A Johnston Book Organization holds a reading event at the Johnston Farmer’s Market in September.
A group of Johnston parents who said they noticed an ‘alarming’ trend starting in 2021 of parents asking school boards to remove books they ‘deem offensive’ have launched Annie’s Foundation, according to the website. organization.
Founder and President Sara Hayden Parris says the nonprofit’s new mission is to ensure community members have access to books that reflect the diversity and complexity of the world around them.
“Fundamentally, we think it’s really important that children see themselves reflected in the books they read that are provided to them,” said Hayden Parris. “Also, that they see books written by authors who look like them and come from similar backgrounds.”
For its launch event – a reading of banned books – the foundation invites community members to bring a chair or blanket and their favorite banned book to read from 4-6 p.m. on September 20 at Johnston Farmers Market at 6245 Merle Hay Road.
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Books challenged and banned in central Iowa
In central Iowa, politicians and parents from school districts in Ankeny, Johnston, Urbandale, Waukee and West Des Moines have challenged children’s access to certain books.
The books often feature stories of LGBTQ people and people of color, and parents challenging them have often decried them as obscene or even pornographic and inappropriate for children. Politicians have called for criminal penalties for educators who make the material available to students.
Students and librarians say students can be trusted to make decisions for themselves and that in some cases the material has proven essential for students to understand who they are in the world.
Last December, school districts in West Des Moines, Waukee and Ankeny launched reviews of George M. Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a collection of essays on queer and Black growth, as well as “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe. “, a comic-book-style coming-of-age story about the author’s journey with gender and sexuality.
West Des Moines kept “Gender Queer” in the library, while Ankeny and Waukee took it off the shelf. According to the Waukee Community School District’s executive director of communications, Amy Varcoe, “Not all the boys are blue” remains on school shelves. The title also remains in the schools of Ankeny.
Other titles, such as “Lawn Boy,” a semi-autobiographical novel by Jonathan Evison about a young Mexican-American’s self-discovery, and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a novel by Jesse Andrews about three teenagers, one of whom has cancer, were also interviewed by parents from surrounding school districts.
Some parents and politicians, such as State Sen. Jake Chapman, R-Adel, called some of the debated books “obscene.” Chapman called for changes to state law and criminal prosecution of educators.
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A “need” for the community
Hayden Parris said she and a group of mothers began attending Johnston Community School District board meetings last year to challenge some parents’ challenge to two books.
One track, “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas, follows an African-American teenager who witnesses a police shootout when her unarmed black friend is shot and killed. The second, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie, tells the story of an aspiring cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
“I started paying attention to the news and saw this happening in many suburbs here in central Iowa…and certainly across the country,” said Hayden Parris, who has one child. 11 and 13 year olds in the school district.
Ultimately, both titles were retained as part of the program and remain available for optional selection in some classes, she added.
Hayden Parris says it’s important to acknowledge other people’s experiences, such as police brutality, even if others may not relate to it or have not been personally exposed to it.
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“I don’t know of people who have been impacted by police brutality…but I think it’s important to recognize that it happens and to read stories that the author has put a lot of thought, effort and research,” she said. “It’s really important to read these books so I can have that perspective.”
Annie’s Foundation is inspired by and named in memory of Ann Lohry-Smith, mother of Ankeny, who died in June. It is made up of four members who are all mothers of children in the school district.
“(Lohry-Smith) was so funny and she would absolutely love it,” Hayden Parris said. “She had been vocal at school board meetings speaking out against book bans and was just a big advocate for public education.”
Although there has been some push back on the organisation, Hayden Parris said the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive with parents donating money and asking how they can provide support. The organization’s social media has seen an increase in followers and engagement, she said.
“It seems people in our community have identified this as a need and are really excited that we have it to offer,” she said.
For her upcoming event at the Farmers Market, Hayden Parris says members of the organization plan to distribute free copies of banned and challenged books to readers of all ages.
So far they have identified two books for distribution. For young children: “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, which is a true story of two male penguins who were given an egg to raise as their own. And for kids 14 and up, “The Hate U Give.”
Des Monies Register reporters Chris Higgins and Sarah LeBlanc contributed to this story.