An Athens school is being criticized by some after pulling a gay-themed book from a book fair.
Avid Bookshop was hosting a book fair at Athens Academy when at least one parent complained about a book they called "inappropriate."
The book at the center of the controversy is Richard Peck's The Best Man. The book depicts a middle school student whose uncle and teacher -- two of his role models, both men -- get engaged to be married to each other.
After some parents complained, according to the school, school administrators ordered the book removed from the book fair.
"One of the parents came and spoke with one of our employees directly," the book store's manager, Caleb Huett said. "But following that exchange, apparently they went to the administration and they came to speak with us and asked us to take the book off the floor. At first they asked us to take the book off the floor so it was no longer being sold at the table. A little while later, the librarian came back in and asked us to take it and make sure it was all the way hidden in a box, so it couldn't even accidentally be seen by children."
The move was disturbing to Huett, who himself is also a published author. Huett said no one at the school ever explained to him why a book that was already in the school's library could not be sold at the book fair.
Huett said at least one staff member was present at all times to sell books to kids and their parents, and to answer any questions that the children or parents had.
"I can't speak for anybody else that was there, but for me specifically as a bookseller at Avid -- a place that has always tried to promote inclusivity -- and also as a gay author who was also featured at that book fair, it was a very, very interesting and complicated series of feelings," he said. "But, I guess first, and foremost, as a kid who [grew up] gay and grew up in school systems like this and grew up in the South in Georgia, in an area where often you feel like the adults in your life would be most comfortable if that part of you wasn't even there, or didn't exist, it struck me as uncomfortable, and -- it made me nervous. It made me nervous for those kids."
The word censorship is a strong word, but the question does emerge. Does it apply? Is that what was happening?
"The word 'censorship' was going through my head," Huett said. "But in a sense, I was thinking of it less in legal terms and more as like a sort of casual kind of censorship that comes from trying to hide things from children because you're scared of it, rather than because it would actually hurt the kids themselves."
The book had been named a Georgia Children's Book Award nominee, but administrators still felt it necessary to remove it.
"It was a Georgia book that is a Georgia Children's Book Award nominee, and we've worked with them [the school] for three years," Huett said. "In all three of those years, we've brought every Georgia Children's Book Award nominee's book. In this case, if we're talking about the age appropriate level of a book like this, the only thing that they could have considered inappropriate, compared to the other books here, is the fact that it featured a gay relationship -- which, in my opinion, and in general, if your kid is old enough to understand marriage, if your kid is old enough to understand love at all, they're old enough to understand gay love, or queer love, because it is not; it is not inherently any more inappropriate."
And as for the reason for administrators removing the book?
"What I remember the administrators saying was not anything specific about the queer characters, but they told us, 'we received the complaint about this book, and we would like to take the path of least resistance and move it off the floor,'" Huett said. "I think they avoided telling us specifically what the complaint was at the time."
The head of Athens Academy, John Thorsen, posted a public apology on the school's website, stating, "At this time, I wish to express how sorry I am that the events of the past two days have led to such a difficult situation for our community. It is a deeply regrettable set of circumstances that is not consistent with our welcoming, safe, and inclusive environment."
It goes on say, "I want you to understand that Athens Academy does not support censorship or discrimination in any form, and we regret any misinterpretation of these circumstances and our commitment to respecting the varying viewpoints of our community. At the heart of this issue is Athens Academy’s support for our parents’ right to engage in conversations with their children in the manner and time they deem most appropriate."
(Click here for the rest of his statement)
The school says administrators plan a meeting with parents, faculty and alumni on the topic after Spring Break.
"I'm really excited to hear that they're planning on having a meeting," Huett said. "The most important thing that needs to come from this, not just for this school but for any school that hears about this, or any organization or family or anybody, is that you need to have a clear policy, a clear idea or understanding of how you are going to protect the queer kids in your school and how you are going to protect the gay and LGBTQ people that you know. And I think it's important that the families at the school and the teachers at the school knew what decision the administrators would make -- and I hope that next time they make a different one."