By Christina Amano DolanEditor
The Hanover County School Board was recently divided on the appropriateness of a children’s poetry book being contested by concerned parents.
Several citizens rose during the June 14 school board meeting to voice concern over an agenda item to consider an appeal to a challenge of instructional materials.
The board was called to consider the placement of a book titled “A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart” by Zetta Elliott in two elementary school libraries, which has been challenged by residents since the beginning of the year.
The book is an illustrated poem of a young Black boy’s journey through pain, anger, grief and eventual healing after a girl in his community is killed by police. The recommended age displayed on the book is 4 to 8.
Robert French, a resident of the Chickahominy District and parent, was among the group of residents who spoke in favor of the book’s placement in school libraries during the public comment period. French held up his own copy of the book to board members.
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“This is a book that I wish was available to me when I lost somebody very close to me, when I had the emotions that are described in this book and the healing that comes with that after learning how to deal with the loss of a cherished one,” French said.
He implored the board to keep the book in schools and, if the book was banned, pledged to spend $1,000 of his own money purchasing copies to distribute to elementary school students.
The review committee recommended maintaining the book’s placement in their respective school libraries but that it not be used as instructional material in classrooms.
Several school board members voiced concern over younger students accessing the book and suggested the recommended age is premature for its language and messaging.
“I am not for banning books,” said Bob May, South Anna District representative. “I am for… making this available to students that have the ability to further understand what they’re reading and trying to comprehend.”
“I trust our librarians who have master’s degrees and are fully capable of guiding students to age-appropriate material in their libraries as they do today,” said Sterling Daniel, representative of the Mechanicsville District.
John Axselle, Beaverdam District representative, argued the difference between “banning” and “guidance” and said the book contains a harmful portrayal of police officers.
“They were the bad guys. I don’t like that,” he said. “Policemen are the good guys… So I happen to think that those types of messages are the wrong messages to send to our young people.”
I have argued that the book contains political messaging and should therefore be taken off school library shelves.
“It’s a political curriculum that I don’t wish to promote because I don’t think it’s correct,” he added.
Robert Hundley, Chickahominy District representative, disagreed with Axselle’s impression of the book from his own reading.
“I would characterize it as a book about a person who is struggling with all kinds of emotional issues who figures out a way to resolve them peacefully and appropriately over time,” Hundley said.
Daniel further refuted Axselle’s argument to ban a book based on its political messaging by suggesting it would infringe on the country’s valued freedoms.
“I’m a little confused about the line of thought on it being a political message and that’s the reason we would try to ban the book,” he said. “Certainly you can find any number of countries around the world that would be happy to ban political messaging…”
May, Axselle and Steven Ikenberry, Cold Harbor District representative, said they believe the book misrepresents life in Hanover County today with its portrayal of police brutality and raised concern with its potential impact on younger-aged children.
Ikenberry said he believes the book should be placed at the middle and high school levels and incorporated into lesson plans.
“We can go a little bit further with this book and we can make it more of a teachable moment going forward with this,” Ikenberry said. “But I struggle with the ages that the author gave from 4 to 8.”
A common concern was also raised about how school libraries are not currently segregated by grade or age.
Jennifer Grief, assistant superintendent of instructional leadership, said librarians agreed to place the book in the poetry section, which appeals to older readers, and not in the picture book section, which appeals to younger readers.
“So while the library is not done by grade level per say, there are sections that do appeal to different levels of readers,” Grief said.
The board moved to affirm the decision of the review committee with the caveat that the book be placed in the poetry section of the two relevant schools. The book will not be available for instructional lesson plans and remain in the poetry section’s circulation.
The motion passed with a 4-3 vote. Daniel, Hundley, May and Chair Ola Hawkins voted in approval of the motion and Ikenberry, George Sutton and Axselle voted in opposition.