‘Gender Queer’: A Librarian’s Perspective


Nina Ludwig, Journalist

The graphic novel, Gender Queer: A Memoir by Maia Kobabe, has some parents of Essex High School students up in arms. They claim the book is inappropriate and presents pornographic material that a high school student should not have access to in public school. Schools across the country have already banned this novel, but should it really be banned? This graphic novel walks readers through Kobabe’s path of discovering eir gender identity and sexuality. The book contains mentions of oral sex, gay fanfiction, and gynecological exams. These are all topics that most high school students have heard about. With the attention now cast upon this book, The Hive decided to interview Mrs. Von Nagy, the head librarian at Essex High School, to get her take on the situation. 

What is the process for choosing books for the library? 

The process for choosing a book to be in the library is a multistep process. We do have a media selection procedure in this district; as librarians, we look at a variety of outlets for what’s new, what we need for curriculum, and what students need. Then once we find the books, we’ll read the reviews on the books, because we can’t read the books before we buy them. For me personally, I generally look for at least two positive reviews from well-known reviewers. What I mean by that is I make sure it’s not just Joe Schmo online. I make sure it’s a school library journal or the American Library Association. I then need to make sure that those books check off certain boxes on our media selection procedure before I purchase them. This is to make sure that they are of high enough quality to be in our library. For example, it could be that the book is a sequel to something, it could be that there’s a curricular need, or It could be that it presents a diverse perspective that’s not currently represented in our collection. So as long as each book meets a few of those selection criteria, then it’s okay for a certified librarian to purchase.

Have any books been banned from the school in the past?- If so, what books? Why?

There has never been a formal challenge processed. What is happening right now is a potential challenge. 

What is your definition of an “inappropriate book” for high school students?

There is no one definition. What is inappropriate is subjective. 

Do you feel the book Gender Queer: A Memoir has an appropriate place on the shelves of Essex High school’s library? 

Yes, I do. I absolutely do. Gender Queer is an award winning book, and it’s received a multitude of positive reviews. In addition to that, it won the Alex Award, which is an award given to books that have a special appeal to young adult readers. I think that it represents a chunk of our community who has been historically misrepresented, and it’s my job as a librarian to make sure that our collection is well rounded, balanced, and includes diverse perspectives.

Do you think the book would get the same amount of hate if it were between a cis man and a cis woman?- If so, what is your thought process behind that?

No, we have a multitude of books in our library and many of those books represent cisgender heterosexual relationships, I’ve spent almost 10 years working in libraries and in my experience, there has never once been a situation where those sorts of books have been objected to because of the sexual content. You know, there are certain books that make the list of top 10 banned books every single year. For example, Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True and Diary of a Part Time Indian, which makes the list for a scene on masturbation. In my personal experience in the 10 years that I’ve worked in this profession cisgender heterosexual books with similar storylines to Gender Queer have never gotten the same amount of negative attention.

What is the process for deciding if a book should be taken off the shelf?

So what we’re looking at right now is some folks that have built a belief that the book isn’t appropriate. The next step would be for them to fill out a request for a reconsideration form, and that’s what starts the formal challenge process. So right now we’re looking at a potential challenge. If we get the request for reconsideration, we would form a panel of trained professionals and community members, and the panel would read the book and then discuss and make a decision on the book. Only if the panel decides that the book does not deserve to be on their shelves would I have the right to remove the book. The book will stay in circulation until the process is seen through to the end.

Do you feel it’s okay to limit a students’ access to a book?

Absolutely not. In fact, that’s another tenet of school librarianship. School libraries are heavily focused on equity and providing equitable and open access to materials, so I don’t believe it’s okay to limit a student’s access to materials because they have the right to that information and that intellectual freedom. It’s my job as a school librarian to strongly advocate for our students and against censorship.

How do you think the LGBTQ+ community would react to it being banned?

I think it would cause harm to our community. I don’t want to speak for our students.  As a school librarian, what I can tell you is that censorship in all of its forms is something that school librarians work actively against. Everyone has the right to this information. My position and focus is making sure that students, especially students in the LGBTQ+ community, have their voices represented in our collection. So at the end of the day, I think it’s obviously going to harm them to remove the book. This is because from a professional school librarian perspective, saying this sort of content is inappropriate or obscene, can give off the message to the reader, the person that relates to that book, the person that sees themselves in that book, that that person is also inappropriate and unworthy; That is the exact opposite message we want to send.

What do you want to say to students who may feel conflicted or upset about this book being taken off the shelf? 

Don’t let this one action silence who you are, quiet your interests, or dampen the light that you bring to this world.