Monday, February 10, 2020

On Banning Books: Remarks to the GHAPS Board of Education

Below are the remarks I gave at the public comment portion of the Grand Haven Area Public Schools Board of Education meeting tonight.

Thank you, Board of Education, for the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you. My name is Jared Cramer. I’m a class of 2000 graduate of Grand Haven and for the past ten years I have been the priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church here in town. In just a couple years I look forward to enrolling my young daughter at Rosy Mound elementary school.

I’d like to start by sharing a story with you. When I was a child, probably no more than eight years old, I decided I would read through the Bible from cover to cover. Much of it was familiar. I read through the familiar creation stories, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah’s ark and the great flood, Abraham and Sarah… But then I came across a story I hadn’t heard in Sunday School. I read how after Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham’s nephew, Lot, went to live in a cave with his daughters. His daughters thought they would never have children and so both of them got their father intoxicated and then slept with him, trying to get pregnant.

I came into the kitchen and told my mom about this strange story had I just read in the Bible. She said, “That’s not in the Bible.” I handed her my paperback New International Version and she read the story herself, her face flushing. She then told me that maybe I should wait until I’m a little older before I read Scripture for myself.

I share this story to underline two key points. The first is that there is a good amount of literature that has some sexual content—including some much more graphic content in the Bible, as I later discovered!—and only reading a few lines of any work does not give you a sense of context, of how those lines function in the larger narrative arc. Yes, the Bible contains some content which is the garbage of humanity… But it also tells the story of how God can always redeem even the garbage of this world. Second, my mother did what any parent should do: she took an active interest in what I was reading and, when she thought I was reading something beyond my years, she made a decision for me, her child.

I was distraught a few weeks ago to receive screenshots of posts from a Facebook Group called “Grand Haven Conservative Parents.” One of the leaders of that group posted on December 20, 2019, how someone went through the school library catalogs to come up with a full list of LGBTQ-themed books at every school in our district. From that list, some books were pulled out which have some more explicit portions and those books are now being used to argue for censorship and restrictions over literature in our district libraries.

A few things I would encourage the Board to pay attention to. Note where this began—with a concern about LGBTQ content. This began with a list of books that included something as simple as a child having two dads—a story a kid in our district who might happen to have two dads deserves to read in their school library. The book by Michael Barakiva from which selections have been read is not the smut it has been made out to be through the quotation of a few sections. it is a book that has been praised by numerous serious reviewers of young adult literature. Would the content be appropriate for all ages of children? Of course not. Children mature at different rates. For teenagers who are trying to understand who they are as a gay person, though, it has been reviewed as a deeply meaningful book.

There is already a professional organization who helps parents and librarians determine the appropriate age for children and young adult literature. It’s called the Children’s and Young Adults’ Cataloging Program (CYAC) at the Library of Congress. They use experts in the field of children’s literature and evaluate many aspects of that literature to help with cataloguing, including identifying the proper age of the audience. Our school librarians are also trained in knowing what literature is appropriate for which age group. We need to trust our professionals.

I want to applaud the options being offered by the district at this meeting, where parents can see any books their child has checked out, either through a weekly email or logging into their account. Parents can give a list of books they don’t want their child to checkout. All of these underscore what is truly essential—parents must take responsibility for engaging with their own kids (just like my mother did with me). They should talk with their kids about the books they read, what is in them and what their kids think about it. Lord knows, when my daughter is older, I would much rather she goes to the library to read literature with sexual content than some of the other options out there. Banning books from curious teens only sends them to other darker places.

But most importantly, a small group of parents must not be allowed to make these decisions for other children and teenagers by insisting that their standards should supersede those of library professionals. No group of parents should have the ability to say that stories that feature LGBTQ characters making out are somehow dangerous to teenagers—particularly when those books can be a lifeline to a queer teenager who feels alone and marginalized.

Furthermore, even though it might raise a few eyebrows, we need to be clear that sexual content in young adult literature—gay or straight—helps adolescents form a healthy and positive sense of their sexual identity. Judy Blume, for example, has been named one of the most frequently challenged authors of the 21st century by the American Library Association for their inclusion of content including menstruation, wearing a bra for the first time, and masturbation... and yet her books have meant the world to young adolescents. Authentic portrayals that teens can relate to when it comes to healthy sexuality as an adolescent are already hard to find. We shouldn’t make it worse.

I hope the school board will continue to empower our librarians. And I hope that parents that are concerned won’t take the path of banning books—even for their own kids. Instead, I hope they’ll focus on engaging more deeply with their own kids as they grow and develop. Thank you.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Wow.. did you just remove the previous comment? Luckily I expected that and took a screen shot and will be linking it to the your response and original article via Twitter.

    1. Hi Edward, you are most welcome to comment, but you must comment using your actual full name and not anonymously. I place my name alongside my views on this blog and expect the same of those who wish to engage with those views.

  3. This is why people are walking away- the church left them. You need to go back to the basics which are not so LIBERAL.