Flathead County

ImagineIF Trustees Attempt to Censor Children’s Book About Racism

Half of the board members made motions to remove or sequester the book, “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness,” before unanimously voting to create a special “parent resource” collection

By Micah Drew
Library advisor Ben Mason shelves books at ImagineIF Library in Kalispell on Oct. 8, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As the American Library Association celebrates the freedom to read through its “Banned Book Week,” an annual campaign to raise awareness about the growing catalog of books beset by attempts to remove them from public schools and libraries, the ImagineIF Board of Trustees on Thursday met to discuss a request to remove another book from its collection — the third challenge the Flathead County library system has faced in the last year.

The most recent complaint centers on the book “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness,” by Anastasia Higginbotham, and was submitted by a Flathead County resident who wrote that the text is “prejudiced and antagonistic towards people of different ethnicities.” 

“This book creates shame and condemnation in children, while burdening them with the problem of racism,” according to the written complaint. “Frankly, the statements made me uncomfortable as an adult.”

The complainant did not defend her claims at the board meeting.

“Not My Idea” is a children’s picture book that examines racism, racial justice and “how power and privilege factor into the lives of white children,” according to a review. It has received critical acclaim, and is part of a children’s series in which Higginbotham tackles the difficult issues of divorce, death, sex and racism. The book has also sparked backlash and been challenged in libraries nationwide, and was singled out by Texas lawmakers as a reason to support a bill restricting how schools can teach controversial subjects.

Cover of the book “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness,” by Anastasia Higginbotham

During public comment at Thursday’s board meeting, several community members spoke out against restricting or removing material from the library’s collection, stating that they deserved the right make their own reading decisions.

“It’s so simple, if you don’t like the book, don’t check it out,” Valeri McGarvey said. “I’m not afraid for my kids and my grandkids to learn about racism.”

Only one person, Trish Pandina, spoke in favor of removing the book she felt was “teaching children to hate.”

The board’s discussion on the title began with a motion by the newest trustee, Carmen Cuthbertson, to remove the book from the collection.

This marks the second time the board has made motions to remove a book from the library’s collection. In January, the trustees voted on two book challenges, “Lawn Boy” and “Gender Queer,” unanimously voting to keep the former, while voting against retaining the latter. The final vote removing “Gender Queer” was indefinitely suspended pending changes to the library’s collection policy.

Cuthbertson brought the initial challenge to “Gender Queer” prior to her appointment on the library board, making this the second title she has been in favor of removing.

“Contemporary nonfiction materials for children that affirm a racist skin color-based worldview, do not belong in the section of the 21st century library,” Cuthbertson said of “Not My Idea”.

“In my definition of book banning, removing a book from a public library which causes you to have to go buy it is not banning,” Cuthbertson said. “My definition of banning is what a totalitarian government does.”

Carmen Cuthbertson at an ImagineIF Library board of trustees meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University defines book banning as when “private individuals, government officials, or organizations remove books from libraries, school reading lists, or bookstore shelves because they object to their content, ideas, or themes,” and adds that “to counter charges of censorship, opponents of publications sometimes use the tactic of restricting access rather than calling for the physical removal of books.”

Trustee Dave Ingram made an amended motion to restrict access to the book, rather than remove it outright, saying he felt it was not appropriate for the intended audience.

“Children in this age group are not prepared to analyze concepts like this critically,” Ingram said.

His suggestion was to sequester the title at a library advisor desk, under video surveillance, but to allow it to be freely accessed upon request.

“I believe that this material poses a potential threat to the safety and tranquility of our parents, our patrons and staff because of the volatile nature of the topics,” Ingram said. “These include shaming, condemnation, intergenerational collective guilt, fostering fear and mistrust of law enforcement, instilling doubt regarding the goodness of one’s own family and racism.”

ImagineIF director Ashley Cummins opposed his suggestion.  

“If we are going to sequester materials that someone finds inappropriate, we do not have a shelf or a desk large enough,” Cummins said. “It is highly subjective, and I receive multiple complaints every day.”

Cummins, and assistant director Sean Anderson, pointed out that the board had recently approved policies explicitly stating that it is a parent’s responsibility to monitor what their children check out and read.

“I feel our library is assuming [the role of parents] when it puts these kinds of materials out,” Cuthbertson said. “A library should not foist extremist material on children.”

“When it comes to materials for adults, I understand that the library orders books that don’t interest me, books I don’t agree with, books about controversial topics, books with extremist viewpoints,” Cuthbertson added. “That’s how we expand our horizons, by coming across material that shows us a new idea, different opinion or experience. But I feel very strongly when it comes to other people’s children. This thought process doesn’t apply.”

At times, a clearly furious Anderson shifted his chair to turn his back to the board members.

“I think this is an inappropriate decision you are discussing at this point,” Anderson said. “It is abhorrent.”

ImagineIF Library board member Doug Adams speaks at an ImagineIF Library board of trustees meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

At one point in the discussion, board chair Doug Adams interjected with his experiences growing up in the South, including what he characterized as his own prejudices. He told of refusing to go to a swim meet against another school that had mostly Black competitors, adding, “I have never been proud of that fact.” He also told of being in Charlotte, North Carolina, when the bussing of Black students to public schools during desegregation began, and of watching race riots erupt in front of him.

“I’ve dealt with the fear of race all my life,” Adams said, adding that in the years since he has had good friends, and ex-girlfriends, who were Black. “I chose to deal with my own racism because it’s the right thing to do.”

“The thing that offends me about this particular book is that she thinks that people should feel a false sense of guilt for the color that God made them,” he added. “And so, is this book appropriate? Is it good for kids? I don’t think so. But is it dangerous? I don’t feel that it is.”

Adams stated he would not vote to remove the book, and instead requested the creation of a special “parent resource” collection, that would include “Not My Idea,” and other books where parents could choose to check them out for their children.

“While I appreciate this attempt to find a middle ground, my concern is that it feels very much like justifying the other comments that have been made by trustees,” Anderson countered. “This motion is being made out of fear, out of distrust and disdain for these materials, out of a belief that they are dangerous and harmful to children. And that runs absolutely counter to the policies of this library.”

ImagineIF Library Senior Librarian Sean Anderson attends an ImagineIF Library board of trustees meeting in Kalispell on Dec. 2, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The recently amended collection development policy states that “selection decisions are not influenced by the possibility that materials may be accessible to minors … classification should in no way represent a value judgment of the material … nor to subjectively identify certain philosophies.”

When Anderson pressed Adams about board members making motions that run counter to board policy, Adams responded that they were entitled to their own opinions.

The implementation of a new section for “Not My Idea” passed unanimously.

A fourth book challenge for “Why Children Matter” by Douglas Wilson is still in the early stages of the review process and will be discussed at the board’s October meeting.

“I don’t think this reflects well on the library,” director Cummins said after the meeting. “I’m glad the book was retained without any restrictions, but I think there are other potential problematic implications. I think problems may arise with what follows this book into that collection.”

Cummins said the details of the new collection, including where it will be located, what additional titles it will include and who will make those decisions, will be discussed by the collection development team in October