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Two LGBTQ-centered books challenged at middle school in Kent

Books fill shelves at a library. In the background, a man reshelves books.
Anita Snow
The Associated Press file
Books fill shelves at a public library.
Updated: May 13, 2022 at 3:49 PM PDT
Gavin Downing, a middle school librarian in Kent, Wash., has been honored with an intellectual freedom award from the Washington Library Association. Downing is being honored for standing up for the process to challenge the book’s inclusion in the library and defending the two LGBTQ-centered books he’d vetted. Downing told KNKX he was “absolutely shocked” to learn that he had won the award.

Last fall, the librarian at Cedar Heights Middle School in Kent added some books to the shelves.

Gavin Downing wanted to expand the LGBTQ offerings of the library, and as part of that effort, he added a book called "Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)."

The book is about a gay teenager who writes a sex advice column. Downing says those columns, which are presented in the book, have “medically accurate" content about sex, including gay sex.

When the book arrived, he shelved it, a few students checked it out, and for a while there didn’t seem to be any issues — until his principal came to him at lunch one day in December, holding the book.

“She definitely seemed upset about it,” he told KNKX. “I explained to her that I vetted the book carefully, I would recommend that she read it fully, and if she still felt that it was an issue, there was a process” to follow to challenge the book’s inclusion in the library.

Downing says that process wasn't followed. Now there’s a petition circulating, and he’s asking that his powers to purchase books for the library be restored.

KNKX asked the principal for an interview, but she declined.

A spokesperson for the Kent School District told KNKX that two books had been sent to a committee for review and were awaiting a final decision. The district pointed us to a statement, which you can read in full here.

It affirms the value of diversity, praises the student in question for using their voice and points to written district procedure that gives principals explicit approval power over library books.

“While there has been media coverage and public discussion focused on the adults involved and the policy and procedure, as a district our foremost concern is for the student at the heart of the matter, a student we are so proud of for using their voice to be an agent of their own educational experience,” interim Superintendent Israel Vela said in the statement. “Now we follow the process, and ultimately, I trust in my staff, our Instructional Materials Committee, and our school board to see the book challenges through and follow board policies and procedures to make the decision that is in the best interest of all of our students.”

Listen to Downing's conversation with KNKX's Ed Ronco by clicking "Listen" above.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.
Posey Gruener is a former KNKX producer who worked on All Things Considered and Sound Effect.