Idaho lawmakers’ ‘secret folder’ in harmful books debate

A librarian returns books to the shelves at the Boise Public Library on Tuesday.

A librarian returns books to the shelves at the Boise Public Library on Tuesday.

Idaho House members on Monday passed a bill that would hold schools, colleges, universities and libraries liable for disseminating “harmful” materials to minors. Before approving the bill, lawmakers distributed a “super secret folder,” which contained passages and images in books they believed were inappropriate for children.

Lawmakers called it obscene and disgusting, and referred to the folder multiple times during debate as a demonstration of why they needed to take action to stop children from getting access to materials like the ones included.

“It was so obscene I can’t un-see that,” Rep. Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, said during debate on the House floor. “I would rather my 6-year-old grandson start smoking cigarettes tomorrow than get a view of this stuff one time at the public library or anywhere else.”

The folder, obtained by the Idaho Statesman, showed segments from seven books that discussed gender identity, sexual orientation and sexual abuse, along with a children’s book on sexual health.

“Sex…sue is it?” Is the Spanish version of the book “It’s Perfectly Normal” that has been criticized for its drawings of changes of male and female bodies during puberty being too graphic for children. Sarah A Miller

Several of the books discussed the experiences of people who identified as LGBTQ. Others, including graphic novels, showed illustrations depicting sex. One of the books was the popular young adult novel, “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.”

The first book in the file was a graphic novel called “Gender Queer,” a memoir by Maia Kobabe that has become controversial in other states for what people say are inappropriate and graphic images. The file given to lawmakers included only a few pages from the book, which showed illustrations of LGBTQ sexual experiences.

Supporters of the bill said it was important to keep inappropriate and pornographic materials out of the hands of children. They emphasized the importance of protecting children in the community.

“I think that we are simply asking that … the materials in our libraries, or in museums, or in the other places that are listed in this code are handled sensitively and responsibly. There needs to be more vigilance,” said Rep. Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, who sponsored the legislation.

DeMordaunt did not immediately respond to request for comment.

Librarians could face jail or $1,000 fine

Librarians told lawmakers last week that taken out of context, many books could appear harmful to children.

Lawmakers said there were other ways they could ensure that appropriate materials were in libraries that didn’t result in jail time for librarians.

“People have said this is not about throwing librarians in jail. That’s actually exactly what it is about,” said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise. “It is about opening librarians to being thrown into jail for materials in the library.”

At the beginning of the debate, Rubel made a comment about Judy Blume’s “Forever,” which she said depicts “a teenage boy who has erections and masturbates and wet dreams.” She said it is intended for a younger audience to introduce these concepts and asked whether that would “run afoul” under the bill. Another lawmaker stopped her by asking the speaker to put the House at ease, which paused the debate.

Idaho law essentially doesn’t define harmful materials. Idaho code says that someone is guilty of disseminating such materials that include “nudity, sexual conduct or sado-masochistic abuse” or “any other material harmful to minors.”

The penalties for disseminating harmful materials include up to one year in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.

Here’s what the ‘secret folder’ included

Kobabe, who uses “e” and “em” pronouns, said in an interview with Northern Virginia Magazine and was inspired to create the novel after having “frustrating” conversations with people when he first came out as nonbinary and was trying to express what gender meant to em.

In the interview, Kobabe described the book as a “long letter to my parents and extended family” in an effort to help them understand.

Another book in the legislators’ file was titled “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie H. Harris, a book for children on sexual health. The book was first published in 1994, but has had several anniversary editions released since. It has appeared on the American Library Association’s Most Challenged Books list several times because of claims it shows sexually explicit images.

The pages included in the file showed illustrations of different body shapes, along with illustrations of sex between same-sex couples.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky, which has also been found on the list of Most Challenged Books, was also in the file. The file included a few pages from the coming-of-age book that included sexual content.

A few images from “Fun Home” by Alison Bechdel, a 2006 graphic memoir about Bechdel’s childhood, were included. The book details Ella’s relationship with her father and touches on issues including suicide and abuse.

The other books in the folder were “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a “memoir-manifesto” by George M. Johnson with essays about Johnson’s childhood and growing up as a queer Black man; “Dreaming in Cuban,” by Cristina García, a story of three family generations that begins in Cuba in the early 1930s; and “Identical” by Ellen Hopkins, a story about twins that touches on issues of sexual abuse, cutting, drugs and alcohol.

Boise librarian says books must be well-rounded

Out of the titles included in the file, three are located in the adult section at the Boise Public Library, including “Gender Queer,” “Fun Home,” and “Dreaming in Cuban,” said Kathy Stalder, acquisitions and technical services senior manager . The only copy of “Dreaming in Cuban” the library has is in the Spanish language collection.

Stalder said the library has all of the titles in at least one format, including e-books and audio books. But the books in the lawmakers’ file span a wide range of collections, and many of them had been published several years ago.

“I think that the part that is a little bit dismaying to me is that these are such a wide range of titles,” she told the Statesman. “And if these are the titles that are causing the most concern, it’s hard to know then, what would be OK in a collection?”

When libraries choose books for their collections, they go through resources that review materials, such as a variety of professional journals, and try to figure out which collection the materials would best fit. They want a well-rounded collection that is relevant to the community, Stalder said.

That means libraries will have materials that talk about experiences that may be unfamiliar to some, she said, which can include books on the experiences of LGBTQ people.

“We want it to be a mirror for peoples’ lives so that they can read a book and realize, ‘Oh, this is really similar to my life,’ ” Stalder said. “We also want it to be a window so that people can get a glimpse into something that maybe they haven’t experienced before. There should be a really wide breadth in our collection.”

Books on topics such as sexual identity are common in libraries and bookstores, but some people object to minors having access to them. Sarah A Miller

It also includes books on sexual health. Stalder said not every kid is comfortable talking to their parents about the topic, and not every parent is comfortable talking to their child about sexual health. Parents are often the ones driving the requests for books on sexual health, such as “It’s Perfectly Normal,” she said, adding that it is up to a parent if they want their kid to be accessing those titles.

If people have an issue with a book in the library, they can submit a request for reconsideration. That sets off a process, and the library then sends a formal response.

She noted that taken out of context, a lot of books can be seen as “obscene or disgusting.”

“There’s always going to be push and pull, and that’s where it gets really subjective and hard for librarians to try to be able to provide the best service possible to their full community with protections being taken away,” she said. “It’s hard to know what we could potentially be in trouble for. … It is hard to know for sure what it is that the lawmakers are hoping to achieve with this bill.”

Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman in partnership with Report for America. The position is partially funded through community support. Click here to donate.

This story was originally published March 8, 2022 12:50 PM.

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Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman. She is a Report for America corps member whose position is partially funded by community donations. Click here to donate to help fund her position. Becca graduated from Northwestern University and previously worked at the and The Hill.
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