Bestselling author responds to Wyoming book challenges

CHEYENNE — Demands have been made by some Laramie County School District No. 1 parents to remove at least 15 books from school libraries due to mature content.

Of those listed after a significant public response at the Board of Trustees meeting Monday night, nearly every popular young adult novel written by New York Times best-selling author Ellen Hopkins was included. 

LCSD1 Superintendent Margaret Crespo and Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Jim Fraley made it clear at the end of the week they will not be “banning” these books from the district’s libraries, nor is there an existing process in district policy to ban books. 

“We’re not in the business of banning books or censorship,” Fraley told the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. “But we are in the business of educating students.” 

Following the request, a Twitter thread was created by a journalist asking for the books not to be repealed in Wyoming, and the author was tagged. 

Hopkins replied online: “This move to remove books from school libraries denies their power to positively impact and, yes, save lives. School boards meeting these challenges must understand that.” 

The young-adult author said during her three decades of publishing books, she has never witnessed such a harsh request in the public education system. She would consider it a form of censorship if district officials were to go through with removing her books from the shelves. 

“School libraries are a place where some kids only get books,” she said during a Zoom interview with the WTE on Friday. 

Many of the stories she tells are inspired by real-life events and revolve around difficult topics, such as sexual abuse, incest, assault, drug addiction and suicide. She said she uses her voice as an author to break down those experiences for young adults and to let them know they are not alone. 

“A book is a safe space to explore that stuff,” she told the WTE, “and it’s a lot safer than the internet.” 

But many parents who attended the most recent board meeting and have shared their concerns throughout the school year don’t necessarily agree. Some expressed how it may lead children down a path to hypersexuality, cause suicidal ideations or traumatize them due to misunderstanding the concepts.

They also have said they believe it is their right as parents to choose what materials their students have access to, whether that be in the classroom or in the school library. 

Although none of the books listed for removal – and confirmed by a member of Moms For Liberty – are taught as a part of the curriculum, students whose parents do not opt out of the mature content may check them out. 

“Some have tried to claim that when a parent expresses that a book on a shelf is made available that they suddenly become a book burner, but nothing is further from the truth,” Family Policy Alliance of Wyoming Executive Director Nathan Winters testified. “Our society in America recognizes the need for MPAA ratings. What I mean is that society recognizes that certain subjects are inappropriate for children, and we’re asking for our school board to recognize the same.” 

One of the examples provided Monday was Hopkins’ novel “Crank,” which caused a passionate response from Shannon Ashby, who pulled her kids from the district earlier this year. 

The book features a 16-year-old girl who suffers with her father from drug addiction. She also follows through with a pregnancy after being sexually assaulted, and her family has to raise the child. Some of the imagery she reads as pornographic. 

“You sit here, and if you can go home and read these books to your grandkids, or your babies, I want nothing to do with any of you if you feel this is appropriate crap,” she told board members. 

This book, as well as the rest of Hopkins’ novels, are available in various junior high and high school libraries across the district. 

Ashby said she is aware parents can call the district libraries and ask for their child to not be able to check out any, or all, books accessible currently. But she said it isn’t enough. She said children could ask fellow students to check out the book for them, or sit in the library and read the book without the parent’s consent. 

“And I’m not talking about book burning,” she said. “I’m not talking about book banning. I’m saying [it should be] removed from the public schools. It’s not an educational book; it doesn’t need to be in the schools. Instead, it can go to the city library right down the road.” 

Ashby considers the books inappropriate — or without educational purpose — because they are novels that contain the author’s thoughts and perspectives. She said if materials are included with these topics, it should be real accounts based in nonfiction, and only for senior students 18 and older. 

Hopkins disagreed and said this should not make the books unqualified. 

She explained that not only does she have a background in journalism and has interviewed sources on their experiences and witnessed her daughter struggle with addiction, it’s simply the role of a novelist to portray the inner thoughts of the characters and design a reality. 

“They need someone to know that someone cares enough to write stuff for them and about them,” she said. 

She also said although the novels may not be traditional in the textbook sense, they may give students insight into ongoing issues, such as suicide or abuse. She was not alone in this perspective, as Fraley said many books help introduce children to the hardships of the world in an appropriate environment. 

“Maybe we have a social worker referring that book from the library to them so they can read about students going through divorce,” he said. “Maybe a student has a sibling or another family member going through addiction, and maybe they can use a book to help guide them and understand what drug addiction is.” 

He said, fiction or not, the knowledge within a book can help students understand. He also argued although the material may be mature, there are already children in elementary school being offered drugs, experiencing violence and struggling with sexual orientation. 

“So, to blind ourselves with, well, we don’t have things in our society that don’t exist, we are incompetent in our way to educate a child then,” he said. “We are turning a blind eye to a problem and not helping these kids understand and get prepared for life after that K-12 experience.” 

While some community members said they understood this could help bring light to these topics, they considered it the responsibility of the parents to teach those topics when they believe their children are of age. 

Safehouse Cheyenne Director Carla Thurin, who handles sexual assault, abuse and domestic violence cases with a large number of children in the county, said a parent who cares about them and is taking on educational responsibilities may not be available to every student. 

She understands the right for a parent to choose, but she does not see that as a reason to take the opportunity to learn away from every child. 

Thurin said many would be shocked to know how many students are couch surfing, without access to proper education on mature content or experiencing abuse at home. She said if they don’t get the information at school, they may be manipulated by others or unaware of what is happening to them. 

“I can think of a handful of people right now that are young adults that could tell you about their experience growing up in a home where from the outside it looked absolutely perfect, and they thought that was a normal life,” she said. “They had no idea that this was not the way it should have been.” 

She said if parents want to take books out of the library on these issues, then they have to fill the gap for children who will be without support otherwise. Superintendent Crespo also spoke on this concept of supporting all students in a public education system such as LCSD1. She said it is their responsibility to pay attention to every child’s needs. And in the case of covering the bases, she wants to work together to make that happen. 

“If it were a learning situation, we would want our children to have every single opportunity based on their exceptionalism,” she said. “Whether that’s giftedness or special education needs, we want those needs met.”