Monday, July 22, 2024

Battle of the Books backlash: NHCS students and parents defend program, petition started

New Hanover County students and parents speak out at board meeting in support of Battle of the Books program. (Screenshot NHCS meeting)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Since certain board members expressed concerns regarding the statewide Battle of the Books competition — particularly when it comes to title selections — students and parents within the New Hanover County Schools district rallied in its support.

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

A petition, “Stop the New Hanover County Battle of the Books Ban,”’ was posted by a collective of students — Wilmington Early College student, Wrenn Olski, and her friends — two days after a presentation was given to the school board. Board member Josie Barnhart requested a Battle of the Books presentation

The student petition had 274 signatures in the first 48 hours; by press the number was almost at 800. 

It started after Barnhart and another board member, Pat Bradford, questioned the program, taking issue with the book selection process and content appropriateness. The North Carolina School Library Media Association (NCSLMA) currently oversees Battle of the Books statewide and has a selection committee for the titles.  

Barnhart and Bradford’s concerns sparked worry among students and parents, who feared the book-reading competition could be dismantled or turned into a district-specific offshoot. This comes after Barnhart also said at the May 28 agenda review meeting the board should look into starting its own version of BOB. 

“I think that we should be looking at our professionals for the direction of what we want to see here,” she said. “And we do lay the guidelines for what our professional expectations are.” 

Port City Daily reached out to Barnhart for an interview multiple times ahead of press to learn more about her vision for this, but she did not respond to the invite (except to ask PCD to send her the last article the outlet published about BOB, found here).

“Even if they’re making a local version, it’s not going to foster the same sort of environment that the current Battle of the Books does,” Olski told Port City Daily in an interview Thursday. 

The Wilmington Early College student has been competing in BOB since fourth grade. She says BOB has been an inspiration to read more.  

“It’s really helped me give a look at and read books that I usually wouldn’t pick up,” she said. 

Olski mentioned the most fun part was discussing the books with her friends, who also participated in BOB. 

From her experience in the competition, creating something similar would require someone to find and supply all the books, create questions for all the novels, and find a location and judges for the competition. Olski worries a district version would create a bigger responsibility on school librarians and staff — or it just wouldn’t happen at all. 

Olski shared the same concerns to the board at its June 4 meeting, wherein 11 other people spoke in favor of BOB during public comments; no one was against it. The subject was not on the board agenda.

Tim Merrick, a Democratic candidate running for the school board, alleged the current board is in violation of its policies. He referenced 7205 that discusses employee’s duty to “ensure dignity and non-discrimination in schools.”

“You see, by taking away books — by taking away flags [as addressed in the vote to amend policies 7300 and 3200 on Tuesday] — that reflect the lived experiences of children of color, or LGBTQ-plus children, you are causing them distress, you are causing them discomfort by denying them inclusion by making them feel different,” he said at the meeting. 

Merrick questioned Barnhart directly about her opposition to BOB. Barnhart accused the NCSLMA that decides the book selections of being activists in an op-ed she wrote for the Carolina Journal. She said activism doesn’t doesn’t belong in the classroom and thought NCSLMA had an agenda. 

“Ms. Barnhart, what credentials have you attained superior to those of the North Carolina school library association? None. OK,” Merrick said. “Then your opinions fall into the realm of political activism.” 

Barnhart has expressed worries about the suitability of books from BOB that touch on suicide, incarcerated parents, and children running away from home. She said these topics are not appropriate for the fourth and fifth-grade reading lists (see the 2024 titles at the end of the article).

“When reading I learned more about the real world experiences, emotions and situations of others,” Sadler Selby, a freshman at New Hanover High School, said. 

The petition also echoes the sentiment. It states students reading about varied experiences exposes them to “people of all backgrounds, this is beneficial to nurturing a kid’s empathy and emotional development, especially to those that are less fortunate than them.”

Barnhart took issue in May with “From the Desk of Zoe Washington” by Janae Marks.

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

Another board member, Pat Bradford, shared her concerns about the NCSLMA from a curricula standpoint. She said there is a “lack of control” in the fact anyone could join the association and could offer submissions for books.

While book suggestions are made to NCSLMA by the public, there is an extensive vetting process to decide the reading lists. Mary Alice Hudson, the NHC schools lead media coordinator, told the board committees of NCSLMA members choose book titles and each member must read the book before it can be chosen. 

Another parent, Adele McMurtrey asked questions directly to Bradford, Barnhart, and their supporters Tuesday:

“What happened to you? What happened in your homes growing up? What happens in your homes now? What could possibly occur? To have you be so terrified to have a difficult conversation or teaching moment with your children or grandchildren? What could have occurred for you to be so afraid of these conversations?” McMurtrey said. 

Many students and parents who voiced their support for BOB emphasized the program’s voluntary nature.

Open for K-12 students, the competition includes roughly a dozen or so selections, but the students don’t have to read them all; however, those who do usually go on to compete in the regional and state-wide quiz bowl to showcase comprehension and test knowledge. Bradley Creek Elementary won the regional competition for the second time in the last three years.

Two sixth graders, Lyla Varnum and Abigail Blair, who go to the International School at Gregory, shared with the board their experience participating in BOB. 

“We had a great experience and we enjoyed every book we read, even though we did not read every book on the list,” Blair said to the board. “We were able to choose the books from the Battle of the Books list that most appealed to us and our parents.”

Olski mentioned that she and her friends typically don’t stay updated on matters discussed at school board meetings, but this particular one caught their attention.

“Battle of the books is a chill thing— I don’t see anything wrong with it. This one caught my attention because it was so baffling to me and my friends.” 

2023–2024 Battle of the Books Title Selections


  • “Amari and the Night Brothers,” B.B. Alston
  • “Where the Watermelons Grow,” Cindy Baldwin 
  • “The Very, Very Far North,” Dan Bar-el 
  • “The Total Eclipse of Nestor Lopez,” Adrianna Cuevas
  • “The Elephant in the Room,” Holly Goldberg Sloan 
  • “Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library,” Chris Grabenstein 
  • “Linked,” Gordon Korman 
  • “Not If I Can Help It,”Carolyn Mackler 
  • “The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl,”Stacy McAnulty 
  • “Wish,” Barbara O’Connor 
  • “Pax,” Sara Pennypacker 
  • “Wildfire,” Rodman Philbrick 
  • “The Hero Two Doors Down,” Sharon Robinson
  • “Root Magic,” Eden Royce
  • “Walls Within Walls,” Maureen Sherry

Middle School

  • “Agent Most Wanted,” (young readers adaptation) Sonia Purnell 
  • “The Book Jumper,” Mechthild Glaser
  • “Death on the River of Doubt,”Samantha Seiple 
  • “Genesis Begins Again,” Alicia D. Williams 
  • “The Hired Girl,” Laura Amy Schlitz 
  • “The Iron Trial,” Holly Black and Cassandra Clare 
  • “The Last Cuentista,” Donna Barba Higuera
  • “Long Lost,”Jacqueline West 
  • “Marcus Vega Doesn’t Speak Spanish,” Pablo Cartaya
  •  “New Kid,” Jerry Craft
  • “Nyxia,” Scott Reintgen 
  • “Other Words for Home,” Jasmine Warga 
  • “Restart,” Gordon Korman 
  • “Salt to the Sea,” Ruta Sepetys 
  • “The Secret Battle of Evan Pao,” Wendy Wan-Long Shang 
  • “Sherwood,” Meagan Spooner 
  • “Tristan Strong Punches a Hole in the Sky,” Kwame Mbalia
  • “ Unlawful Orders,” Barbara Binns
  • “The Watch That Ends the Night,” Allan Wolf
  • “Wolf Hollow,” Lauren Wolk

High School

  • “A Snake Falls to Earth,” Darcie Little Badger 
  • “Legendborn,” Tracy Deonn 
  • “Murder Among Friends,” Candace Fleming
  • “ The Summer I Turned Pretty,” Jenny Han Dread Nation 
  • “Justina Ireland The Weight of Blood,” Tiffany D. Jackson 
  • “Hey, Kiddo,” Jarrett Krosoczka 
  • “Six Crimson Cranes,” Elizabeth Lim 
  • “A Very Large Expanse of Sea,” Tahereh Mafi 
  • “Slay,” Brittney Morris 
  • “Born a Crime,” Trevor Noah 
  • “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” Erika L. Sanchez 
  • “Scythe,” Neal Shusterman 
  • “Odd One Out,” Nic Stone
  • “All My Rage,” Sabaa Tahir
  • “Project Hail,” Mary Andy Weir

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