Mat-Su school district committee recommends removal of books, including one by Toni Morrison

PALMER — A Mat-Su advisory committee tasked with identifying books for removal from school district shelves began the review process this month, voting that “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison and “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robbie Harris stay out of circulation and recommending the district restrict access for two more.

The recommendations from the District-Wide Library Committee came last week during the first of 10 scheduled review meetings, part of a Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District plan to examine 56 books flagged to the school board as “challenged” by parents and community members.

The Mat-Su school board will make the final decision on the challenged books, using the committee’s recommendations as a guide.

The committee, which includes seven community members handpicked by the school board as well as four school district staffers, voted 6-5 during a meeting last week that the books violate a state law that makes it illegal for adults to distribute “indecent material” that is “harmful to minors” age 16 and under. The committee also voted to recommend removing “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold and “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier from elementary schools.

The book advisory committee has been the source of ongoing controversy since April, when the school board announced a plan to reconsider the list of books flagged to the school board by community members. Replacing a nearly 15-year-old policy through which challenged books were first reviewed at the school library level, committee members were originally to be chosen by lottery. But after receiving more than 300 applications, the board scrapped the lottery plan, opting instead to allow each school board member to select a committee member from their district.

“The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970 and the third-most challenged book in the U.S., is written from the perspective of a young Black girl who is a victim of a sexually abusive father, and deals with racism and feelings of inferiority. Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. “It’s Perfectly Normal” is an illustrated sex education book first published in 1994. The fourth edition, which was under consideration by the panel, includes LGBTQ+ and gender topics.

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The committee also voted 8-2 with one member abstaining that “The Lovely Bones” — a novel told from the perspective of a raped and murdered teen — does not violate Alaska law. The majority of the committee recommended the novel stay on high school shelves only.

All members said the graphic novel “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier does not violate state law, although eight members recommended removing it from elementary schools due to some relationship topics, including what member Amanda Cottle characterized as a “gay crush.”

“I’m totally comfortable with it in a middle school — not 100% sure I’m comfortable with it in an elementary school,” Cottle said.

The Mat-Su advisory panel will meet for one year to consider the challenged books and make recommendations to the school board. The process for how and when the school board will take up the recommendations is still being decided, district spokeswoman Jillian Morrissey said Wednesday.

While some of the books remain accessible for specific curriculum needs, including as part of the International Baccalaureate program, all books on the challenged list were preemptively pulled from circulation prior to the committee’s formation in May, Morrissey said. The volumes include well-known titles by Judy Blume, Kurt Vonnegut and Jodi Picoult.

“All of the books that are on the list — all of them — are off the shelves at this point,” she said.

“The Bluest Eye” was first placed on district shelves in 2008 and had 63 checkouts before it was removed from circulation early this year, said committee member Katie Clark, a librarian at Mat-Su Central School. The fourth edition of “It’s Perfectly Normal” was first cataloged in 2016 and had two checkouts before its removal, she said.

Advisory committee members plan to discuss and vote on four books at each monthly meeting. Each book receives two votes: the first on whether it qualifies as “indecent material” and should be removed completely; and the second on whether it should be completely removed from libraries, remain on all shelves or remain on secondary-school shelves only.

For example, while the panel voted 6-5 that both “The Bluest Eye” and “It’s Perfectly Normal” violate state law, recommendations on whether the books should be completely removed from schools or left on some shelves varied. Six panel members said “The Bluest Eye” should be completely removed, while five said it should remain on high school shelves. And nine panel members in total voted that “It’s Perfectly Normal” should be removed from shelves completely, while two said it should be moved off elementary school shelves only.

Advisory committee members are required to read each book in its entirety before the meeting, and those who do not must abstain from voting.

Even if more books are flagged for challenge, the current panel will not consider any additional volumes beyond the 56 on the list now, Morrissey said.

At its next meeting on Oct. 12, the committee is expected to consider “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood, “Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood” by Marjane Satrapi and “Flamer” by Mike Curato.

Amy Bushatz

Amy Bushatz is a veteran journalist based in the Mat-Su covering Valley news for the ADN.