Clay Gleason has been an administrator in SAD 6 for two decades, first at the middle school and then at elementary schools. But it wasn’t until he stepped into the superintendent job this summer that he faced a push to ban books in school libraries.

The district that serves Buxton, Hollis, Limington, Standish and Frye Island has been thrust into a nationwide culture war.

The American Library Association recorded a record number of attempts to censor library, school and university reading material in 2021. School boards and state legislatures across the country are debating which books should be allowed on school shelves and who should get to decide.

In SAD 6, the books in question deal with gender diversity and sexuality, common themes among titles that people seek to ban nationwide.

One is “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, which tops the ALA’s list of books that were challenged last year. The other: “It’s Perfectly Normal: Changing Bodies, Growing Up, Sex, Gender, and Sexual Health” by Robie H. Harris.

Neither is part of any SAD 6 curriculum or assigned to any student in any district class. Both are available to read in Bonny Eagle school libraries, Kobabe’s in the high school and Harris’ in the middle school.


The district convened a curriculum review committee this spring in response to the two challenges, and the members found the books to be appropriate for the ages of students in their respective libraries and recommended they remain on the shelves.

Critics of the books appealed to the school board this summer, pointing to images they labeled as pornographic, as well as candid discussions of topics such as masturbation and birth control. Some of the books’ opponents who spoke at an Aug. 22 meeting expressed support for LGBTQ people, but the written appeals take issue with the depiction of queer relationships in both books. One says, “Where are MSAD 6 children presented with the dangers of LGBTQ+ lifestyles?”

The school board heard testimony on both sides of the appeal on “It’s Perfectly Normal” on Aug. 22, and members said they would read the book and materials related to the challenge before making a decision at their Sept. 6 meeting. The appeal on “Gender Queer” was received more recently, and a hearing has not yet been scheduled.

“The thing I’m advising the board to do is proceed cautiously,” Gleason said. “It’s a big decision, and kids and families are watching.”

“It’s Perfectly Normal,” a book that has either been banned by some school districts in Maine or is being considered for bans. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


“It’s Perfectly Normal” was published in 1994 and has been updated since then, most recently last year. The superintendent said the book has been checked out only a couple times. The cover states it is “for age 10 and up,” and the introduction says it was written to help kids answer their questions about their bodies and sex.


“You may wonder why it’s a good idea to learn some facts about bodies, about growing up, about sex, about sexual health, and also about gender,” Harris writes. “It’s important because these facts can help you stay healthy, take good care of yourself, and make good decisions about yourself as you are growing up and for the rest of your life.”

The book is broken into chapters like “What is Sex?” and “Puberty” and “Families and Babies.” It covers sex and gender, explains how pregnancies occur and includes diagrams of sex organs. It breaks down the meaning of LGBTQ+ and defines terms such as bisexual and transgender.

“If you have more questions or need further information, most always it can be very helpful to talk with someone you know and can trust – a parent, doctor, nurse, teacher, school counselor, therapist, or clergyperson,” the author writes.

Nearly every page of the book is illustrated, and some drawings show cartoonish naked bodies – in a chapter about the changes that occur during puberty, in a two-page spread that shows many kinds of bodies, and on one page that shows couples having sex.

The curriculum review committee found the book “normatively appropriate” and advised against removing it from the library. In its report, the committee said the book uses medical terminology, continually reinforces the idea of speaking with a trusted adult, emphasizes caution in decision making and reinforces the power to say no.

The report notes that the book received a number of honors and awards when it was published and has won support from experts, including the American Academy of Pediatrics. It has also been challenged repeatedly across the country.


“The committee acknowledges that all children develop differently and on different timelines, meaning that some individuals may not be developmentally ready for this literature in grades 6-8,” the report says, but then stresses “the title’s ability to give clear factual information to the general population of students at this age. This information provided in comparison to what students may be able to access through technology devices, social media or rumor amongst peers is far more accurate.”

Two dozen people signed the July letter pushing to appeal the committee’s decision. The letter flagged information and illustrations about sexual intercourse, masturbation, birth control and abortion.

“This flies in the face of our community values and its predominantly Judeo/Christian culture,” the letter says. “This book is obscene and clearly not age appropriate for any age below the age of majority.”

Stephen Russell, professor at the University of Texas at Austin, studies adolescent development with an emphasis on LGBTQ health and wellbeing and describes “It’s Perfectly Normal” as “a classic.” Its author, he said, is respected in the field of sex education.

“Her books, they are like the Good Housekeeping books for families for how to introduce issues of sex and sexuality to children in a way that is understandable, approachable and developmentally appropriate,” Russell said.

Lynette Johnson, director of prevention programs at Maine Family Planning, which helps schools and community organizations develop sex education curriculum, calls the book a good resource for answering middle schoolers’ questions with accurate information.


“There’s definitely families that really try to limit the access that their children have to the media, but if you’re 12 or 13 years old, you already have all kinds of ideas about what sex is,” Johnson said. “A lot of it might be what you see in the media, and a lot of it might be incorrect information.”

Johnson said it is also better to talk to kids about puberty and sex before they experience them. According to the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, about 1,700 middle schoolers (6.7 percent) and 19,000 high schoolers (38.4 percent) said they had had sexual intercourse.

“We always want to give our kids tools to be prepared to be successful in life and to achieve what’s best for them, and this is another way of doing that,” Johnson said.

“Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe, about the author’s exploration of gender identity and sexuality from adolescence through adulthood.


“Gender Queer: A Memoir,” a graphic novel published in 2019, tells of the author’s personal journey from childhood to adulthood, through gender dysphoria and adolescent crushes and personal discovery. Kobabe eventually comes out as nonbinary and asexual, and adopts the gender-neutral pronouns e, em and eir.

“As I pondered a pronoun change, I began to think of gender less as a scale and more as a landscape,” Kobabe writes. “Some people are born in the mountains, while others are born by the sea. Some people are happy in the place they were born, while others must make a journey to reach the climate in which they can flourish and grow. Between the ocean and the mountains is a wild forest. That is where I want to make my home.”


The curriculum review committee decided that “Gender Queer” should stay on the high school library shelf. The report notes that the author recommends the book for high school students or older, and some reviews suggest that readers be at least 15 or 16 years old. The committee modeled its own rating on TV shows or video games: TV-14, or not appropriate for students under the age of 14.

“The idea of questioning gender is hotly debated at this time in society,” the committee wrote. “Parents often express concern that this is a conversation private for families, however not all students have such an experience that this is always a safe and understanding conversation or that there is information available to them. Some families provide a safe environment, but do not have the personal experiences to relate to their child’s current experience. There is value in hearing about the thought process from a source that has relevant similar experiences.”

The Young Adult Library Services Association, a division of the American Library Association, gave “Gender Queer” a 2020 Alex Award for Teen Readers as a book of special appeal to readers 12 to 18. “Kobabe’s path to understanding eir gender and sexuality comes into beautiful focus in this graphic memoir, expressively illustrated with retro colors and simple lines,” said the award description. “Readers will recognize a kindred spirit in Kobabe and/or gain insight into what it’s like to identify outside of the cisgender/heterosexual ‘norm.’ ”

In SAD 6, 30 people signed the letter appealing the committee’s decision on “Gender Queer,” citing discussion of masturbation and sexual fantasies, the author’s gender dysphoria, gender neutral pronouns and the depiction of a person who was taking testosterone. The letter does not use Kobabe’s pronouns and calls the memoir “a tragic story.”

“Are there children in the MSAD6 District who struggle with (gender dysphoria)? Probably, but probably not very many,” the letter says. “This is an issue to be dealt with in the home with parental involvement.”

Robert Marx, a former high school English teacher and now an assistant professor of child and adolescent development at San José State University, researches support systems for queer and transgender adolescents.


Marx, who uses both they/them and he/him pronouns, grew up in Virginia and remembers sneaking away from their mom in the public library to find books that included gay characters. They said “Gender Queer” has the power to make LGBTQ students feel less isolated and more understood.

In the 2019 Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey, about 7,500 high schoolers (13.6 percent) identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Another 2,500 students (4.4 percent) said they were unsure about their sexual orientation, and about 900 (1.6 percent) said they were not sure if they were transgender. The survey showed LGBT students were less likely to say they had support from their parents and more than twice as likely to feel sad or hopeless.

“Books serve as both mirrors and windows,” Marx said. “This book can be a mirror to me, or to 15-year-old kids figuring out their sexuality and gender identity, so they can see themselves in it. … This book can serve as a window so their cisgender heterosexual classmates can pick up the book and see someone else can be the hero of a story.”

Critics of “Gender Queer” have taken particular issue with a scene that depicts the author as an adult sexually experimenting with a partner. In the moment, Kobabe doesn’t like what is happening. “Let’s try something else,” the author says. “Of course,” the partner responds.

Marx said that scene might be challenging for some young people and their parents, but it should not be considered pornographic.

“The panels that are more visually sexualized are about the author being uncomfortable in a sexual situation and asking for it to stop,” Marx said. “If that seems like porn to people, that is deeply scary to me.”


Marx said adults should be open to and ready for conversations with young people about gender and sexuality. That might mean reading a book like “Gender Queer” in full and reflecting on their own experiences with gender stereotypes, puberty or sex. Asked what age is the right one to start having those conversations, Marx said the how is more important than the when.

“For me, it’s really how do we educate parents, teachers and adults to be trusted adults,” Marx said. “I’m less concerned about the specific age at which a young person is introduced to concepts of gender and sexuality, even more graphic or explicit concepts of gender and sexuality, and I’m more concerned about the structures and supports that are in place around that young person to make sure they have a full and complete understanding of themselves in the world.”


Experts said banning books about LGBTQ people from school libraries reinforces stigma and contributes to hostile environments in schools.

“Not having access to the diversity of the world that is around us, it creates a lack of awareness and is likely one of the reasons that we continue to see discrimination, bias and harassment based on gender,” said Russell Toomey, a professor of family studies and human development at the University of Arizona.

They also said campaigns to ban books can negatively impact teachers and librarians who have years of experience working with young people, and these challenges should be viewed in context. Students in Alabama and Florida, for example, are starting the school year in classrooms where new laws prevent educators from talking about gender identity or sexuality at certain grade levels.


“These politicized efforts patently ignore the expertise of people in the field of education who have been doing this for a long, long time, and know the needs of, for example, seventh-graders,” said Russell, from the University of Texas.

Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, president of the ALA and a librarian in Southern California, said families can make decisions together about which books young people are going to check out.

“Introducing these concepts is really a family decision,” Pelayo-Lozada said. “We believe at the American Library Association that not every story is for every reader, but students do need appropriate access within their schools and their communities.”

The curriculum review committee in SAD 6 recommended the district make parents more aware of a policy that allows them to flag books that they don’t want their child to check out. Johnson, from Maine Family Planning, said schools can also reaffirm that parents can make decisions at home about how and when to share their values with their children.

“I think we need to just let parents know no one is trying to take away your rights,” Johnson said. “If you don’t want your child to look at a certain book that’s in the library, then talk to them about why that is and how they can learn about these topics in their own family environment if that’s what they prefer.”

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