School library book bans come to Buncombe

SCHOOL BANS: Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire and Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult are two of four books no longer available at Enka High School. Doing It! Let's Talk About Sex by Hannah Witton and Tricks by Ellen Hopkins are the others. Books photographed at Pack Memorial Library. Photo by Greg Parlier

Until recently, local school districts had largely avoided the national wave of book bans. Despite some activists making noise in local school board meetings last summer, there had been no formal requests to remove books from school libraries in Asheville City or Buncombe County schools.

But by November, 20 books had been challenged by a group of parents at Enka High School. They wanted the books removed from the school media center because of subject matter ranging from sex and gender identity issues to prostitution, suicide and drug use. Four of those books have been banned from the shelves of Enka High School, one of which was pulled from all Buncombe County schools.

According to comments made at school board meetings and documents acquired from BCS by Xpress, those who want books removed see their presence in school libraries as an example of school staff having too much power in their children’s education.

“School personnel and staff should not be the ones making the decisions on what modern, real-world, social and even local issues that students [and] teenagers should be exposed to, nor how they are exposed to them. That is a parent’s decision. A parent should make those decisions because the parent knows their child better than anyone,” wrote one parent in appealing Enka High’s decision to keep Shine by Lauren Myracle on the shelf. Parents’ names were redacted from the appeal documents.

The argument echoes that of the national group Moms for Liberty, a Florida-based conservative nonprofit that seeks to “unify, educate and empower parents to defend and protect their parental rights at every level of government,” according to its website. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a progressive nonprofit legal advocacy organization, has labeled Moms for Liberty as an anti-student, anti-government extremist group.

In a recent episode of newsmagazine “60 Minutes,” Moms for Liberty co-founder Tiffany Justice spoke about recent book bans in Beaufort County, S.C. “Parents want to partner with their child’s schools,” she said. “But we do not co-parent with the government.”

Kim Poteat, lead organizer of the Buncombe chapter of Moms for Liberty and an administrator of the group’s private Facebook page, is one of the parents who is pushing for book removals.

“We are simply asking that parental rights be respected and parents be given the freedom to choose the timing of when their children are exposed to modern, real-world social issues based on their family beliefs, not the beliefs of educators,” she said at the March 7 Buncombe County Board of Education meeting.

After initially saying she was available for an interview with Xpress, Poteat later requested questions via email. She did not respond by press time after multiple reminders.

Per district policy, an initial request to remove materials is reviewed by a media and technology advisory committee at the school level. If a parent or community member disagrees with the school-level decision, it can be appealed to the district level for a review by the district MTAC, which is ultimately voted on by the school board.

For these challenged books, Enka High School agreed to remove three of the books from its media center, and one more was banned districtwide after an appeal of the school’s initial decision brought it before the school board. The rest of the requests were rejected.

While Doing It! Let’s Talk About Sex by Hannah Witton, Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult and Wicked: Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire can be found at other, non-Enka BCS high schools, Tricks by Ellen Hopkins cannot.

Who knows best?

Those wanting certain books removed frequently noted that parents are more equipped to determine what their children are capable of processing in written materials than their teachers.

That directly counters the district’s policy on parental objections to materials.

“While input from the community may be sought, the board believes professional educators are in the best position to determine whether a particular instructional material is appropriate for the age and maturity of the students and for the subject matter being taught,” according to BCS policy 3210.

Several students who spoke to Xpress for this story said book bans should include their voices since they are the ones actually reading them.

Mitchell Cohen, a junior at Nesbitt Discovery Academy, says teenagers witness a lot of difficult subjects in their everyday lives and deserve the chance to have a say in what literature they can handle.

“There’s this idea of teenagers as stupid and hormonal. People just look at the stupid things we do and think we are too young to understand things. We’re not too young to be exposed to things outside of books. We have to deal with so many difficult things. [Some have] friends who are dying from COVID or suicide. If we are able to cope with those things, we’re old enough to cope with a book,” he says.

Multiple times, books with sexual subject matter have been referred to as pornography at school board meetings by those seeking to ban them. Sometimes, as in the case of Doing It!, the book presents sex matter-of-factly as a sexual education tool. Other times, passages with sexual acts are presented to the board out of context, even though the book is actually about something else, says Liza Porras, a senior at Nesbitt Discovery Academy.

“I just really think it says a lot about how certain people look at teens,” she says. “Sure, we haven’t really been out in the real world and everything, and we don’t know how everything works. But we aren’t these mind drones. Like, if we see like nude drawings, we’re not like, ‘Oh my God, this is so hot.’  … We have critical thinking skills.”

Plus, Porras says, since high schoolers can be assaulted, they should be allowed to read books about the topic. High school is the right time to be exposed to sexual education subject matter, Cohen adds.

The parents seeking books to be removed from schools have said they do not favor outright bans in public libraries and bookstores, but they don’t think school libraries are an appropriate place for some of this content.

“How is a book with explicit alternate gender ideologies appropriate for a school library? We should only be teaching and encouraging the learning of the basics in education — math reading, writing, science and history — not all of this sexuality and gender ideology trash talk,” writes one parent in an appeal of Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin to the district.

“With these kinds of books in public school libraries, you are hijacking the role of the parent to decide when their child/student is mature enough to handle these ‘modern, real-world social issues,’” the writer continues.

For Paul Curran, another Nesbitt senior, it’s better to read a book about difficult subject matter in school than be exposed to it on television, the internet or worse. At school, you have peers and teachers to discuss difficult themes with, avoiding the dark “rabbit holes” of the internet, he says.

Plus, books provide nuance and context to issues that students might otherwise be exposed to on social media, where explanations for real-world events aren’t always available, he says.

“I feel totally safe talking [about books] at school,” Curran adds.

Slippery slope

Buncombe County school board members, voting together, expressed support for all of the staff responsible for making determinations on each of the 20 books under scrutiny. When it came time to ban Tricks, board member Amy Churchill, the board’s only registered Republican, hesitated. Ultimately, the board voted 7-0 to remove the books from all school libraries.

“I really struggle with this, because I think it’s a slippery slope to start banning books, especially when it’s being used for cultural wars and talking points, political moves and being surfed from the internet to determine what books to be against without actually reading said books to determine what the concern is,” Churchill said at the Feb. 8 meeting. “I really, really have a hard time when we start talking about taking away basic freedoms.” She added that as a Christian,  she worried that the Bible could someday be challenged using the same logic that the parents were using for other books.

Attached to most of parents’ appeals were references from, an independently run book review site that highlights portions of hundreds of books that reference “objectionable content.” The reviews include a profanity counter, next to which several local parents handwrote notes.

One wrote: “And we don’t want our children and teens using this language, but we put books in their school libraries that teach them to use it? That’s really messed up!”, based in Brevard County, Fla., includes a rating system created by volunteers. The site rates books from zero — “for everyone” — to 5 — for “aberrant content.” It has been cited in book ban attempts all over the country since 2022 and has been connected to Moms for Liberty groups, although the site claims not to actively seek book bans.

BANNED BOOKS BACK: Firestorm Books staff poses at its storage unit with boxes of books that have been banned in some Florida schools and sent to the queer-owned cooperative bookstore. Firestorm packages and sends the books to readers in Florida for free, by request. Photo courtesy of Firestorm Books

Instead, the site suggests “parents can use this information to provide the proper guidance to children reading any of these books. Parents can also use this information to individually, or through groups representing their interests, engage with school boards to determine what works should be made available to their children while under the custodial care of their schools,” according to the site.

Indeed, 19 of the 20 books parents asked to be removed from high school libraries are readily available at Buncombe County Public Libraries. Perfect by Hopkins is available through an interlibrary loan.

But students say making the books unavailable at their schools effectively bans them for those who don’t have transportation to a public library.

Cindy Barukh Milstein, bookseller at Firestorm Books in West Asheville, says the store will order copies of any title for anyone of any age.

Firestorm started a program housing banned children’s books from Duval County, Fla., in 2022 and is now sending them back to students whose right to read is under attack, according to its website.

Firestorm bookseller Libertie Valance says some parents see students’ access to some books as a threat to their power.

“Books can be powerful precisely because they allow their readers to explore new ideas and encounter perspectives in a space that’s unmediated by authorities. That’s important for adults, but even more important for folks in a formative stage of life, attempting to make sense of this … broken world they’ve been handed,” Valance says.

Protect them from darkness

In reviewing the appeal requests made to the district Media Technology Advisory Committee, parents express not only a desire for control over what their children have access to but also assumptions about what that access will lead to.

In an appeal of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a book about the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager by a white police officer, the requester suggested that students may adopt a negative view of police officers and increase their use of profanity after reading the book.

“We do not need anything in our libraries to increase racial tensions or turn our kids against police officers. There is enough of that going on in the news,” the person wrote. The book stayed.

“We should not want books in our school libraries for our minor children to read and be encouraged to be more sexually active, steal alcohol from parents’ cabinets, drink underage, do drugs, masturbate [or] curse like a sailor. This is what this book does,” one parent wrote in a request to remove More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera, which remains on the school shelves.

Valance says characters acting out in books provides starting points for adults to talk about how to process certain subject matter.

“Adults owe young people care, not control. We don’t believe that it’s effective or ethical to ban books in schools or homes. What adults can and should do is support young folks in making informed decisions about when they are ready to read challenging books and then how to think critically about what they encounter in those books, if they read them. Kids are safer when they have adults in their lives who they can trust to respond to difficult topics with openness and honesty rather than prohibitions and shame,” Valance says.

Ultimately, for some parents, it comes down to a desire to protect students from some of the world’s more disturbing realities, evident in a request to remove The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.

“Children, including teenagers … are given parents to protect them from knowing evil, such as rape of a child, as portrayed graphically in this book, along with the portrayal (graphically) of suicide. We are giving our children a way to this darkness by exposing them to horrible darkness in these books!” wrote one parent.

That book stayed, too.


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13 thoughts on “School library book bans come to Buncombe

  1. ohiogurl

    Keeping books away from kids is not the way to protect them from the darkness, though it might leave them unprepared when darkness comes their way. Parents may (or may not) know what is appropriate for their own kids. I have a problem with them deciding about what materials are available to everybody else’s kids. Since parents disagree, I prefer to leave those broad-brush decisions in the hands of educators and librarians. If you are concerned about what YOUR kids are reading, TALK to them. PARENT them–don’t expect the schools to enforce your biases at the expense of everyone else. I’ve made some mistakes in my life, but they didn’t come out of a book.

  2. Richard Donald Unanue

    A slippery slope indeed. What’s next? Ban discussions in schools on evolution, science, paleontology, philosophy, other religions beyond Christianity, etc? Taliban USA, here we come. Is it any wonder that our children can’t compete with Asian and European schools in STEM, that Russia, with 1/3 the US population, produces more engineers and scientists than we do. We’re on our way in NC to becoming Florida where university academics are leaving en masse. Dumb and dumber.

    • Mtnsmith

      US children can’t compete with Asian and European kids in STEM because they don’t get to read porn in school?
      The world just gets curiouser and curiouser.

      • Alan Ditmore

        Two school systems that ban different books can’t be seriously considering merging because it’s an obvious deal breaker. There is no way an urban and a suburban system are ever going to have enough in common to be merging. It’s totally unrealistic.

  3. John Walker

    While parents “may” have the right to restrict what their children can read, they do not have the right to restrict what other children’s parents think their children can, and should be allowed to read. Perhaps having a list of the names of children and the books they are prohibited from reading posted in the school library for the librarian, to disallow them to do so. That of course will not stop children from sharing theirs with others, or, making fun of those children and their parents, as children are prone to do.

  4. Mtnsmith

    There were several interesting statements in the article, including “While input from the community may be sought, the board believes professional educators are in the best position to determine whether a particular instructional material is appropriate for the age and maturity of the students and for the subject matter being taught…” Really? We are in the age of not trusting “professionals”, from politicians to doctors to, yes, educators, and with good reason. This is not an argument that carries much water these days, and it will take a long time to rectify. And even if public trust is restored at some future date – parents still have the final say. Period.

    “…passages with sexual acts are presented… out of context, even though the book is actually about something else…” We’ve always kept Hustler and Playboy magazines off school library shelves for a reason. Even if they (also) feature great fiction and travelogues – they don’t belong in schools.

    And, finally, the books are hardly being banned. They are available on each student’s phone, for heaven’s sake (although maybe we should talk about removing the classics from the library, so the kids could feel naughty by looking them up and reading them.)

    • Lynn

      Um, NO, we are most certainly NOT “in the age of not trusting professionals” like “doctors and educators.” Conspiracy theorists and deniers may not trust educators and doctors, but the rest of us will continue to go to a doctor when we are sick or need surgery, and we will continue to send our kids to schools, colleges and universities to receive broad educations and learn critical thinking. And you already have the final say…tell your child not to check out or read whatever titles you deem inappropriate, or alternatively tell them to bring the books they check out to you first so that you can approve them. It’s no one’s fault but yours if they don’t mind or comply, but the rest of our kids aren’t going to live in the restrictive bubble you want to keep yours in.

      • Mtnsmith

        I get the appeal of basing one’s worldview on one’s own insular little tribe, but if you could step outside your echo chamber for a moment you’d see that trust in professionals has fallen across the board. Yes, really.
        For example, 22% of US adults express trust in the federal government (Pew Research); according to the New York Times, “In 1966, more than three-fourths of Americans had great confidence in medical leaders; today, only 34 percent do.” And WaPo reported in 2022 “…another Gallup poll found that just 28 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in public schools…”
        Looks like your “royal we” may in actuality be a bit of a “royal wee.”

  5. NFB

    The attention these books are getting from this news will ensure that more kids will seek them out. As a result some kids are going to discover the real world and some really good books!

  6. Robert

    Try to ban Huck, Holden or Toni Morrison, and I’ll burn the flag where the Vance Monument used to stand.

  7. Anne Barker

    As a former public library director, you would be astonished at what some extremist parents refuse to allow their children to read or view. Some parents refused to let their kids learn how to operate computers because of smut on the Internet. Some refused to let their 18-year-old watch the film Harry Potter because of witches and magic. Libraries select materials using professional journals with books read by subject specialists who are knowledgeable about child development and reading levels. I had a special interest in young adult fiction. I found that I did agree with the recommendations given by the professional journals. Kids are definitely interested in learning about relationships and sexual topics. A safe way for them to learn about these topics is through reading. Reading about a topic is quite different than going out and experiencing that behavior yourself.

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