Thursday, June 13, 2024

Books take center stage again at NHC school board meeting, this time over selections in statewide competition

The New Hanover County school board discuss Battle of the Books program at its last agenda review meeting. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — For 16 years New Hanover County Schools has been involved in the reading competition Battle of the Books. However, some members of the county’s board of education are now speaking out against title selections.

READ MORE: NHCS re-litigates what teachers can put on their walls, more amendments proposed

At the board’s May 28 agenda review meeting, a presentation about the Battle of the Books was given. The discussion was an information item on the board’s agenda and no action was taken during the meeting.

BOB encourages reading among K-12 students, with a list of a dozen or so books chosen annually. Its local, regional, and state-wide initiatives invite students to participate in quiz-bowl-like competitions at the elementary-, middle- and high-school levels, to showcase comprehension and test their knowledge. 

In the 2023-2024 school year, around 350 New Hanover County students in fourth through 12th grades participated in the program, some making it to regional battles. The elementary team from Bradley Creek Elementary won the regional competition for the second time in the last three years. 

Some board members shared testimonials praising the program’s success. Stephanie Walker approved of its inclusion. 

“I got to attend some of it, actually,” she said. “The competition was fun to watch.”

Other school board members expressed concern about a perceived lack of content regulation in BOB, Josie Barnhart among them.

“Some of the choices, I question and challenge of why we’re putting this in front of our 9-year-olds,” Barnhart said during the meeting. “One is about a father who’s incarcerated as a murderer. And she finds a letter written by him.” 

She’s referring to “From the Desk of Zoe Washington” by Janae Marks, featured on the 2024-2025 elementary student book list. It’s tailored for fourth and fifth graders and follows a young girl’s discovery of a letter from her imprisoned father, whom she’s never known. As the girl writes back to him, she delves into uncovering the truth about her father’s imprisonment.

When asked in an email from Port City Daily why Barnhart deemed the read inappropriate, she skirted the question.

Instead, she clarified: “I openly support a book competition, however my job requires me to also utilize accountability in the district.” 

Barnhart’s disapproval was first publicized this month in an op-ed for the Carolina Journal. In the article, she pushes the idea that Battle of the Books utilizes its selections to promote activism among students, particularly by encouraging them to question authority.

“The Battle of the Books content is supposedly highly curated, but my opinion is these titles are intentionally chosen by the political activists at the NCSLMA to influence elementary students,” Barnhart wrote in the op-ed. 

In North Carolina, Battle of the Books is managed by the North Carolina School Library Media Association (NCSLMA), a nonprofit that supports, promotes and empowers school librarians. Three NCSLMA committees, for elementary, middle, and high school, make the selections. 

Mary Alice Hudson, the NHC schools lead media coordinator, explained at the meeting that when choosing book titles, the committees take into account factors including student grade and reading levels, interests, genres, quality, availability, authoritative reviews, awards, and past book lists. Once finalized, the list of the chosen books are distributed to all North Carolina public libraries and public school libraries to receive copies. 

Each NCSLMA committee consists of nine members from different regions of North Carolina, who apply to join. However, anyone can make book recommendations to the NCSLMA, and with a $50 annual fee, anyone that has a job related to the education field can join the association as a member — a matter that board member Pat Bradford raised concerns about during the meeting.

“So anybody off the street could join this organization, start making suggestions on the list of what our kids are going to go to the Battle of Books, and sooner or later, they’re probably going to hit the jackpot,” she said during the meeting. “This seems like a lack of control there. That makes me very concerned from a curriculum standpoint.” 

Hudson conceded while it’s true any book can be suggested, being eligible to represent the district or join a committee, who has final say over the selection, is not open to everyone. Additionally, book recommendations are only considered if someone on the committee has read them. 

Dawn Brinson, assistant superintendent for technology and digital learning, ensured the board the book-selection process has some teeth to it. She also clarified not all recommendations are automatically chosen for Battle of the Books.

“There’s actually a very thorough, detailed process that the committee does in order to say ‘yes or no, this book is appropriate for the list,’” she said. “And they make sure that the books are for the appropriate age range.” 

Stephanie Kraybill took issue with the “tone of the conversation” by some of the school board members.

“That we’re even questioning the Battle of the Books — just kind of seems odd,” she said. “Now we’re saying, ‘We don’t want you to read, you know, books, unless I get to approve them.’”

Other North Carolina school districts have deliberated involvement in the program recently. Wilkes County Schools, located in the mountainous region of the state, decided to stop participation in Battle of the Books in January 2023. The decision came after parents lodged complaints regarding the content of books featured on the 2022-2023 middle school book list. 

Two books in particular, “The Shape of Thunder” by Jasmine Warga and “To Night Owl From Dogfish” by Holly Goldberg Sloan and Meg Wolitzer, sparked the conversation in Wilkes County. One talks about two middle school students who seek solace through shared grief from a school shooting; in the other, two girls form a strong friendship online, bonding over being raised by two fathers. Parents in the county took issue with the nature of the content, expressing worry about the subjects of same-sex marriage and school shootings. 

Port City Daily reached out to the NHCS district to ask if it had received any written complaints by parents regarding BOB selection; an answer was not received by press.

The New Hanover County School Board’s conversation comes amid ongoing pressure across the nation from organizations, political leaders and parents for book censorship and bans. According to reports from the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, challenges to ban book titles in schools hit record-breaking numbers in 2023 — a 63% increase from 2022. The report also noted almost half of the books facing censorship attempts are works that represent the perspectives and real-life stories of LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC communities.

While book bans across the country are seen in both Republican and Democratic states, Republican-backed laws and conservative ideologies have pushed the movement. In 2022, Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis implemented a bill that made it easier for parents to challenge library books, potentially having them removed. 

Since then, Texas passed a bill that increases state monitoring of book content. Book vendors must now rate books based on their explicitness, and public schools can only buy from vendors who use this rating system. They are not allowed to buy books rated as highly explicit.

Iowa proposed a similar law in 2023, supported by the Republican-controlled legislature and Governor Kim Reynolds. However, a federal judge, Stephen Locher, stopped its implementation, even though it had already led to the removal of several books from Iowa’s public libraries.

Last year, Senate Bill 90 was proposed in the North Carolina legislature, with one amendment making it easier for parents to challenge library books they deemed inappropriate. It included a parents right to also question instructional materials, force a superintendent to be dismissed, and for students to change schools. It stalled in the House.

Just this month NC Values, a Christian conservative coalition, called on the North Carolina General Assembly to further regulate “obscene” and “pornographic” books in schools. The coalition noted during its NC Values Coalition Day of Action that conservative school board members statewide had not been listening or responding to concerns.

Books have been a focus of conversation among the New Hanover County School board and parents in the last year. Ibram X. Kendi’s historical narrative of American racism “Stamped” was temporarily banned from classroom reading in September 2023. The board’s curriculum committee also suggested teacher’s do a quality-review checklist for books and supplementary materials last fall, but among educator pushback suggested instead revisions that encourage educators in the district to answer guiding questions when deciding if a topic is controversial. 

Last year, Pender County schools took away 41 books from its school library shelves for further review — eight were removed.

Opponents of further regulation on books argue the issue should be left to the discretion of parents. Hudson emphasized during NHCS’s meeting that involvement in the Battle of the Books program is voluntary, allowing students, parents, and the district to collectively determine whether they wish to engage in the reading. 

Walker found the solution simple. 

“I don’t see a problem here. If a parent doesn’t like the book, they don’t have to get their kid to read it,” she said at the meeting. “I don’t believe in trying to control … other parents’ decisions.” 

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