Katie Rinderle takes the oath before a Cobb County termination tribunal. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder
“Flamer” is a graphic novel by Filipino-American author Mike Curato. It’s a semi-autobiographical story about Aiden, a teenage boy coming to terms with his attraction to other boys while at a Boy Scout summer camp.
In 2022, it was the No. 4 most-challenged book in U.S. libraries according to the American Library Association. It was also nominated by librarians and young adults for a Georgia Peach Book Award in the 2021-2022 school year.
Its most recent challenge came in Cobb County, where parents across the district received emails Monday informing them that a book with “highly inappropriate, sexually explicit content” had been removed from their school’s library and that an investigation would occur.
“Earlier this week, we learned 20 school libraries contained one or two books (“Flamer” and/or “Me and Earl and the dying girl”) with highly inappropriate, sexually explicit content,” said district spokeswoman Nan Kiel in a statement to the Georgia Recorder. “We removed the books immediately, are in an ongoing investigation, and are committed to ensuring our students are taught with content in line with Georgia standards, Board policy, and the Law.”
Some of “Flamer’s” teenage characters speak bluntly and crassly about sexual topics. In its most objected-to scene, one group of campers say they are playing a game where they each masturbate into a soda bottle, and the loser has to drink from it. In another scene, Aiden struggles to deal with a communal shower.
Some of the dialogue is explicit, including anti-gay slurs, but the artwork does not depict sex acts or explicit anatomy. The book also contains characters displaying racism and homophobia, as well as references to suicide. In the final chapters, Aiden plans to end his life, but the story has a happy ending when he finds acceptance from within and from his friends.
Some Cobb parents on social media applauded the book’s removal, sharing screenshots of its most incendiary panels and noting that parents who want their children to read the banned books can purchase them or check them out from the public library.
Others question the decision, especially in light of last week’s school board decision to fire elementary school teacher Katie Rinderle for reading a picture book dealing with gender fluidity. A panel of former educators recommended against sacking Rinderle, but the board overrode that recommendation on a party-line vote.
“There are a lot of parents in the community with questions, and the blanket statement that they sent out left more questions than answers,” said Laura Judge, a candidate for the Cobb County school board. “Where it was, what is the name of this book, how long has it been on the shelves, what was the process for removing it?”
Kiel declined to answer whether the process was initiated by a parent, when and by whom the books were approved for the school libraries and whether the district followed its posted rules for removing materials deemed harmful to minors.
“I’ve included an additional statement for you below,” she wrote in an email. “Please attribute it to ‘a district spokesperson.’”
“‘The District continues to investigate the details.’”
Cobb’s posted rules, revised after the passage of Senate Bill 226 in 2022, state that a parent or guardian can submit a complaint if they feel school materials are harmful to minors. After that, the school principal has seven business days to investigate the materials and 10 business days to make a decision whether to remove it.
Nan Brown, coordinator of the Georgia Library Media Association’s advocacy team, says she questions how the policy could have been followed in 20 schools when the district’s emails say it learned about the books earlier this week.
“It just seems highly unlikely that happened in the number of schools I know I heard from where the books were pulled,” she said.
Brown said librarians use a test established by the Supreme Court to determine whether a book is obscene containing three criteria, “whether the average person applying contemporary community standards would find the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest; whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
“As a definition, it’s taken as a whole, each one is taken as a whole,” she said. “So not a page, three pages, four paragraphs, whatever. That’s not the whole. There have been some places where they try to say it’s the whole section, but they don’t get to rewrite Supreme Court cases.”
Brown said librarians select books according to their district’s selection policies, which typically say to select books to meet the diverse needs of all children.
“Some children might see themselves in that book, in one of the characters. Or to other kids, it might be a window. They may have a friend or a family member that they don’t understand so much, but by seeing the thoughts and actions of that character, they get insights through the window to that other person, or it brings you into a world.”
Brown said parents have the right to disallow children from checking out books from their school library, or from preventing them from checking out a certain genre of book, which is most commonly done with horror stories. In those cases, a note is placed on the student’s file, and if they try to select a disallowed book, the librarian will ask them to make a different selection instead.
“People certainly have the right to manage their own children’s reading. They don’t want people managing their children’s reading, so give other people the same opportunity, other parents the opportunity for their children to read what’s right for them, and you decide what’s right for your children. Because that’s basically what book banning is, is saying, your child has no right to that book.”
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