By Brad West
It is important for there to be a process for parents and guardians to be able to question materials in our schools, and Flagler Schools has set up a great process. It is open, transparent, inclusive of the whole community, well organized, and well run.
I volunteered to serve on the school book review committees charged with judging challenges, and was selected for a District Committee for the 2017 novel by Amy Reed, The Nowhere Girls.
Being selected gave me the motivation to pick up a book I probably would not have ever picked up. It’s not always easy to find books that really grab you, enabling you to almost instantly connect with the characters and find yourself right there in the scenes. For me, this was one of those books. It has inspired me in many ways as well.
There were so many things to share about the value of this work for students on a questionnaire we were asked to fill out as part of our responsibility. I looked forward to the meeting and discussion and was especially curious to hear the other perspectives. That is one of the wonderful things about books: hearing the unique perspectives from others reading the same material, but inspired by their unique life experiences and backgrounds.
The meeting was very productive and overwhelmingly positive in regards to the themes, messages, and value of the book for local students. The book addressed the predatory nature of some students, the dangers of letting one’s guard down simply because flattering attention feels good, the continuing injustice females face when speaking up and risk being blamed, or risk public ridicule and shame, while young males’ disrespectful attitudes towards females are cavalierly dismissed.
The Nowhere Girls also explores issues of coming of age, the pressures of conforming to societal norms against one’s character, seeing the world through the eyes of a person on the spectrum and their struggles, finding the courage and inner guidance to recognize and stand up against injustice being done to others. A young girl finds truth in her Christian upbringing, recognizing she is called to stand up against injustice and be “woke” (a term not yet as commonly applied or weaponized when Reed published the book). The book centers on the organizing of these young women who find ways to support each other and stand up against the wrongs inflicted upon them. There’s a lot more to the book than this brief summary.
The Committee voted unanimously–14-0–to retain the book as a self-selection for high school students, meaning that the book would only be available at the school library and checked out voluntarily by students. This was the third committee review in the community that voted to retain the book. Two school-level committees had done so previously, and unanimously.
As you might imagine, it was very disappointing to hear the news that our superintendent dismissed the recommendation of three committees of community members and school staff, including numerous professionals trained in literature, library science and child psychology, and decided to remove the book from our schools.
Not only did the superintendent snub community members and staff who took the time from their busy lives and put in the work. She did so without even providing a detailed explanation to the community. Each of us serving on those committees filled out forms that provided our perspectives and input regarding the book in question. Yet our superintendent could not take the time to do the same?
To me the decision and the manner in which it was vaguely communicated–in a brief email to us on the committee–puts the integrity of the process in question and shows a lack of respect for the community and staff who have worked tirelessly to execute a process that would be critical, fair and rigorous.
Book banning–and that is what this is about–is not new and has always been dangerous. Any time any group seeks to unilaterally control access to books, free speech has been diminished. It is why free speech restrictions define in authoritarian nations.
It is why on their rise to political power the Nazi Party in Germany sought to silence those they found in opposition to their ideas through book burnings and legislation–book burnings that took place at over 34 locations and involving over 25,000 books on a single infamous day, targeting much the same types of themes being targeted here today. Those were not the mere “pamphlets” a local Mom claimed they were, seeking, outrageously, to minimize and justify the actual events that took place in 1933.
Suppressing books and thought is also why slave owners strictly forbade enslaved persons from being educated or learning to read and write, and severely punished those caught teaching them. It is why until the 19th century women were effectively barred from higher education right here in the United States.
Banning books is never about freedom or liberty. It is an effort to institute actual indoctrination of others by attempting to cleanse society of anything contradictory to their ideals. The issue should not be taken lightly, because once taken, the road only becomes more dangerous.
One woman on the committee asked a question that’s had me thinking ever since the meeting. “Why,” she asked, “are we still talking about this?” By this, she was referring to sexual assault, the inequalities that continue to exist between men and women, the culture of victim-blaming and shaming, and so on. The answer is because we aren’t talking about it openly and honestly enough. We are not truly engaging young people, both male and female, and having those real and sometimes difficult conversations. For others it may expose a different sort of problem: They do not want to change because it may diminish their position or privilege.
I want to thank those in our schools working everyday to do the right thing. The time, energy, and effort school and district staff have put in to ensure a fair process. They are doing their best to deliver on that for students and the community, and these days, they are our culture’s and educational system’s essential workers. And thank you to the other Committee members and staff. It was great to spend some time with you and hear your perspectives. Thank you to the local press for its hard work and coverage of something that might often go unnoticed elsewhere.
I highly recommend this book for students and parents. Get a copy of The Nowhere Girls via the Flagler County Library, a book store, or ebook (my personal favorite). Read it and discuss it together. I think you will enjoy the time you get to spend with Grace and her loving and courageous heart, Erin and her beautiful perspective of the world through the eyes of someone on the spectrum, Rosina and her sass as she searches to be who she truly is while facing a society telling her to be someone other than who she is in her heart, and so many other wonderful characters. The author, Amy Reed who is a mother with a daughter, has done a wonderful job with this work that I find baffling still that others find objectionable.
These Nowhere Girls do not deserve being silenced yet again.
Brad West is a long-time Palm Coast resident.
Well said Brad.the question is who is pulling the puppet strings of the Superintendent.
Eugene Lopes says
Brad, thank you and the members of our community who took time to take on this thankless task. Clearly, the committee was formed to just give the appearance of actually listening to the community. The superintendent should be ashamed of herself. It appears that her intention is to appease the book burning faction of the SB.
Nancy N. says
Going back even further, limiting freedom of thought is why the Bible wasn’t widely available in English until the 1500’s. Before then, the church wanted it restricted to Latin so that “regular” people could not interpret it themselves and would be forced to rely on the church’s approved representatives to tell them what it said.
Excellent point. The end of the Dark Ages, and birth of the Renaissance. It should be a basic feature, not a footnote, of the discussion.
And too, sadly, book burning — followed by people burning — has ebbed, and flowed since.
The current pyromaniacs are literally looking forward to the fire:
For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump (explains volumes!!!) of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first
— 1 Thessalonians 4:16, KJV
Forget everything else, this is all that matters to these nuts. Again, and again, and again, and…
Power and control was and is the order of the day IMO
Stephen Playe says
I thank Mr. West for his beautiful summary of “The Nowhere Girls”, and the time he volunteered to help review the challenge of this book. I appreciate his warning of the grave danger of a society taking away the right of others to read what they would like.
I assume that the superintendent will come forth with a public explanation of her reasoning. If not, we will be left wondering if her decision might be the result of coercion, threat or even bribery. Yikes.
Thank you, Brad West, for your insight. It appears, to me, that the superintendent is not working in the best interest of the community, and the children. Clearly, she is not interested in what the community, and parents, think. Maybe she should be replaced.
I saw a local segment on the subject of book banning, and one of the banned books was “I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou. There is something very, very wrong about this book banning, and we know it’s about control, and I believe it will continue across the country unless we remove these ignorant people from their power. This is a stain on America, and fascist history repeating itself. Our country’s children will be controlled and ignorant as well if we allow it to continue.
Evidently three committees reviewed and approved “The Nowhere Girls” and the superintendent still said no to the book. One guideline when working with volunteers (and paid employees for that matter) is to establish reasonable expectations. Had I been on one of those committees, it would have been important to realize that from the start, that there was a chance that the superintendent might still say no. At that point I would have been able to exercise my choice to proceed with the review and discussion or to cut my losses and not lose any more time.
I would pose that question to the superintendent. Did she forget to advise the committee of that possible outcome, or does she willingly accept the annoyance and backlash from volunteers who were snubbed? Not good either way.
And, by the way, well done Mr.West.
On the committee I was on we were informed that the superintendent held the final say despite our unanimous recommendation. When asked if she was required to read the books before making a final decision on them, we were given a neutral answer. Which means she didn’t have to read it. I highly doubt she did.
JOE D says
Unfortunately, I think our EXTREMELY competent School Superintendent is feeling backed into a corner with her contract renewal up in the air at This coming week’s meeting. She know there are 2 school board members, actually gunning for her removal, 2 previously supportive members who are now “on the fence”…and a new WILD card School Board member who was showing her LACK of impartiality , professionalism and minimal compliance with the SUNSHINE laws, with out of meeting communications with educational community members who have an AXE to grind with the Superintendent.
I think her decision to override the committee was an attempt to pander to the “non supportive “ board members.
It’s unfortunate that our Superintendent felt this OVERRIDE of the committee was potentially necessary to secure her job renewal. She is highly competent, and professional in the venues I’ve seen her. Flagler County is LUCKY to have her. School performance is up and other educational metrics, since she took over. However, the fact that she is independent thinking makes her a DANGER to those on the BOARD, and in the educational community, because she cannot be so easily MANIPULATED! Shame on the Board members and others in the Educational community, for trying to ease her out the door, so they can bring in a hand selected “yes person,” under their control. This unilateral OVERRIDE of the book review committee might now alienate the exact community members that she needs to defend her retention.
Of course, as always, it will be our CHILDREN who will suffer if she leaves…..but as usual in this political nightmare, the CHILDREN are the LEAST of their concern.
Concerned Citizen says
Scary when a person or one group of people have the power to decide what we read.
Kind of like the group out there telling us where and when and how we can pray. This country is supposed to allow those type of freedoms that aren’t given in many other places.Yes I have spent time in those type of countries and it’s not very pleasant.
Why should one person or a “committee for” be able to make those decisions for me?
Maybe I should not be as shocked as I am to hear that the book review committee comprised of 14 community members reviewed the book in question and then voted unanimously to keep the book in the school library, yet one school superintendent still has veto power to overrule the voices and decision of the 14 committee members! Why then did the school board empanel 14 people who took valuable time out of their schedules to be part of such a farce? They could have just as easily asked only one community member to review the book if the superintendent was going to make the final decision and overrule any outside review committee vote. This just smacks of a committee that is there for appearances only, just so the superintendent can say she went through the process before making her own decision anyway. One would have thought that a competent school superintendent, who SHOULD have many years of higher education and an upper level degree would at least have enough training, experience and common decency to specify in detail her factual analysis that contradicted the voices of 14 supposed valued community members. If she cannot even do that much after 14 others who reviewed the same reading material and came to a different conclusion, then she has no business filling the role of superintendent in a public school!
Pat Stote says
Well written article. I would guess our Governor had some say here.
I am 81 years old but just had this book delivered to my Kindle library.
In reading the the article and reading reviews it seems shameful and disrespectful to students and the committee that the book was removed from the library.
Carol Gunthorpe says
A thoughtful,well written commentary.Thank you Brad for taking the time and effort to inform the rest of us regarding this event.It is truly sad that despite the well intention process, the superintendent showed no respect for the people who devoted their time and efforts to review the book. It makes me think that the process is really a sham. Why bother with it and just let the superintendent make the decision.
The superintendent should be required to provide an explanation for this move or any similar move. When you are in a leadership position, it is critical that your actions are done in such a way as to assure clarity to those around you. When that is not done, as in this case, what motivation do these review committees have to continue their efforts?
The superintendent has made a mistake here and should correct it – explain why this was done.
I have no idea where you are all from exactly. I chose not to Google the location on purpose. I don’t want that information to color my response. I get news on both sides of our political spectrum, not always listing a city I know, or listing any state. I read those articles so that I can understand varying points of view better.
I am continuously shocked by these book banning articles from different parts of the country, a country which I share with other people I foolishly assume agree with me on the very basics of American democracy and freedom, including, most importantly, freedom of speech. Somehow these articles find their way to my news feed, and I am glad, because I might not ever have known that the colonial, and religious dark ages of both Europe and our own country is being reimagined in different parts of our modern country and culture.
I am, however, very pleased to see that people on here are as appalled as I am with banning books, and express it as well as the author of the article.
There is no need to repeat what this author already articulated with such pragmatism and groundedness. I will only say that book banning throughout history has always been tied to totalitarian leadership, be it religious or political, and always linked to power and control over people. Book banning ( or it’s not so distant cousin “restriction of media access” decide for people what people are allowed to know, and therefore strip people of their agency.
Book banning is ultimately a way to silence voices inconsistent with the voices of those in power. And, typically, voices being silenced are those of artists, teachers, poets, writers, scientists, basically, “thinkers”, and minority groups asking for inclusion at the “table”.
Inclusion represents expansion and growth within a society and totalitarian leadership sees that as taking from their pot of power and ability to maintain control over what they see as their own domain to control as they see fit.
While some seek to widen the path of compassion, empathy and awareness, others seek to narrow it.
I plan to purchase this book on Amazon Kindle if I can. The review has left me very interested in reading it. It may or may not ultimately be of interest or nearly as great in my mind as it was reviewed to be. I mean, I’m not really the age group it was written for. But that’s not the point really. The point is that it was not withheld from me, and if there is anything I can learn from that book, including any opposing viewpoints, I have an opportunity to experience that, and cast it aside if I choose
I have that agency. Everyone, including children, have a right to that agency.
As a side note, I’m glad if people have compassion for this principal, truly. I have, myself co-directed a school and that was a really hard job. But, in my ( unasked for) opinion, nothing excuses a failure in standing up for what is right and accepting the consequences of standing with democracy.
Carol Gunthorpe says
Well said.It is terrifying to see our freedoms taken away by the few.