Who Should Decide What High School Kids Are Allowed to Read?

When a Delaware school board voted to remove a gay coming-of-age story from a reading list, it raised questions about what limits, if any, should be placed on books recommended for young teenagers. 

A fictional young woman from Montana is causing raised eyebrows in Southern Delaware: Earlier this summer, the heroine of Emily M. Danforth’s edgy, sexual coming-of-age novel, The Miseducation of Cameron Post, was deemed too foul-mouthed, too racy, and possibly too gay for incoming freshmen at Cape Henlopen High School.

The Cape school board, citing parent complaints about the book’s liberal use of the word “fuck,” struck Cameron Post from a summer reading list, prompting both praise and outrage within the tiny coastal community. Perhaps spooked by controversy, the board voted to restore the book—then ditch the list altogether.

“The profanity is pretty extreme,” says board member Sandi Minard. “Not everything is appropriate for a high school library. We can’t have Hustler and Playboy and all those kinds of things. There has to be some kind of compass.”

Cameron Post is a bildungsroman with a twist: its eponymous character, a young girl growing up in rural Montana, is gay. After her parents die in a car crash, her ultra-conservative aunt sends Cameron to God’s Promise, where legions of born-again counselors try to hammer her round peg into the square hole of heteronormativity. Cameron struggles to resist the influence of her would-be mentors and maintain her sense of self.

“I wanted it to be a great big coming of gay-age story,” Danforth says. “It’s a fraught love letter to growing up gay in rural Montana.” Like a lot of debut novels, she says, there’s a good slice of her own story woven into Cameron’s.

At a time when young adult novels routinely deal with issues like sexuality and death, Cameron Post is hardly an anomaly. The book, which weighs in at 480 pages, was a 2013 finalist for the William C. Morris Young Adult Debut Award; it also made the 2013 Best Fiction for Young Adults list, issued by the Young Adult Library Services Association. It is also included on The Blue Hen List, a set of 10 books chosen by state librarians as good choices for summer reading. The list includes mainstream YA fiction like John Green’s The Fault In Our Stars—a story narrated by a teenage cancer patient—as well as quirkier works like Erin Jade Lange’s Butter, in which a lonely, obese boy plans to live-stream his suicide-by-overeating on the Internet.

At Cape Henlopen High School, where surfer kids from the coastal communities of Lewes and Rehoboth Beach mingle with the children of farmers, this year’s 314 incoming freshmen were given the Blue Hen List and required to pick one of the 10 books, read it, and write an essay over the summer. Honors students had to pick two. On June 4, a district parent emailed board members and district officials “shocked and appalled” by the Blue Hen List, and Cameron Post in particular. “We expected to see classics like Of Mice and Men or Lord Of The Flies,” the parent says. Instead, Cameron Post seemed to be “a roadmap or guide book on how to become a sexually active lesbian teen.”

Board member Spencer Brittingham picked up Cameron Post to see for himself. The book stunned him. “I’ve been running the scenes in my head constantly,” he says.

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As executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, Joan Bertin says she sees about one case of book-banning or attempted censorship per week. “Censorship is using its power and authority and influence to approve certain ideas and disapprove others,” she says. “It’s the government putting its finger on the ideological scales.”

Minard vigorously denies the charge of censorship. Cameron Post sits in the library at Cape Henlopen High School, she says. The board didn’t ban the book; it simply refused to endorse it. “If it was geared towards an older student, I wouldn’t have been so adamant about it. But when we’re talking about incoming freshmen, you have to be more selective about the language and the sexual content.”

Bertin says she hears the “age-appropriate” argument often. “What educators generally mean is, does the child have the intellectual and emotional maturity to process the information?” Ulysses is not age-appropriate for 4th grade readers not because of its mature content, but because 6th graders aren’t mature enough to put it in context. Physics is not age-appropriate because it requires math skills not yet taught. Most freshmen are emotionally and intellectually capable of putting Cameron Post’s rough edges in context, Bertin says; it’s their day-to-day.

“So the term ‘age-appropriate’ is widely used as a proxy for the values and beliefs I want to impart to my kids, and how much I want to control them,” she says. “Boards, especially elected school boards that have no experience as educators—they have very little idea of what’s age appropriate.”

Still, at a time when students under 18 are still barred from entering R-rated movies, “adult themes” in school-assigned literature can raise concerns. Initially, the Cape school board cited four-letter words as its rationale for removing Cameron Post from its reading list. But Danforth, the book’s author, points out that the June 4 complaint voiced no qualms with Cameron Post’s salty language. “At the very least, there was a lot of hypocrisy at play,” she says. “There were a number of other books with but the same kinds of language. And it’s not just one other book. It’s several books.”

What the book does include is an exploration of teenage sexuality. One board member, Roni Posner, argues that this should have been a reason for the school board to recommend the book—not pull it from the list. “It would have been so helpful to me,” says board member Roni Posner—who, like Cameron Post, wrestled with her sexuality as a teenager. She says she understands why the book would rattle the more conservative members of the Cape community: “It’s untraditional. But it’s a very real, very honest book, and it’s a very important book.”

Posner was the lone dissenting vote on June 12, when the board decided 6-1 to remove Cameron Post from the list. The community response was swift and severe, both against the school board and the book itself. Conservative radio host Dan Gaffney posted an online index of Cameron Post’s swear words and sexual references. A brief mention of abortion, tattoos, and “ownership of the body” earned the label “PRO-LIFE ABORTION REFERENCE.”

Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union’s Delaware chapter issued a letter urging the board to rescind its banning. The chapter’s executive director, Kathleen MacRae, says she took interest after Cape parents informed her about the incident. The ACLU letter alleged that the board not only violated Delaware’s sunshine laws (measures intended to ensure open governance) by failing to notice a vote on Cameron Post for the June 12 meeting, but also violated its own policy regarding challenged materials (which requires, according to the ACLU, a review by librarians and teachers). “It was definitely an effort to restrict and influence what students were coming in to read,” MacRae says.

The board met again on July 24, and that’s when members voted to restore Cameron Post to the list of recommended reading—and then “remove” the Blue Hen List altogether. Instead of working from the librarian-curated recommendations, they declared, students could fulfill their summer reading with any book they chose—from Cameron Post to, presumably, Fifty Shades of Grey.

“As someone on a school board, you can’t please everyone,” says Brittingham. “But as long as you can find common ground, and forge ahead, you can claim victory.”

Posner is less certain anything can be claimed at all.

“Delawarean librarians put that list together,” she says. “If you can’t trust the librarians, whom can you trust?”

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Not surprisingly, the controversy over Cameron Post has only brought more attention to the book itself. Over the summer, the local bookseller Browsabout Books had trouble keeping copies of Cameron Post on the shelves after the board’s decision. The sudden surge in demand had store manager Susan McAnelly placing orders by the 50s. “It’s in line with our mission,” McAnnelly says. “We put books in people’s hands. It’s not my job to tell people what they should be reading.”

Before long, Browsabout became a collection point for free copies of Cameron Post. McAnelly said donated copies came from Harper Collins, which published the book and AfterEllen.com, a lesbian/bisexual culture website, as well as from various individuals. To date, 250 of the 266 copies donated have left Browsabout in the hands of Cape students. Given the potential for 250 essays on Cameron Post, Lewes might be on the verge of becoming an unlikely epicenter of gay literary criticism.

Brittingham says he stands by his vote against the book. He freely admits he’s not a professional educator—he’s a former Marine who owns a moving business and works for the Delaware Department of Corrections. But he is an elected official, he says, and he’s served since 2006, even once running unopposed. He sees that as a clear mandate. “I’m military,” he says. “I’m about law and order. If I see something that you’re doing that’s going to bring you harm, I’m going to stop you.”

Posner, who holds a joint Ph.D. in educational planning and social policy from Harvard University and Northeastern University, adopts a more narrow view of the board’s authority. “Our work is to focus on policy, and not to get into the specifics of management,” she says. “We’re not 21st century educators. We’re a governing board. We should be looking at governance and policy, and staying there.”

Posner says the compass should stay at home, in the hands of the parents—not the school board. Of the 10 books offered on the Blue Hen List, students had to choose, at the most, two; among the remaining eight, surely even the most scrutinizing parent can find something agreeable?

Minard, meanwhile, won’t officially endorse the book as an elected official, but she refuses to condemn it as a work of art. She still believes it isn’t appropriate school-assigned reading for high school freshmen. But her vote, she says, “doesn’t mean that Cam Post isn’t a great book, or that it wouldn’t speak to someone who was struggling to find themselves.”