An Alaska school board voted in favor of an amendment to remove five books off elective English course curriculums.
CNN  — 

Ever since an Alaska school board voted to remove five books from elective high school classes, the titles of the works have come alive throughout the community.

One city council member reads excerpts from her favorite book on Facebook every night. An attorney began a movement to reward students who read them. Hundreds have joined a Facebook group to voice their opposition to the removal. And a local bookstore owner says donations have been pouring in since the vote from community members who want her shop to give teenagers those books for free.

“There’s been a huge response from the community,” says Mary Ann Cockle, owner of Fireside Books in Palmer. “The outpouring of support and concern about banning and censorship has been quite a surprise – but in a good way.”

The books are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby”; Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”; Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”; Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”; and Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” These titles are often considered staples for junior and senior English classes across the country.

Members of the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Borough School Board met last week to approve the district’s High School English Elective Curriculum and reading list but after lengthy discussions, an amendment was introduced during the meeting to scratch the five books off the curriculum. Five members voted in favor of the removal, two voted against. The vote has no impact on the books’ placement in school libraries.

In the same vote, the board also removed “The Learning Network,” a resource for educators from The New York Times Company as a mentor text for district teachers.

The district is based in Palmer, about 40 miles from Anchorage in the southern part of the state. It serves 46 schools and more than 19,000 students.

Why they were deemed controversial

Board members were provided with a one-page flier from the district’s Office of Instruction of why the five books were deemed controversial. Concerns about the pieces of literature, according to the flier, included sexual references, rape, racial slurs, scenes of violence and profanity.

Angelou’s book, the flier says, includes “sexually explicit material such as the sexual abuse the author suffered as a child” as well as “‘anti-white’ messaging.”

Angelou’s book is a heart-wrenching autobiography centering around the author’s early experiences in the Jim Crow South.

In the meeting, which was livestreamed, board vice president Jim Hart said that after reading a summary of Angelou’s book, he found the “graphic terms” and descriptions of molestation disturbing. Hart said he had read only one book listed but read summaries of what the books were about.

“When you have books that you could not read publicly without going to EO” – Hart referenced being dragged to the Equal Opportunity Office earlier if he were to read out loud from Angelou’s book at work – “that’s probably a pretty good litmus test,” he said.

CNN has reached out to Hart for comment.

For residents in the community, the move felt like censorship.

“To say that those are too harsh or too scary of topics that shouldn’t be in schools is absurd, because then you end up with kids that graduate and have no idea what any experience outside of their own could possibly be,” says Palmer City Council Member Sabrena Combs.

Voicing her own opposition to the vote, Combs has read an excerpt from O’Brien’s novel – which she says is one of her favorite books – every day since last week.

‘Behind closed doors’ feel

But as “livid” as Combs says she is about the decision, she says she’s angered by the vote’s timing as well. Such an impactful decision, Combs told CNN, could have waited until after the pandemic – when more parents and community members would be paying attention.

“To me, it seems very strategic in when they chose to do this,” she said. “They kind of tried to fly it under the radar.”

No community members had signed up to comment prior to the meeting. And Combs says, since the decision was made as an amendment, community members didn’t have a chance to give their input.

Rachel Gernat, parent of two high school students, says she found out about the meeting the next morning from the local newspaper.

Gernat says the meeting coincided with other updates residents were tuned in to, including from the governor and health officials. With the school year not yet over and schools still in distance-learning mode, she says she struggled to understand why this decision was taken last week.

“They could have waited for the vote,” she says. “It has a very ‘behind closed doors’ feel because people do attend school board meetings when there’s going to be topics such as this discussed. There was no rush.”

The board requested a review of the materials last year, the Mat-Su school district said in a statement to CNN.

The material for the English elective class were reviewed through a stakeholder survey, a community survey and a council of educators – including teachers, librarians and administrators – among other reviewers in the 2019-2020 year, the school district said. When those surveys were complete, the recommendations were brought forward to the school board, according to the statement.

Jeff Taylor, a board member who voted for the amendment, acknowledged in a Friday Facebook post that public interaction “was difficult” because of changed procedures due to coronavirus.

“While the public, who were watching via live stream, could have called in, the difficulty and lack of public interest in the board meeting did not facilitate a quick public response. This may need to be revisited,” he said in his post.

CNN reached out to Taylor twice but did not receive a response.

‘Books are not banned’

Perhaps one of the strongest reactions to the vote is DanaLyn Dalrymple’s movement: a Facebook page created by her law firm that gives students who read the five books an extra incentive.

“The Mat-Su Valley Banned Book Challenge” says that any student who reads all of the works can enter for a chance to win $100. But Dalrymple says with the overwhelming support her page has received, they may up their monetary prize.

“Almost everyone has read at least one of these books,” she said. “That’s why it struck an almost immediate chord. These books are fundamental for reading.”

Taylor said during Wednesday night’s meeting that while he didn’t “want the books to disappear,” he didn’t agree with keeping anything that was deemed controversial on school reading lists.

“I think people should have the right to go read these books. But for us to put them in front of teenagers as part of our curriculum, it’s just something I don’t understand,” he said.

But choosing to leave out specific subjects outside classrooms may further stigmatize the experiences some students have gone through, said Gernat, who is also a former sex crimes prosecutor.

“Every class will have … at least a student who has been the victim or a family member has been the victim or has been discriminated against or has experienced violence in their life,” Gernat said. “To think that by not reading ‘Why the Caged Bird Sings’ means therefore children will not be exposed to sexual abuse is … closed-minded and ignorant,” she says.

Opening doors to conversation about such subjects in the classroom, Gernat said, creates an environment where children feel safer and more comfortable – comfortable enough to share something they may have witnessed or experienced.

“If we’re ever going to move forward as a society to address large social issues, youth need to learn how to discuss those issues,” she said.

But students can still read the books, Taylor reiterated in his Facebook post.

“THESE BOOKS ARE NOT BANNED! They are on bookshelves, they are in teachers’ libraries, they are available and could be recognized and recommended as great literary works,” he posted.

He said he voted for the amendment “to give parents more freedom, control and involvement” over what their child reads and “give parents responsibility in the formation of their students’ thoughts and knowledge.”

Leave it to the teachers

Denile Ault, who lives in the neighboring town of Wasilla, says the board’s decision doesn’t reflect its community’s wants.

She said she created the “Banned in the Borough Book Club” Facebook group on Saturday – and in less than 48 hours, it grew to more than 200 followers.

“I’ve lived here now for just under two years, and from what I can tell, this is the most active that I’ve seen the community involved with an issue,” she said. “Folks are really coming on board because it’s such a basic thing. None of us expected that in 2020 we should have to defend a teachers’ right to choose what they teach to their students.”

“Leave that to the hands of the educators,” she said.

Sarah Welton, one of the two members who voted against the removal of the books from the curriculum, said in the meeting she felt excluding the books was a “disservice” to students.

“I can tell you that there are people that just take things at face value or what their families have told them for a very long time and they don’t think about possible alternatives,” Welton said in the meeting. “There needs to be some opening of the mind to understand that not everybody thinks the same way.”

Kelsey Trimmer, the second dissenting vote, did not want to comment when reached by phone. In an email to CNN, Welton said she has requested the board rescind its decision.

“There are many, many students in our district who don’t know that the trauma maybe they’ve experienced is trauma that somebody else has written about and yes, they can go and talk to somebody then,” Welton said in the meeting.

“I think you’re putting your head in the sand,” she said. “If you really, truly believe that you are protecting your children, you can protect them by just saying, ‘Don’t take that class.’”