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COMMENT: Reading between the lines on Spotsylvania book flap

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Spotslyvania County School Board (copy)

Spotsylvania County School Board member Kirk Twigg listens to public comments as fellow board member Rabih Abuismail briefly exits the meeting at Chancellor High School in Spotsylvania County on Monday, Nov. 11, 2021.

I have been reviewing books for The Free Lance–Star for over 20 years. I have probably reviewed over 500 books in these pages. Some of the books were offensive (mostly for bad writing) and some were sexually explicit, but I am an adult who in theory can handle such titillation.

The recent inflammatory rhetoric by Rabih Abuismail and Kirk Twigg, two members of the Spotsylvania School Board, indicating that they wanted to burn books that they deemed to be offensive left me more horrified and offended than I have ever been by a book.

I am not alone in my outrage. Hundreds of students, teachers, librarians, and parents filled the auditorium at Chancellor High School to protest the board’s hasty decision to bow to the whims of one parent in taking a scorched earth policy to what titles are deemed suitable for the shelves of Spotsylvania County school libraries. The board did reverse its earlier decision (which was deemed to be unconstitutional by the county’s attorney) after hearing from dozens of speakers, but the pleas apparently fell on the deaf ears of Abuismail and Twigg, who voted against the reversal.

Needing further solace and curious what authors thought of the events unfolding in Spotsylvania, I attended a gathering put together by local author Rick Pullen, who hosts occasional meetings with other local authors where they discuss the writing and publishing process, as well as trends and developments in the industry. Burning books was a development that got their attention. Most of the authors in attendance were in agreement that banning books is an outgrowth of our politically divided nation and fear the overreaching effect of denying children and students access to books.

Tracie Hunter Abramson is a Stafford County-based author who, by her own admission, writes “clean.” Early in her career, she saw a niche where there were few books developing stories without mature graphic descriptions of sex and violence and she wanted to fill that void with books that better reflected her Mormon ideals. Mining that perceived gap in literature has been very successful for Abramson, whose new book, “Redemption,” is her 37th. The developments in Spotsylvania concern her because she recognizes any book, no matter how chaste or innocent, can still offend a reader.

“Every book is going to have the ability to have a trigger point,” she said. “My new book, “Redemption,” has a mass shooting in it. It’s written very tactfully, but anyone who has ever been very close to a situation like that probably wouldn’t want to read it. It’s very clean, there’s no sexual content, there’s no bad language, there’s no graphic violence, but it has something that could be objectionable to some people.”

Therein lies the rub. One reader’s reading of a single kiss is another reader’s Caligulan orgy. So when politics starts to dictate curriculum and what books are chosen for school libraries, the motivation rarely lies in what is best for the students. Politicians are always looking for issues that motivate their base to turn out on Election Day and when they find such a flash point, they will often use parents as puppets, so the politicians are not the ones lobbing hand grenades at specific book titles, which are often culled from lists found on conservative websites.

When this tactic becomes pervasive and the anger becomes real, as it is in Spotsylvania, there is the dangerous possibility that no books will be spared and the shelves of our libraries will be bare.

Pullen, for one, believes that certain books are coming under fire not because of content but rather because they satisfy a political agenda. He uses “33 Snowfish” by Adam Rapp, one of the books that led to the initial motion to pull books from shelves, by way of example.

“It’s been in the school since one of the School Board members was 7 years old. This guy was 7 years old in Spotsylvania County and ... he didn’t notice it and somebody brings it up when he’s 24 years old?” Pullen said on Abuismail’s condemnation of “33 Snowfish,” which was published in 2003 and chosen as one of the American Library Association’s best picks for 2004. “He has no understanding of U.S. history. He has no understanding of world history and he’s talking like a fascist.”

“Anybody can pick a book apart. Anybody can take one line here and one line there and say, ‘Oh, my god, it’s terrible.’ But you have to read a book on its whole.”

What is terrible is that two board members who claim to represent their constituents and the interests of the county’s students continue to vote in favor of banning books even though they had a number of their own constituents speak against banning books at the meeting on Nov. 15.

All of the local authors at Pullen’s gathering, including Jack Bales, who was a librarian at Mary Washington College for nearly 40 years, were in agreement that librarians and teachers try to select the best books for schools and classes to reflect the diversity of society and their students, and that policy cannot be driven by politics or by a few.

“Every parent has the right to say my child cannot read this book. Every parent does not have the right to tell my children what they can read,” said Pullen. “That is what America is all about. We are about ideas. We’re about differing ideas. And for one parent to think that she can dictate to 30,000 students in Spotsylvania County what every other child can read is, in my mind, abominable.”

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer

in Spotsylvania County.

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