The Kent School District’s board of directors stepped into a book-banning controversy Wednesday night, voting to keep the young adult novel “Jack of Hearts (and Other Parts)” on the shelf in a middle school library.
The vote, which reverses an earlier action by the suburban district south of Seattle, was 2-1. Leslie Hamada and Joe Bento voted to keep the book available, Tim Clark voted to remove it and Awale Farah abstained.
The board’s decision is the latest step in a monthslong debate over “Jack of Hearts,” with many community members raising concerns about a novel with LGBTQ+ characters being targeted and others asking for it to be removed from the library.
Featuring a gay 17-year-old sex columnist and described by Kirkus Reviews as “a sex-positive and thoughtful romp with humor and heart,” the book became the focus of scrutiny earlier this year after the principal of Cedar Heights Middle School in Covington removed it from the school library, based on a student complaint and her own appraisal of the novel. Principal Erika Hanson said the book contained “sex, profanity and obscenity not appropriate” for middle school students.
Speaking before the board’s vote, Bento questioned the process used to challenge “Jack of Hearts” and spoke against the idea of taking books away.
“I’m a big believer that one parent shouldn’t decide what all students get to read,” he said.
Clark said he was deferring to the expertise of the district’s Instructional Materials Committee, which ruled against the book in March. But Hamada, the board president, sided with Bento, despite finding the drug use and some parenting described in the book troubling.
“We need to demonstrate that equity means equity” in every aspect of schooling, she said before voting. “I love kids, not for what I want them to be or what society dictates they be, but simply because they are.”
Board members initially discussed the matter on June 8, after hearing a deluge of comments from members of the public who mostly opposed the book’s removal from Cedar Heights and some who supported its removal. But the vote was postponed until Wednesday night because Farah attended the June 8 meeting remotely and said he hadn’t been able to hear.
At the June 8 meeting, opponents of the removal said taking the book away would reduce reading options, prioritize the opinions of some community members over others and send the wrong message to LGBTQ+ students. Supporters of the removal said they didn’t want children exposed to the book, with one speaker describing it as “drenched in pornography.”
The librarian at Cedar Heights, Gavin Downing, added “Jack of Hearts” to the school’s collection last year. Downing has said he chose the novel, despite thinking it might at some point provoke a complaint, because he wanted to grow the library’s selection of books with LGBTQ+ themes and because “Jack of Hearts” was well reviewed, including medically accurate advice columns that stress the importance of safer sex practices and consent.
In December, Hanson removed “Jack of Hearts” and another book with LGBTQ+ themes from the library. The second book, “If I Was Your Girl,” is a young adult novel about a trans student that Kirkus Reviews describes as “a sweet, believable romance.” Downing objected, accusing Hanson of not following the district’s process for book challenges properly and raising questions about LGBTQ+ books being removed.
“I’m glad that the board made a decision that affirms the diverse identities of the students in our district,” Downing said Wednesday, after the board’s vote. “I’m relieved.”
The debate made waves across the Seattle area and elsewhere amid a major surge in book-banning across the country. Eventually, a challenge of “Jack of Hearts” by a community member was sent to the Instructional Materials Committee, along with a response by Downing. Library books are choice books, not instructional materials assigned to students in classes. But the district didn’t have a separate process ready for library books.
The committee determined the book should be removed, Downing appealed, and the matter ended up at the School Board. The Washington Library Association weighed in, backing Downing. The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington warned the board that removing the book would amount to discrimination and violate First Amendment rights.
The board’s decision is final, as far as the school district is concerned, though the matter could be appealed to King County Superior Court, according to the district. It’s unclear whether that will happen.
One board position was vacant Wednesday night because Michelle Bettinger resigned last week, citing behavior by other members on the “Jack of Hearts” matter and other issues. Bettinger opposed the book’s removal.