Northwest students join efforts to keep books and libraries accessible to young people

Northwest student Linn Jaster McCormick holds a book that's meaningful to them: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A close up from above of two hands holding a book against an orange background. The title is in bold, green and white block lettering, set against a starry sky with a small spaceship beaming a light towards a shadowy orange planet in the background.

Northwest student Ash DeBuse holds a book that’s meaningful to them: “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet,” by Becky Chambers.

Courtesy of Ash DeBuse

Youth access to books has become an increasingly heated political issue in the United States. Across the country, there’s been a recent wave of proposed bans or limits on books in schools or local libraries. Often, books being opposed have to do with race, identity or LGBTQ life.

The State Library of Oregon recently reported that libraries across the state saw 54 challenges to materials in 2022, up more than double the year before. Crook County’s library board recently rejected efforts to segregate LGBTQ-friendly children’s books into a separate section. In April, the Medford School District removed a graphic novel version of “The Handmaid’s Tale” from North Medford High School’s shelves following a parent complaint. And the Salem-Keizer School District rejected proposals last year to remove the autobiographical graphic novel “Gender Queer” from district high schools and the book “Stamped (For Kids)” from district elementary schools.

OPB wanted to hear from students in our region about how debates in their communities on what young people should or shouldn’t read are affecting them. Linn Jaster McCormick is a high school junior at the Oregon Charter Academy. Ash DeBuse is a college undergraduate at Washington State University. They spoke about the importance of literary access, and libraries as community spaces for everyone, with OPB’s Jenn Chávez.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Northwest student Linn Jaster McCormick holds a book that's meaningful to them: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. A close up view from above of two hands holding a copy of the book against a black background. The title is in gold lettering and underneath is an illustration of a robot and a green tentacle arm holding, on either side, a teacup with gold lines swirling out of it.

Northwest student Linn Jaster McCormick holds a book that’s meaningful to him: “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” by Douglas Adams.

Courtesy of Linn Jaster McCormick

Jenn Chávez: One reason I wanted to speak to you both is that you both have engaged with library board meetings at your local libraries. Linn, I want to start with you — can you tell me a little bit about what’s been going on [at your local library in Southwest Oregon] this year?

Linn Jaster McCormick: Currently there’s been a bit of debate about different book bans … I believe [people] were getting upset about two books in particular. One [of them] was a graphic novel called “Gender Queer.” A lot of parents started coming to board meetings, talking about how it was inappropriate for children and claiming that the books, [the other] of which I believe was a sex education book, were peddling child pornography. They were demanding that the books be taken off shelves or put in the back. It started to become an incredibly heated argument in the community.

Chávez: Over the summer, you used the opportunity of a public library board meeting to testify about this. What made you decide that was an important thing for you to do and that you were going to do it?

Jaster McCormick: It seemed like people weren’t taking time to analyze the books, what the contents in them are, what the context of them are. It seemed like they took a second to look at the cover of the book, read the title and make judgments about it. It also worried me because of the fact that a lot of the books they kept mentioning were books discussing queer topics. Those books would be important resources for both individuals like me and other people that I know in the community, and it concerned me that there seemed to be this strong barrage against them, for simply being books on shelves with all the other books. Another important factor was that I have a family member who works at the library, and I personally wanted to help advocate for her because it was really taking a toll on her life.

Chávez: What did you say when you addressed the board and the other community members there at that meeting?

Jaster McCormick: One of the things that I mentioned during the meeting was just, asking why it seems like people were scared of individuals like me. It really seems like people were attacking out of nowhere, out of fear.

Chávez: And how did you feel after you spoke at the meeting?

Jaster McCormick: I felt good about the fact that I was able to speak out about something like this, but to be quite honest, it was also kind of terrifying to me. Especially given the fact that I had, during the meeting, outed myself as a transgender individual in the community. I was concerned that would put some sort of target on my back. So while I knew it was important to discuss and mention that I was there in the room listening, it was still scary.

Chávez: After some time has passed, how do you feel about it now, the fact that you spoke up?

Jaster McCormick: I’m still very proud of the fact that I was able to speak up. I know there’s a lot of people in my town that either don’t have the ability to, or would be risking a lot by doing so. So I’m glad, at the very least, that someone could speak up.

Chávez: Ash, you’ve also attended some library board meetings in your community for the Fort Vancouver Regional Library system. As I understand, the opposition that libraries are getting there didn’t start with books, right? What kind of pushback have your local libraries been getting?

Ash DeBuse: That’s correct. First I want to say, Linn: thank you, and you are so incredibly brave. It is difficult to decide to be visible, especially when we and our community members are under attack like this. And Jenn: Fort Vancouver Regional Library has been under attack, at the very least, since 2019. It began with opposition to programming for Drag Queen Story Hour. The backlash from the community was absolutely horrific. At one of the first board meetings that I attended, a lot of what I witnessed was spreading horrible misinformation, transphobic and homophobic rhetoric that we are now seeing not only in the news, but also in legislation throughout the entire United States, false claims about LGBTQ people hurting children, false claims for the reasons for higher rates of mental health issues and suicide within our communities — blaming it on our identities and not the way that we are treated as people because of our identities. It was very difficult to sit there and to listen to those things, especially knowing that these are people in my community that I live around.

Chávez: At a recent board meeting, you took the opportunity to give public comment as well. For you, why is it important for you to continue to have presence at these meetings?

DeBuse: It’s important because I am of the community, because I live in it. I should be represented in it as well. These issues absolutely impact me. While it is not easy to do so, to be visible, I do have some advantages in that I am less likely to be attacked because I am white, versus perhaps a trans woman of color. Because I have some level of protection in that respect, it’s very important to me to be able to use it. So, while it is very scary … that is one way that I can contribute.

Chávez: Can you tell me a little bit more about the message that you gave in your public comment, and what you felt was important to communicate at that time?

DeBuse: It was important to me that I was seen and heard, it was important to me that the board knows that there is support for the positive things that they are doing, that there is gratitude and acknowledgment that what they do is not easy, and has become more difficult since 2019 because of anti-LGBT movements. But it was also really important to be able to emphasize that I come from a small town, from a rural area. I grew up, essentially, in my local library, which is part of the FVRL network, and it was a safe place for me to be. It was a safe place for me to learn, to grow, to explore. We need to keep those libraries open and safe for everyone. Censorship is not the solution to that, book banning is not the solution to that, and making these environments hostile to queer kids is not the solution to that. I was closeted as a child. I am queer and transgender, and I was not in an environment where it was safe to be those things. It’s so important to me that other people know that, that we exist, that we have existed, that we will continue to exist and these spaces are for us too.

Chávez: When I was younger, I loved to read. The library was a sanctuary to me. It was a welcoming place where I could learn new things and go on new adventures. I want to ask you both how you feel about libraries and their role in your lives, and whether that has changed for you at all with these recent events. Linn, you first: what do libraries mean to you, and has that shifted?

Jaster McCormick: Libraries mean a lot to me. It’s not just because they’re a place that holds books; they’re a place that holds community. There are so many different factors to libraries that make them such important public spaces. Not only are they a place where you can share stories, they’re a place where you can learn more and gain more knowledge, more experience. Sometimes that also comes in the form of community opportunities and events. It’s that sense of community that definitely means a lot to me. It’s one that made me feel a bit more welcome in the world when I was still trying to figure things out for myself when I was a kid. I would say that I feel the same way about libraries [now] because they aren’t the problem in this situation. It’s those who don’t seem to understand that community means everyone that make it hard for me to feel safe in those environments. It’s a very unfortunate thing.

Chávez: Ash, what about you? How do you feel about libraries right now, and has that changed for you with what’s been going on at your library?

DeBuse: It has changed for me. As a child, it was a sanctuary. It is less so now, although libraries are incredibly important in our communities. I have been homeless and have been close to homelessness many times, and libraries provide resources that otherwise are not available unless you pay for them. When you’re in those situations, it is very difficult to have stable internet connection, to have warmth, to have someplace to be and to stay for hours at a time that is safe, where you can get connected to resources and get the help that you need to get on your feet. While I’m not in that situation now, thankfully, they don’t feel like safe places to be anymore. I am more visible as being gender nonconforming than I have been in the past, and I am worried. I am worried about confrontation and conflict. I’m worried that I will stop seeing LGBTQ people being represented.

Chávez: You’re in college, you’re a bit further along in your education and in your life than Linn. Do you have any advice for Linn or other younger students like him who care about this issue and want to speak up about it in their communities?

DeBuse: We have more power than we think that we do, and Linn, you and your generation in particular have more than you think that you do. There is so much that is pitted against us. There are so many people who try to belittle us and to make us feel like we cannot make change, or that problems are so large that they cannot be tackled, that there are no solutions, or that we don’t have the solution. That is not true. Diversity of tactics — meaning, however you can come at the problem, in whatever way, and encouraging others to do the same — is really what makes the change at the local level. And those things filter up: if you see change at the local [level], you’re going to see it nationally eventually. And it feels slow, and sometimes it feels hopeless, but it is not. Joining together in the community, and having support from other folks, can help sustain us. And so when we need rest, there’s another person to take our place, and when they need rest, we can step up. That is one of the hardest things to learn, especially when we’re in a culture that emphasizes individuality to a problematic [degree]. We need community.

Chávez: Linn, I have a similar question for you. Do you have any advice for Ash or other college students who might be in the position to advocate for younger students in the region to have access to books at libraries?

Jaster McCormick: Advocacy is incredibly important, especially given the fact that a lot of people around my age or younger are not really being or heard as easily. It’s usually put under the excuse of, we’re just kids, we don’t know what the real world is yet, even if we’ve been thrust into it very, very quickly. So help is vital, especially when it comes to speaking up for us, if we’re not able to for ourselves. And it honestly sounds like, Ash, you’re already doing that quite a bit, and so I must say: thank you.

DeBuse: Absolutely. If you have a specific ask, definitely let us know, let me know. I also want to say, it’s so hurtful when people say that to you, that you’re just a kid, and you don’t know what the real world is yet. Because they’re taking away a power that so many of you don’t even know you have yet. You are already shaping the world. And it doesn’t matter that you’re still in high school, or not 18, or whatever arbitrary age they decide to then acknowledge that you’re an adult. Your humanity and your personhood starts before you hit that arbitrary age, and you are already doing incredible work to help shape our future.

Chávez: I would love it if you could both share a recommendation for a book that you read that empowered you. Linn, do you want to go first?

Jaster McCormick: One book that I’d recommend that I found particularly empowering was a novel called “Hell Followed with Us,” by Andrew Joseph White. It is a horror novel, so I’d recommend looking into content warnings before picking it up, because it does tackle some heavy stuff. But at the time, I found it very important for me to read, mainly because the story tackles the struggle that a lot of young individuals in my generation have: to feel like we need to fight to survive every day, just to exist. I think it was pretty vital to me because I felt very much heard in how the characters were written, especially the main character. Something that I’ve noticed is, there’s a lot of talk about how transphobia can make an individual scared or worried, [but] there’s not as much talk about the anger that can be felt around it, especially when you’re still trying to figure out your identity. And so, reading a book that shows these characters dealing with that anger was very comforting, because it made me feel as though I could feel and express that anger in a safe environment, and learn how to move forward from it after getting it out of my system by reading about the characters surviving in the story. It was, emotionally, an important thing for me to read.

Chávez: Ash, same question for you: what’s a book that you loved that empowered you when you read it?

DeBuse: Tamora Pierce’s writing really shaped me as a kid. I would say that Becky Chambers is a similar author who has helped shape my world as an adult and who I think would have been paired well, if she had been writing and was published when I was a kid. The book I’m thinking about specifically is “The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet.” I like hopeful futures. That’s part of the reason why I read a lot of science fiction. This one in particular was a fantastic novel that brought together different personalities, different lifestyles, different identities from all across this universe that she has crafted. She tackles social issues that we are seeing currently: when we talk about the LGBTQ community, when we talk about differences in culture and ideology, when we talk about disability and accessibility. She has such a great way of writing these characters, they have such unique voices and perspectives, and you fall in step with the crew and feel like you’re a part of it, even as a reader. It’s both a fun book, and a bit emotional at times, and it addresses some really interesting questions.

Chávez: Do either of you have anything else to add?

DeBuse: This massive increase in book banning, not just in libraries but also in public education and in prisons, throughout the entire U.S. is indicative of a larger problem and a precursor to a larger problem. We have seen this in history books. I would just like people to know that it’s important to not ignore this, and to know the history of censorship and how problematic it can be.

Jaster McCormick: The reason why censorship is so dangerous, as they mentioned, is because it hides so much that there is to be learned. It also censors the artists who create their work. While it might not be history, it is still a story and a voice that should be heard. That’s what art is all about. That’s another reason why I think it’s such a large problem. It’s honestly terrifying in this world to be an artist, because no matter how hard you try, sometimes it feels like you can’t be heard. To anyone listening: You can be heard, and it’s rough, but you’ll get there one day.

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