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Teen readers respond to call for book removal with ‘Banned Book Club’ at Walla Walla High School

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WALLA WALLA — The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an activist as: “One who advocates or practices activism: a person who uses or supports strong actions (such as public protests) in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.”

When outsiders wanted to make decisions for her high school this past year, Ava Kirtley deployed every activism cell she had.

Kirtley, a junior at Walla Walla High School, was unwilling to let a group of people who wanted certain library books banned go unchallenged.

The uproar by this group — people who didn’t attend or work at Wa-Hi — over four particular library books began last winter.

“Gender Queer,” by Maia Kobabe; “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison; “The Hate U Give,” by Angie Thomas; and “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” by George M. Johnson, were in or about to be in circulation at Walla Walla Schools high school libraries. Detractors said those books were agenda-driven, political, sexually explicit and filled with foul language.

Protests and prayer vigils underlined the feelings of a group of people calling for removal of the books from library shelves.

All four books are currently available in district libraries, but none are required reading or are otherwise being assigned by district teachers, officials have said.

Those challenges and responses gave Kirtley a lot to think about, she said. Not only about these books, but how to find solutions to community problems.

Kirtley cares deeply about the town she lives in, and it shows in the things she participates in.

She plays upright bass, for starters, at school, in the Ritmo Jazz Trio and in the Walla Walla Youth Symphony. She participates in the YMCA’s Youth and Government program that sends students to Olympia for a government-in-action experience.

Earlier this month, Kirtley was inducted into the National Honor Society. She also belongs to Wa-Hi’s Green Club, which promotes environmental advocacy; the Girls’ League club, working for justice and equality on campus and beyond; Gay Straight Alliance; Students for Justice and more.

This spring, however, the local book ban movement added one more activity to her list.

Activism activated

“I have done a ton of research about this, and I think banning books is a bad idea,” Kirtley said. “There is a lot to say about censorship and its impact on young people. And as it is now, it is obviously super politically motivated.”

The teen rallied other students and attended the December meeting of the Walla Walla School Board, equalizing the perspective about the books in question, she said.

“Half the citizen comments came from students talking about the importance of these books, and half came from adults complaining about the books.”

She returned home after that meeting feeling torn in two as well, Kirtley recalled.

“I was both excited about my peers and infuriated at what I heard. I had a conversation with my family, and my family is the type to rally around this kind of thing. So then we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a club that could buy these books for those kids that want to read them?”

Within two days, Kirtley had a crowdfunding campaign underway, and two days after that, she was ordering the books.

David Cosby, owner of Earthlight Books on Main Street, was happy to facilitate the order, discounting the cost of the 160 books.

“I’m supportive of book readers, and I’m opposed to book banning,” Cosby said last week.

“It usually backfires, anyway. The banning efforts draw attention to the book, and more people end up reading it.”

He’s pleased to see youths realize the power of words and understand the effect of censorship efforts, Cosby added.

With about 40 members of the Banned Book Club on board — the response to her idea was immediate and highly positive, she said — Kirtley developed a plan for all to read one book per month, then attend a virtual meeting for discussion.

Not everyone could do so at once, due to schedules, but each meeting over the past four months garnered nearly 20 participants.

Supported effort

Kirtley used money from fundraising to hire discussion facilitators, including 2013 Wa-Hi graduate Rosa Tobin, who led the group through “Gender Queer.”

Tobin was a co-founder of the Gay Straight Alliance at the school during her time there and went on to earn a degree in English literature at Western Washington University and later a master’s degree from Michigan State University in digital rhetoric and professional writing.

Tobin has completed a number of digital projects and now does fair housing work in Massachusetts.

To have the privilege to be asked by Kirtley to lead that first book discussion, though, transcended everything, Tobin said.

“It was absolutely beautiful. I think I communicated it as ‘life giving, nourishing.’”

The former Walla Wallan spent about 90 virtual minutes with youths from the community “doing way more than I was at that age,” Tobin said last week.

“The energy was so intentional and caring and thoughtful. It was everything you could hope for.”

As a queer and trans person, it felt very special to talk to teens about “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” Tobin said.

The graphic novel by Kobabe explores self-identity, the confusion of adolescent crushes, how to come out to family and society and bonding with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, among other topics.

“I am so grateful I got to be part of Walla Walla’s queer community,” Tobin said. The former Walla Wallan, who uses the pronoun they, said that sharing their experience with youths learning about the topic was a gift.

“I spent a lot of that time being in awe. To see people bring so much of themselves to it,” they said.

In its last meeting of the series, Banned Book Club members also heard from author George M. Johnson after reading the author’s book published in 2020.

“All Boys Aren’t Blue” is a compilation of essays from Johnson’s journey growing up as a queer Black man in New Jersey and Virginia, and it encompasses topics like consent, agency and sexual abuse.

School boards in many states have removed the book from their libraries, according to Kirkus Reviews.

That’s the sort of action, coming from uninformed people, that Kirtley vehemently opposes.

“They have not read these books,” she said of the Walla Walla residents who want this and other books banned. “It is offensive and crazy-making.”

The four books her club read are still on the list of the 10 most-banned books in America, Kirtley pointed out.

Despite local outcry over the books, as Kirtly began building the Banned Book Club, she encountered support in many ways, not just financial donations, she said.

“At the very start of this, there was a lot of anger, a lot of being offended, a lot of feeling like our maturity was being called into question.”

Using advocacy muscles to counter that through reading, learning and discussion felt completely right, the teen said.

“Civil agency has been a thing in my family for a very long time. I’ve never known what I wanted to do in a career … People have asked me that, and I’ve never had a good answer. But within the last couple of months, I’ve thought, ‘Maybe a librarian.’”

The job sounds like it suits her need to be involved in community outreach and with literature and organization.

“All things ingrained in me,” she said.

Then there’s activism, something Kirtley is determined to never lose a taste for and hopes other teens are equally determined.

“We are a very important voice in these conversations. We’re being listened to more now, but still arguably not enough.

“I want to be involved. I want to have a voice and let other people have their voices. Book banning takes that away, but it’s part of free speech … Problems come when one of those is missing.”

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