A former chief of staff to the mayor who was once his nominee to head the Anchorage library has asked to restrict a controversial book from children on the public library’s shelves.
In a document the library received on March 21, Sami Graham formally requested that the library reconsider who is allowed to access the book “Let’s Talk About It,” by Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan. Graham was previously Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson’s chief of staff, and he named her to the position after the city Assembly voted against confirming her as library director.
A committee of librarians reviewed the request and opted to keep the book where it was, a decision Graham has since appealed. Now the request is in the hands of the library’s director.
Last month, the Anchorage Library Advisory board voted to sidestep its existing policy for challenged books and refer the same title to the city attorney, Anne Helzer, in a move that drew concern from both library board members and city Assembly members. But Helzer later said she wouldn’t review the book until the library went through its existing process for reviewing materials, a multi-step procedure with a defined timeline and opportunities to appeal decisions.
In the initial request for reconsideration, Graham pointed out specific sections that she found concerning in the book. Graham asked for the book to be removed from the youth collection at the library and to keep library patrons under age 16 from accessing it.
Graham could not be reached for comment.
The book, “Let’s Talk About It, The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, And Being a Human (A Graphic Novel),” was published by Penguin Random House in the teen and young adult nonfiction category, and has been the subject of controversy both in Anchorage and around the country. Nationwide, there have been a growing number of book challenges reported at local libraries and public schools, according to the American Library Association.
“Of those titles, the vast majority were written by or about members of the LGBTQIA+ community or by and about Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color,” according to the association.
In their response to Graham, the library’s Request for Reconsideration Ad Hoc Review Committee wrote that they planned to keep “Let’s Talk About It,” in the library’s Young Adult/Teen section after the committee had completed its review of the book. To conduct the review, three librarians each read the book, as well as reviews and circulation statistics, before coming together for a group discussion.
“Upon reading and discussing the book, we agreed that, while not to everyone’s taste, the book is appropriate for ages 14-18, depending on a teen’s maturity,” they wrote in the letter. “We gave consideration to the cartoon style of the artwork, the high school setting and age of the characters depicted, and the use of relatable language for the target age group.”
They went on to say that library acquisitions are meant to meet the needs of Anchorage’s diverse community and that the library doesn’t apply a single standard when deciding what to acquire. Some materials are added to the library’s collection because they have artistic merit while others are there to fulfill informational needs.
“Materials are judged on overall effect rather than specific illustrations, words, passages, or scenes which in themselves may be considered offensive by some,” the committee wrote.
They noted the responsibility around what minors choose to read, view and listen to falls on parents and legal guardians.
“The library believes that individuals may reject for themselves and their children — and only their children — materials which they find unsuitable,” they wrote.
Anchorage Public Library director Virginia McClure said Graham appealed the review committee’s response, which means McClure must now make a decision about the request for reconsideration by Wednesday.
McClure said she’s researching similar decisions and scenarios about the book, including a recent challenge in Ketchikan, as well as in other states. She also said she’s consulting information from the American Library Association and other guidelines.
McClure said Graham has as much a right as anyone in the community to submit a book challenge and is not submitting it as the former chief of staff, but rather as a citizen.
“I’m treating it exactly as I would any member that submits a request for reconsideration,” McClure said.
The book is termed a graphic novel, but shelved in the “Teen Health” section of the library, McClure said, far from the library’s collection of comic-book-style graphic novels. “Let’s Talk About It” wasn’t all that popular until recently, she said.
“It wasn’t a book that circulated very much until the controversy, it had only been checked out maybe five or six times,” McClure said. “It’s a book that probably, you know, nobody would have paid too much attention to, or even knew it existed,” McClure said.
But the book isn’t on the shelf currently — it is checked out and has several holds, traveling to different locations throughout the state’s library consortium. Even the review committee had trouble getting ahold of the book since there weren’t many copies readily available to ship to Alaska.
McClure said the library intends to make the reconsideration process more transparent, including a webpage that shows current challenges, appeals, and prior decisions, after they finish up the current reconsideration request.
At the March advisory board meeting, board member Doug Weimann had voiced concern that having the book in the library’s collection and available to people under age 18 broke both municipal code and Alaska State statute which both say it’s illegal to exhibit certain explicit materials to minors.
At a Library Advisory Board meeting last week, Weimann, who said he’s a public school teacher, said aspects of the book “are pretty disturbing to me as a teacher and as a father, and you know, just as a resident of Anchorage.” Weimann emphasized that no one, to his knowledge, had suggested banning books, and said he felt there was a place for the book, but not near children.
“I want it to be very clear where I stand on this: That book should not be in the hands of any child in the city,” Weimann said.
If Graham opts to appeal McClure’s decision, then the request for reconsideration will be forwarded to the advisory board to make a final decision.
The nine-member board currently only has five members. They include Anchorage First Lady Debra Bronson, as well as Weimann and Dennis Dupras, who were all nominated by the mayor. Two members, board chair Cristy Willer and Alice Qannik Glenn, were nominated by former Anchorage Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson. Two other members, Nancy Hemsath and Barbara Jacobs, announced at the meeting that their terms had expired and they were no longer board members.
Anchorage Assembly Vice Chair Chris Constant said he appreciated the library was moving through its reconsideration process but raised concerns over having the board make a decision about a book since it has four vacant seats.
“There are some that believe three members of the nine-member panel should have the power to ban a book,” Constant said. “I don’t think that’s right.”
The mayor nominates members to the board, who then need to be confirmed by the Assembly. There’s an appointee on the agenda at this week’s Assembly meeting, but Constant said he didn’t think the individual was qualified since they work for the library. The Assembly has also rejected a few other appointees previously, Constant said.
The Anchorage Public Library has been at the center of significant controversy under Bronson, primarily surrounding Judy Eledge, its deputy director. Eledge has a history of making inflammatory remarks and posts on social media. She’s also been accused of creating a hostile work environment while at the library, and lawsuits filed in state and federal court contend the city’s previous director of its Office of Equal Opportunity was fired because she reported complaints from city employees about Eledge’s conduct.
Graham, who ran for a seat on the Anchorage School Board in 2021, was nominated by Bronson to serve as a library director after she lost her school board run. But the Assembly rejected Graham for that role, citing her lack of a library science degree.
Following that rejection, Bronson made Graham his chief of staff, and then nominated Eledge, a longtime and outspoken supporter of conservative causes who also didn’t have a library science degree, to head the libraries, before ultimately making her a deputy director at the library. Eledge ended up running the library for a year before McClure was nominated for the position.