (there are so many to choose from!),” a Facebook post read.

Dan Behm, the superintendent at Forest Hills, told News 8 the principal did receive messages from “a few” concerned parents but had already chosen a different book for the read aloud.

Behm said the decision had nothing to do with the main character having two moms.

“Things have been kind of heavy with the tragedy at another school in our state. This is a book that goes into bullying and overcoming obstacles, and they thought, ‘let’s find something a little lighter at this point as we are just before the holidays,'” explained Behm.

On Facebook, the parent later posted that the principal had put “My Footprints” “on hold for now.”

“But a good reminder for all of us to keep vigilant and ask what books are being read to our kids,” concluded the poster.

Another parent wrote, “Thank you, parents, for being the underground army for decency!”

On Nov. 21, a different group member shared a post from a parent group in the Reeths-Puffer School District in Muskegon.

“Be on the lookout for this book in classroom libraries,” wrote the group member about the book “George,” by Alex Gino. “Shared from an RP parent group. This is NOT acceptable for this age.”

The Reeths-Puffer parent reported his 11-year-old daughter, who’s in sixth grade, chose “George” for classroom reading time and was “having a hard time understanding/relating” to it.

According to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that reviews and rates books for age-level appropriateness, “George” is “about a transgender fourth-grader who increasingly learns to be herself and tell others about her secret.”  

“George” topped the American Library Association’s list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2020.

The ALA listed the reasons for challenges as “LGBTQIA+ content, conflicting with a religious viewpoint, and not reflecting ‘the values of our community.'”

Common Sense rated George as appropriate for children ten and older.

But the Reeths-Puffer parent considered the book inappropriate for his 11-year-old.

“My daughter chose a transgender book, not truly understanding what she chose. (This is not about being against that lifestyle & is not being made to offend anyone who agrees or doesn’t agree with it),” wrote the RP parent on Facebook.

“Some of the lines in this book are uncomfortable for me to read,” shared the parent. “They bring up conversations that I wasn’t ready to have with my 11 year old daughter…. It’s brought up my question of: what else is available for her to read that might not be appropriate… sexual types of topics are not appropriate for school without parents being notified.”

Steve Edwards, the superintendent of the Reeths-Puffer School District, told News 8 “George” was not part of the curriculum and was not required reading.

“Books that are part of the curriculum, and hence required reading, are vetted through a process,” wrote Edwards in an email to News 8, adding experts say allowing students to choose books that interest them encourages life-long reading.

“In an effort to have lots of different types of books that might interest a student, our well-intentioned teachers spend their own money, use classroom supply budgets, accept donations, and sometimes even dig through bargain bins at garage sales to find high-interest materials for their kids. We are formalizing our process to inventory and review books that are acquired in these ways,” wrote Edwards, who noted vetting books in teacher-acquired libraries is a “big task.”

Edwards said the district has enlisted the help of Common Sense Media to review classroom book choices.

When the parent expressed concern regarding the content of “George,” the district removed the book.

“After reviewing the text, passages, and context, it was determined that it should not be an optional book for the primary or elementary grade,” wrote Edwards.

Primary level includes kindergarten through sixth grade.

Reeths-Puffer Intermediate, where the child obtained the book, is a fifth and sixth grade building.

Stefanie Boone, the Forest Hills mom spearheading the board recall, sat down with News 8 to talk about her concerns regarding books that feature same-sex relationships.

“It’s not the point about this being a gay couple that’s in this book. It’s that it draws attention to a sexual orientation,” said Boone.

“I would have the same problem with a political agenda being brought into the school through books. I would have the same problem with, let’s say we bring in the Holy Bible into the classroom, and the teacher tries to teach the classroom what is Godly and what is not. That’s not acceptable for a public-school setting,” said Boone. “Sexual orientation, political agendas, religious agendas, I believe they do not belong in the K-12 public school setting. Those are topics best taught by parents at home to their children.”

Amy Wiener, a former teacher whose children graduated from Forest Hills, said parents should take their kids to Barnes and Noble if they want books that include same-sex couples.  

“I think there are probably many same-sex parents in our schools, and I think that’s wonderful. They’re doing a wonderful job raising their children. But we don’t need literature about sexuality in our schools,” said Wiener. “There’s a slippery slope, and some of these books become very graphic, and that’s not appropriate for the age level of these children. … We are sliding towards pornography in the middle school and high school levels of literature, and that’s not acceptable.”

When Becky Olson and her husband moved from Chicago to Michigan, they chose Forest Hills because of its excellent schools.

“I have a first-grader at Pine Ridge, and she is thriving there, particularly in reading,” said Olson.

She wants her children’s classrooms to include books about different types of families.

“I want every child at Forest Hills Public Schools, and anywhere for that matter, to feel included and that they belong. I don’t want a child to go home and say, ‘someone said you’re not normal, mom and mom,'” Olson said.

Olson chose public schools because she wants her children surrounded by representation from the community.

She wants the books they read to reflect the whole community too.

“Books are a window. They’re also a mirror. They need to mirror what our actual student body and our community looks like,” explained Olson. “There are students in public schools, especially in Forest Hills Public Schools, who have families that have same-sex parents, or that may be transgender.

“Maybe they’re not in class with them right now, but let’s say on the first day of school next year there’s a student who’s dropped off at school by parents of the same gender, that’s not going to require a double-look from a student. She’s going to remember, ‘oh, yeah, my mom and I talked about that the last time I read that book.’ It’s not making it an issue. It’s actually making it a non-issue.”

Olson doesn’t appreciate other parents trying to dictate what books her child can find in the classroom.

Dan Behm, the Forest Hills superintendent, told News 8 “My Footprints” will remain in elementary classrooms as an option for children who want to read it.

“This is a book, not about sexuality, it’s a book about overcoming obstacles and drawing strength and support from loved ones,” Behm said. “I think that theme is universal, something we can all relate to. … We want to respect individual household viewpoints, but we also want to make sure that our schools, and the materials that we have in them, that every child can see themselves reflected in those materials.”

Behm noted Forest Hills students have a variety of family structures, including homes headed by grandparents, stepparents and same-sex parents.

“We want books where kids can see themselves reflected,” said Behm, who encouraged parents to ask their children daily what they’re reading and what they’re learning form it. “We don’t surprise parents. Parents are partners with the school in educating children.”

Behm advised parents to contact the school with concerns and said administrators will immediately review books on a case-by-case basis.

Behm said while teachers consult media and library specialists when choosing books for their classrooms, the district cannot review the tens of thousands of books available to children district-wide.

Common Sense Media has seen an increase in interest in books that deal topics like LGBTQ issues, according to Regan McMahon, the deputy editor of books for the nonprofit.

“Our ratings and reviews are intended to help parents and educators make informed decisions about their media choices for kids,” McMahon wrote in an email. “We have seen an increased interest on books that deal with race, racism, and sexual identity in the past 18 months.”

She said while she doesn’t have hard statistics, she’s noticed an increase in searches for books that deal with those issues.

“These are issues that kids, families, schools, and our communities have been confronting over the past couple of years, and we try to meet the moment with our coverage,” McMahon wrote. “Books are one way to build understanding and empathy, which we all could use more of.”

She said that while the group’s age ratings can help guide parents, parents know their kids best, and can use them as a source to decide if a book is a good fit for their child.

The American Library Association shared its concern over the effort to remove books with same-sex characters from school classrooms.

“Designating a broad range of books dealing with the lives of those who are (LGBTQ) …. as inappropriate or worse not only inflicts trauma on vulnerable young persons and their family who are members of those groups, it also threatens our democratic values. A parent’s right to guide their child’s reading does not include a right to restrict what other children read,” wrote Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

She wrote that “while librarians will be the first to tell you that not every book is right for every reader,” they’d also say censorship fosters the conditions that destroy liberties, “our freedom to read and think for ourselves, which belong to young people as well as adults.”

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