OK'd in Bow High, memoir with explicit images up next month for debate in Souhegan

Apr. 24—The Souhegan school district's top official said he believes the Amherst high school could block students from checking out controversial library books at parents' request.

Acting Superintendent Steven Chamberlin made the comment as the Souhegan Cooperative School Board prepares to hear a challenge to the graphic novel "Gender Queer, a Memoir."

The memoir of a non-binary, asexual teen contains graphic illustrations of sex acts. It was the most-challenged book in the nation in 2021, according to the American Library Association.

The book has been in the Souhegan High School library since January 2020. It has been checked out 13 times between its purchase and early April of this year.

Chamberlin said he would be open to letting a parent deny permission for their child to check out the book.

"I believe that is something we could do to support our families and our partnership with families," he said. He cautioned that the library could not stop a student from pulling the book off the shelf and reading it in the library during school hours.

On March 20, Amherst resident Frank Beaudoin filed a challenge against "Gender Queer." The official challenge led to the formation of a review committee.

This is the first challenge of a book in Chamberlin's 24 years as a leader in the Souhegan district, he said.

"This isn't an issue of hate or not. It's an issue of following the law," Beaudoin said in an interview. "Whether it's gay or straight pornography, it shouldn't be in the hands of children."

Drawings in the book depict gay sex, oral sex, masturbation, sex toys and sexual fantasies.

On April 6, a seven-member Reconsideration Committee rejected Beaudoin's challenge of the book.

"This book helped provide the true-life, lived experience of a nonbinary, asexual person, addressing the collection gap and the demand for more diverse representation in library collections," the committee wrote.

The committee, whose members Chamberlin did not identify, includes a school administrator, the school librarian, two students, two adult community members and a teacher. Beaudoin's appeal moves the issue to the school board, which is scheduled to take it up May 11.

Earlier challenge failed

Earlier this year, a similar challenge was filed in Bow, and the issue landed before the school board in a hearing that drew about a dozen speakers.

"The pictures in the book are gross. I don't know why we're talking about this," said Bow parent Ryan Johnston. "The innocence kids have, they should be able to hold on to it as long as they can."

But Jo Swenson, who identifies as gender queer, said it wasn't easy attending Bow High. She graduated in 2011.

Nothing in the school library represented her, she said.

"To have seen that would have been invaluable to me," Swenson said. She is now 28 and is close to earning a master's degree in library science.

She said school library users have a right to privacy, and any requirement that their parents approve them checking out the book would violate that right.

The Bow School Board voted to keep the book in the library, but at the request of Chairman Bryce Larrabee said any parent could call the library and restrict the book from being checked out by their child.

Bow resident Christopher Lins, who filed the initial challenge, said he is considering his next option.

Images called pornographic

In his complaint about the book at Souhegan, Beaudoin questions whether "Gender Queer" amounts to pornography. If it does, the school is complicit in the distribution of pornography to children, which is both a federal and state crime, he wrote.

The Souhegan review committee wrote that the images are not pornography because they are not harmful to minors.

According to New Hampshire Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, most states exempt material used for educational, artistic or scientific reasons from pornography laws. Edelblut said he had concerns about the book when he first saw it.

"I questioned its developmental appropriateness for many of our students," he said.

"I want to make sure our children are exposed to only developmentally appropriate materials. It is my hope all our educators are working toward that same goal," he said.