Elizabethtown-based book club, Freedom Readers, reviews challenged and banned books | Local News

Born out of concern for the nationwide rise of groups pushing to ban books, the Freedom Readers is a new group of Elizabethtown Area School District residents set on reading commonly challenged books and publicizing summaries that address concerns about content.

Founder and longtime Elizabethtown resident Judi Grove formed the group of what she describes as “several committed community members” who are “opposed to indiscriminate book bannings” earlier this year. Since then, the group’s private Facebook page has gained 156 members.

“I didn’t expect to get the reaction we did,” Grove said. “We set up this Facebook page and instantly we had like 100 people on it.”

Members of the group could be on any part of the political spectrum, Grove said, explaining that her intention is for the group to be nonpartisan. In fact, she welcomes the opportunity to engage with those who have opposing views. So far, however, Grove said she doesn’t know of anyone in support of banning books currently in the group.

“My one friend said ‘you know you could get some of the people from the other side,’” Grove said. “I said, ‘Well, OK, then maybe it’ll bring them around to maybe show us what they think is wrong.’

Grove said the goal of the group is to publish online summaries of frequently banned books, as well as information about the material often cited as objectionable and be “ready to defend and support” the school district.

So far, the school district hasn’t called on the Freedom Readers for support, Grove said, but it is facing one book challenge: “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a 2012 novel by Jesse Andrews about two high school friends who experience the death of a friend who dies from leukemia.

A formal request for the book’s removal from Elizabethtown’s middle and high school library came in mid-April, but the district first faced questions about the book in November 2021.

At a November 2021 school board meeting, a man who identified himself as Dan Matthews read a passage from the book with a line explicitly mentioning oral sex on a female. He said the content was “absolutely disgusting” and called for the book to be pulled from the school library.

Though the district believes that the man, who doesn’t seem to have any children enrolled in the district, gave a fake name and address, the book was temporarily pulled from the shelves for the district to review how books are screened. It had not been formally challenged at that point.

Then, on April 13, parent Tina Wilson filed a formal challenge of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” In her request from her, Wilson writes “there is very little value in this book” and that the book “contains a huge amount of obscene and sexual material.”

As a result, district spokesperson Troy Portser said the book is undergoing review by a committee of educators including guidance counselors, librarians, principals and teachers. The review process, as described in Board Policy 906, is estimated to take four to six weeks. The book will remain on library shelves until a formal decision is made.

‘They’re just making a stink’

While “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” was called into question over its mature content, those calling to ban other books across the country have cited concerns about anti-police messages, LGBTQ+ content or other material.

Books like “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” weren’t published when Grove’s children, who are 44 and 56 now, attended school in Elizabethtown, she said. But, she said she would trust the school had made proper investigations before putting such books on the library’s shelves.

“I think if my child wanted to read this for all the right reasons, this does have a good story,” Grove said. “If they chose it and the librarians thought it was appropriate, I would not have any objection to that.”

The book was one of the first her group read when it initially met in January. In the next months they read through other frequently challenged books including “The Hate You Give,” “The Absolute True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and “All American Boys.”

The original seven who attended the first Freedom Readers meeting comprise a core group who determined the purpose and structure of the reading group. Grove said she has a team of “smart cookies” that includes retired principals and English teachers.

Her plan is for the group to prepare summaries of each book and detail the content that might be considered questionable. Those summaries will be posted to the Freedom Readers page on the Etown Common Sense 2.0 website. Freedom Readers is a subgroup of Common Sense 2.0, which was formed in 2021 with the mission statement of ensuring “school policies come from a place of inclusiveness and understanding.”

Though the group hasn’t posted any summaries to its page yet, Grove said the effort will help parents who want to monitor their children’s reading material but don’t have time to read the whole book.

Laura Ward, president of the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association and librarian at Fox Chapel Area High School in Pittsburgh, told LNP | Lancaster Online in an interview earlier this year that when a book is challenged, it’s usually because one sentence or page was taken out of context.

Most school districts, she said, follow a process through which books are selected by a team of educators based on the school’s curriculum and state standards.

“They’re just making a stink,” Grove said, echoing Ward’s notion that those objecting to books likely haven’t read them cover to cover. “We just want to do what we can to bring it out to the depth like ‘hey this is what’s in the book. Yes, it does say some vulgar things but when we read the whole context, it doesn’t really affect it.”

‘A moral panic’

Elizabethtown and other Lancaster County school districts are among those nationwide facing challenges to ban books that are currently in school libraries.

Residents of Warwick School District, for example, have challenged the 2015 novel, “All American Boys,” by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, which was one of the top 10 most challenged books in 2020 for profanity, drug use and alcoholism, according to the American Library Association.

Kelly Fuddy, an Elizabethtown School District parent of three and member of Freedom Readers, said book bannings and challenges have happened before, and they’ll happen again.

“It’s all a symptom of a moral panic,” Fuddy, 40, said. “People are anxious about a lot of things and are anxious about societal change and they’re choosing to target cultural changes that they’re not comfortable with.”

And Elizabethtown has a unique predicament, Fuddy said; the middle and high schools share a library. Parents have the option to prevent their children from checking out books they consider too mature or questionable through the school’s opt-out program, though.

Yet students need to look no further than the public library or their neighborhood to access books, even once they’re banned. The Elizabethtown Public Library has had banned or challenged book sections for years, according to a local librarian.

And, Fuddy started a small library of banned or challenged books available to all on her front porch in Elizabethtown. It’s one that is replenished and utilized by Freedom Readers members often.

“If there’s questions about (a book), people should be reading it, not immediately deciding that it’s something that shouldn’t be in people’s hands,” Fuddy said. “People should decide that for themselves.”

Kelly Fuddy talks about the Elizabethtown Freedom Readers Group’s efforts while sitting next to her library on the porch of her Elizabethtown home Friday, May 13, 2022. Fuddy is holding a copy of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

She said she wants her kids, who are in third, fifth and ninth grade, to have access to “whatever.” In fact, when her oldest daughter de ella turned 5, Fuddy signed her up for a public library card.

“Just because it’s something that a parent doesn’t necessarily believe or want their child to read, doesn’t mean that child doesn’t have a right to it,” Fuddy said.

And banning books, Grove said, can be a slippery slope for the district. Grove, a retired real estate agent, said families used to purchase houses in the Elizabethtown Area School District because of its positive reputation.

She’s concerned that it will no longer be the case if books are banned. And the repercussions don’t stop there.

“I think banning books is one of the first steps to us losing our freedom,” she said.


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