The Jackson-Madison County Library Board Chairman says this spring, the library was asked to remove or move dozens of books, due to controversial content. So far only seven of the books have been officially challenged, with one of them being moved from the children’s section to the adult section.
In an interview, Chairman Philip Mullins says this is the first time in recent memory any book in the public library has been challenged.
The Jackson Post has obtained that list of books, along with their official complaints.
The original submitted book list
Mullins says in spring of this year, he was asked to meet with Dinah Harris and two members of We the People of West Tennessee, a local conservative organization. During that meeting, he was given a spreadsheet listing hundreds of books this organization found objectionable, and marked specific books in the Jackson-Madison County Library they wanted either moved or removed.
The Post obtained a copy of that spreadsheet. It lists 243 books by author, title, reader age, and type. It also has a section for notes. Out of the entire list, 72 of the books are labeled as being in the library, and 45 books are labeled “JMCL Bro.”
“The gist of it was that the books violated state obscenity laws,” Mullins said during an interview with The Post. “I said, ‘First of all, I don’t think that’s true,’ but on the other hand it’s talking about violation of law, specific sections of Tennessee Code Annotated.”
Not being a lawyer, Mullins says he contacted both Madison County Attorney Jay Bush and City of Jackson Attorney Lewis Cobb. The library has joint funding from the county and city, so he felt like both parties should be made aware. Bush then directed Mullins to have the complaints be officially presented one-by-one through the official challenge form.
The seven official challenges
To date, seven books have officially been challenged through the library’s official form. Five of those books are It’s Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. So far, the board voted to keep all five of the books, and move It’s Perfectly Normal to an adult section.
“If you come in as a parent or guardian, and you say ‘I’m looking for a book about the subject,’ it will still pop up on your list. And you can check it out if you want to. It’s just housed in a different section,” Mullins said about It’s Perfectly Normal, a sex-education book for children.
Being You, by Megan Madison, and Looking for Alaska, by John Green, have been challenged, but not voted on yet.
When an official challenge form is sent in, it asks the complainant to identify themselves, the book name and author, and why they are complaining with a series of questions:
1. “To what in the book do you object? (please be specific, cite pages)”
2. “What do you think might be the result of reading this book?”
3. “For what age group would you recommend this book?”
4. “Is there anything good about this book?”
5. “Did you read the entire book? What part(s)?”
6. “Are you aware of the judgment of this book by literary critics?”
7. “What do you think is the theme of this book?”
8. “What would you want the public library to do with this book? (Withdraw it or reevaluate it for inclusion the library collection)”
9. “In its place, what book of literary quality would you recommend that would convey as valuable a picture and perspective of our civilization?”
When asked about It’s Perfectly Normal, the complainant objected to “the whole content” and wrote, “I skimmed parts of the book and it made me appalled (and weep for my grands) – the illustrations were too graphic especially for children.” Most of the other notes were unintelligible.
The Bluest Eye was challenged by someone representing We the People of West Tennessee. The complaint referenced five different objectionable sections, saying, “The incestious account alone destroys the gift of sex as God intended. Even incest is against our laws.”
When asked if the person read the entire book, they said no, only the previously objected portions. The person also said, “There are many!” when asked what the book should be replaced with.
The person who complained about The Perks of Being a Wallflower said the book was too sexually explicit, and glorified alcohol, drugs and sexuality. They also said the theme of the book was “the sad life of a disturbed boy,” and suggested it be replaced with An Invisible Thread or This Will Be Funny Someday.
The person who objected to The Poet X cited 20 different sections, including those with profanity, sexual content, and teenage rebellion. They said the book might cause “explicit underage sexual awakening, confusion about love, approving sneaky behavior, and the use of inappropriate language words/ expressions.” The person also said they did not read the entire book, only skimmed many of the poems. The person asked the book be replaced with “any book by Shannon Bream.”
The person who objected to Thirteen Reasons Why referred to underage drinking and sexual content, saying “young adults might think sex (randomly) is OK, as well as drinking.” The person wanted the book replaced with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or To Kill a Mockingbird.
The person who complained about Being You wanted the book withdrawn from the library’s collection entirely. They cited “content” when asked what they object to in the book. The person also said the book’s result would be “the cause of more confusion of our children.”
At the end of the form, the person wrote a note, saying, “There are only two genders. Chromosomes tell the story. Doctors do not determine the sex alone!”
In an email from Harris to the Board of Directors, she says there are three copies of the book in the JMCL, and the first copy was secured in 2021. In total, it has been checked out eight times. Harris also said the person making the complaint did not check out the book or even have a library card at JMCL.
The person who officially complained about Looking for Alaska objected specifically to pages 126-127 and 131. They said the writing was good, but “there was too much graphic sex” and requested the book not be available to those under 18. They suggested the book be replaced with William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
An email from Dinah Harris to the Board of Directors says there is one copy of this book in the library, and it has been there since 2008. It has been checked out 25 times. The initials “LR” were marked near several books on the original list, notating that person had read the book or checked it out. The Post was suggested to interview Londa Rohfling, a member of We the People of West Tennessee.
The Post reached out to Rohfling for an interview, but she declined.
The JMCL Board’s Official Stance
Philip Mullins says the Board of Directors voted unanimously to keep all five of the books that have already been voted on, while two members were absent from that particular meeting.
He specifically pointed to the “Library Bill of Rights” from the American Library Association. He says when appointed, each board member agrees to several statements:
“I. Books and other library resources should be provided for the interest, information, and enlightenment of all people of the community the library serves. Materials should not be excluded because of the origin, background, or views of those contributing to their creation.
“II. Libraries should provide materials and information presenting all points of view on current and historical issues. Materials should not be proscribed or removed because of partisan or doctrinal disapproval.
“III. Libraries should challenge censorship in the fulfillment of their responsibility to provide information and enlightenment.”
“And we think that’s what we’re supposed to do,” Mullins said, “Like I say, that one a little board book, Being You. I look at that book, and I say, ‘I really don’t like that book a lot.’ But on the other hand, if you wanted to use the book, that’s your prerogative.” Mullins said.
Mullins says the Jackson-Madison County Library also has a systematic way to pick out books, as dictated by their policy. That selection process looks at local interest, currency of information, quality, availability of opposing viewpoints, critical reviews by professional library literature, price, limitations to housing it, and the need for duplicates.
The library policy also says parents are responsible for helping choose library books for their children, not librarians.
“The responsibility for the selection of materials for use by children patrons rests with their parents. Library staff will aid in the location and subject selections of materials but will not limit materials to patrons based on their ages. Therefore, younger patrons may check out adult books and other materials to meet their needs,” the policy says.
Mullins says the Jackson-Madison County Library Board will meet at the end of May to discuss the two remaining books being challenged.
Julia Ewoldt, firstname.lastname@example.org