The Sparta Township Board of Education voted 5-2 to remove a book that had been restricted to eighth-graders from the middle school library.
“The Upside of Unrequited,” which has LGBTQ characters among its diverse cast, was moved to the high school library because it is aimed at students ages 14-18, board members said Thursday, Feb. 23.
Board members Wendy Selander and Vanessa Serrano voted against the change. Board members Lauren Collier and Craig Palleschi were absent from the meeting.
The vote to remove the book from the middle school came after a 5-2 vote to reject the recommendation of a district committee formed to review the book after a parent complained about it.
Selander and Serrano supported the committee’s recommendation to keep the book was it was.
Assistant Superintendent Tara Rossi explained that in accordance with the district’s policy, she and Superintendent Matthew Beck formed a seven-member committee to review the book after the complaint was made.
After two hours of discussion, five of the seven committee members recommended that “The Upside of Unrequited,” by Becky Albertalli, remain in the middle school library for eighth-graders only.
Albertalli is a former clinical psychologist who specialized in working with children and teens. Her earlier book “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” also is in the middle school library; it was adapted into the 2018 film “Love, Simon.”
“The rationale for this recommendation is that the library system that’s been in place for a long time has worked as intended to ensure that only eighth-grade students have access to check out more mature content,” Rossi said.
“The book aligns with district policy and provides an opportunity to learn important lessons through the lens of the main character who doesn’t compromise who she is even in response to the pressure she feels from her peers.”
“The Upside of Unrequited” was restricted to eighth-graders because it is classified as Young Adult, for ages 13-18, and has more mature language and themes, Rossi said.
Board vice president Leigh McMichael said she voted to move the book because the author recommends it for ages 14-18, not because of its content.
Board member LeeAnne Pitzer agreed. She asked Selander what is the educational benefit of the book.
She replied that the main character of a young girl starts out self-conscious and worried about what people think of her, then progresses and comes out feeling confident and proud of herself. “I think that gets lost when we’re just throwing around words like orgy, sex and whatever else. There’s so much more to the book than just these little phrases that are thrown out without context.”
Pitzer said, “There is no reason for it to contain the language, the sexual innuendos, whoever, whatever. I don’t understand how a book like this can benefit our student body when it’s clearly almost approving everything that they’re doing in that book. That’s the message that I get from that.”
After the votes, several parents criticized the board for failing to respect the professionals hired to run the school libraries.
Angie Hawthorne said she was disappointed and frustrated by the vote. “To have people who are not experts in any way overrule what they (media specialists) do every day is disgusting and absurd to say the least.”
Frieda Lewis said she fears that the board’s vote is a template for dealing with other books.
Christina Korines, who made the complaint about “The Upside of Unrequited,” said it was not prompted by the gay characters.
“The book in question uses the F-word 61 times, it says shit 59 times, it says orgy five times, orgasm seven times, underage drinking 20 times. It mentions the use of pills three times. ... It discusses the importance of shaved genitalia. ...
”How is this appropriate for children?”
Chad Wood, the student representative to school board, said eighth-graders are watching television shows, such as “Euphoria,” which “makes doing drugs look really cool.”
The book by a renowned author would be a much better platform for students to learn about drugs and orgasms than TV shows or the internet, he said.
Wood was not permitted to speak during the board’s discussion on the motion to remove the book because he is not a voting member, the board’s attorney said.
Student Sasha Nelson said sixth-graders learn about drugs in health class and “in seventh grade, we were given the sex talk.”