Award-winning book challenged at library

By Cheryl Allen
Posted 3/15/23

The library director noticed it when perusing “Booklist,” a book review magazine published by the American Library Association (ALA).  The book had won a 2020 ALA Alex Award and was …

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Award-winning book challenged at library


The library director noticed it when perusing “Booklist,” a book review magazine published by the American Library Association (ALA).  The book had won a 2020 ALA Alex Award and was a 2020 Stonewall-Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award Honor Book.  In “Booklist” it had a starred review, and it was a best-seller. 

Finally available in a special edition hardcover rather than a more fragile paperback, he decided to purchase it for the collection.

In July 2022, he shelved it in the stacks, in the adult biography section.

A couple weeks ago, someone formally asked for it to be withdrawn from circulation.

The book in question is “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, an autobiographical graphic novel (illustrated like a comic book) that tells their story of finding their own identity as nonbinary and asexual through a variety of life experiences.  

Though lauded as a “useful and touching guide on gender identity,” it also reached #1 on the ALA’s list of Most Challenged Books of 2021 for having “LGBTQIA+ content and because it was considered to have sexually explicit images.”

Whether or not the book remains on the shelves at the Kalona Public Library will be a matter for the library’s board to take up at their next meeting.  Discussion of the “Request for Reconsideration” is on the agenda for Tuesday, March 14 at 6 p.m. in the library’s program room, though library Director Trevor Sherping believes no conclusions will be reached until the following monthly meeting in April, as board members will need time to familiarize themselves with the book.

“Gender Queer” is currently checked out, so they will have to wait until it is returned.

After some eight months of circulation, how did this book suddenly get singled out?

“I think they found the book because it was on display,” Sherping said.  “There was a World Social Justice Day, something like that, so we had a display with a bunch of different social justice issues.  We had a ton of different books that Olivia [Kahler, Director of Youth Services] and I chose, and that happened to be one of them.  I think that’s why it caught their eye.”

“That might be part of the discussion as well.  Maybe it’s appropriate to have, but maybe they feel that it’s not appropriate to put on display,” he added.

Is the library board likely to pull the book?  

The library’s Collection Development policy on the Freedom to Read states:

The freedom to read is essential to our democracy.  It is continuously under attack.  Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label ‘controversial’ views, to distribute lists of ‘objectionable’ books or authors, and to purge libraries.  These actions apparently rise from a view that our national tradition of free expression is no longer valid; that censorship and suppression are needed to counter threats to safety or national security, as well as avoid the subversion of politics and the corruption of morals.  We, as individuals devoted to reading and as librarians and publishers responsible for disseminating ideas, wish to assert the public interest in the preservation of the freedom to read.

Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgement, will select the good and reject the bad.  We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe.  We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be ‘protected’ against what others think may be bad for them.  We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.


The board of directors stood by this policy the last time a book was challenged, in 2016.  A Request for Reconsideration was received for “Heather Has Two Mommies” by Leslea Newman and Laura Cornell, a children’s picture book in which a young girl with two mothers finds that her classmates’ families are of all different kinds as well.  

The board is required to respond in writing to such a request; regarding “Heather Has Two Mommies,” the board stated, “We realize that not all books in our library represent the views and values of all our citizens.  But we strive to offer materials based on the above policies. . . so that our readers may find and choose materials that are of interest to and appropriate for themselves and their families.  It is ultimately up to the parents to choose materials that they deem appropriate for their children.”

The book remains in the collection.

What “Gender Queer” and “Heather Has Two Mommies” have in common is LGBTQIA+ content, which, as Sherping notes, “has been a hot-button issue.”  

“When people say that it’s not good for them, and it’s therefore not good for the community, it contributes to forms of erasure,” Sherping notes.  “Not everybody is the same.  We don’t live in a homogenous community.  By removing the material, even if you don’t know somebody who needs it, that doesn’t mean that person doesn’t exist.  It’s important for them to have representation just as everyone else does.  I think that point is important to reiterate, especially when we’re considering queer or LGBTQ materials.” 

Sherping points out that he makes a point of acquiring books that reflect a diversity of interests and viewpoints.  When someone requests a book, he makes every effort to buy it, and if he can’t, interlibrary loan – which is now free – is another way for a patron to borrow it.  

When it comes to political material, he looks to balance the liberal with the conservative, although it may not always look that way.

“This is actually a story from a previous director, but I’ve encountered similar things,” he begins, telling the story of a patron who asked why the library was only buying liberal books.  The director looked at the new nonfiction shelf, which did seem to slant left.  The director then did a little research to find out how this could have happened.

“All the conservative ones were checked out.”