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Central Bucks’ new school board president takes oath on stack of banned books

“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison has been the target of attempts to ban books in school libraries. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
Rick Bowmer/ Associated Press file
“The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison has been the target of attempts to ban books in school libraries. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)
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As she was sworn in to another term on the Central Bucks school board Monday night, Karen Smith placed her hand not on a Bible, but a stack of frequently banned books.

Smith, who was chosen as the president of the new Democratic-led board Monday, wanted to make a symbolic gesture — setting a new tone after the former GOP-dominated board passed a policy prohibiting “sexualized content” that led to bans of two books and paved the way for challenges of 60 others.

Smith, like the other Democrats who were in the minority, opposed that policy, which became one of the most contentious measures passed by the board in its tumultuous two years in power.

“I’m not particularly religious. The Bible doesn’t hold significant meaning for me, and given everything that has occurred in the last couple of years, the banned books, they do mean something to me at this point,” Smith said Tuesday. She wanted to make clear “the commitment I’ve had to fighting for the books, and for our students’ freedom to read.”

While she had specific reasons for selecting the six books, which her husband held as she took the oath of office, Smith said she otherwise “didn’t think too deeply about it.”

So she was somewhat surprised when a photo of the moment began circulating online Tuesday — garnering more than 180,000 views on Twitter, and praise from various corners of the internet.

“This Karen built different,” one person wrote — using a slang term for an entitled white woman. Another wrote: “Queen status.”

“Somebody’s saying it’s like, a baller move,” Smith said, referring to a tweet that was sent to her (she doesn’t use the social platform). “I didn’t really think of it that way.”

While she doesn’t know why the moment resonated as widely as it did, Smith explained what the books she chose meant to her:

“Night,” by Elie Wiesel: Smith placed the Nobel Prize-winner’s autobiographical account of surviving the Holocaust at the top of her pile, in reference to a controversy surrounding another policy passed by the GOP-controlled board. After the board in January banned staff from advocating beliefs to students on “partisan, political, or social policy issues,” a Central Bucks South High School librarian was directed to remove a Wiesel quote that read, “I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Smith, like other Democrats, opposed that policy.

“The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison: As community members last year began alleging the district was harboring pornography in its libraries — amid a broader conservative movement that has accused schools of seeking to sexualize children — Smith recalled one person reading aloud from the Pulitzer-winning Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.” The novel, which describes a character being raped by her father, is a frequent target of bans.

Smith said the scene in question was “maybe shocking,” but noted comments from “sexual abuse survivors who said it was very important that young people who may have suffered sexual abuse have some way to learn about it, and they’re not alone. Their feelings are valid.”

“Lily and Dunkin,” by Donna Gephart: A group called Woke PA that was objecting to library books in Central Bucks cited “Lily and Dunkin,” a book with a transgender main character, Smith said. She decided to read it.

“The list had said, there was inappropriate material, sexual content in the book. I get to the end, and there’s nothing in here. Not even a kiss,” Smith said. She called it “a sweet story about friendship — except one student in the book is transgender. That’s it.”

“All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson: The young-adult memoir about growing up Black and queer has sexually explicit passages that Smith called “intense.”

“But I really found that the author, what he says in the book about why he chose to write that scene, it’s very powerful, and he’s very vulnerable in sharing that with the world. … He thought it would help other young gay men and that’s why he did it,” she said. “I just thought that was admirable.”

“Flamer,” by Mike Curato: Smith hasn’t read the graphic novel about a teenager grappling with his identity. But she recently participated in a panel at an American Association of School Librarians conference, during which a young person fighting book bans in Texas said the book saved their life.

“It stunned me” to hear that, Smith said.

“Beyond Magenta,” by Susan Kuklin: The book about the lives of six transgender teens has been targeted nationally; in Central Bucks, it was ultimately retained after an administration-ordered review. “I was just very impressed” with the teenagers’ accounts, “and found them all to be very courageous … I think it’s a valuable book that some young people could really benefit from,” Smith said.

While community members who opposed the former board celebrated the swearing in Monday of Smith and the newly elected Democrats, to Smith, the moment marked a step in a political journey she didn’t expect would necessarily continue. A former Republican who was first elected in 2015, Smith switched parties in early 2021, after the board voted down sending a counselor to a training about transgender students.

“I thought, ‘I can’t be a part of these kind of actions,’” said Smith, who is retired as a school public relations professional but manages a farm in New Britain Township. “The Republican Party has lost its way.” She didn’t think Democrats would accept her, but “they were watching carefully the actions I took over the past two years … They valued that, not my previous party affiliation.”

While Democrats have suspended the former board’s library policy, as well as the ban on staff advocacy, Smith isn’t sure yet whether the two books that were banned — “Gender Queer” and “This Book is Gay” — will return to library shelves.

As for the dozens of other books that were challenged, however, “they’re definitely not going to be reviewed at this point,” she said.

 

 

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