High school students speak out against battle to ban books

CARY, N.C. — The battle to ban books is spreading across the U.S., including in North Carolina. A Wake County school board panel denied a parent’s request to remove “Lawn Boy,” a LGBTQ-themed book with sexually explicit language from Cary High School’s library.


What You Need To Know

  • Wake County school board panel voted to keep the controversial “Lawn Boy” book in Cary High School’s library
  • Student activists from Cary High School’s Idea Club are speaking out against the efforts to ban books, including in front of the school board
  • School librarian Michelle Burton says she’s concerned about the growing trend of book challenges in North Carolina


Some students at Cary High School are working to make sure books about racism and LGBTQ issues stay in their school. Emerson Phillips, a senior, is one of them. She and Sage Clausen, also a senior, are leaders of the school’s Idea Club, a talk group that encourages student activism.

Phillips says she was motivated to speak out against book banning when it hit close to home.

“We were learning about books in the news that were being challenged in Texas,” Phillips said. “And that was only a few months ago, but it felt like we were so far removed from the issue because it wasn’t happening in our state. And then all of a sudden, books were being challenged right here at our school, and it was kind of a wake-up call, like, oh wow, you know, this can kind of happen wherever. And it is going to directly affect us.”


Both Phillips and Clausen spoke up at a recent school board meeting because they want the voices of young people heard on challenges to books about race, gender and sexuality.

“You have to think on a broader scale because there are so many kids in Wake County, in North Carolina, across the nation,” Clausen said, “all with different backgrounds, different experiences, and just because you might feel uncomfortable with the subject matter in a book doesn’t mean that everyone should be unable to access it.”

For Phillips and Clausen, this topic is personal.

“My mom is a librarian in the Wake County library system, so from a young age she has just taught us how to have empathy, like learning about other peoples’ stories that are different than your own,” Clausen said.

“From a young age I have always wanted to be a teacher,” Phillips said. “That’s something I’ve always known. I’ve wanted my students to feel included and to feel seen and heard.”

Phillips and Clausen want to make sure each book has a spot in their library. They believe in intellectual freedom.

“My English teachers at Cary High School have really cultivated an environment where, of freedom to choose what you would like to read, freedom to have, like, representation in the books that you are seeking out,” Clausen said.

Phillips and Clausen have read controversial books such as “Lawn Boy,” “Out of Darkness” and “All Boys Aren’t Blue.”

“People should read these books if they’re interested because even if they aren’t part of the LGBT community, or if they aren’t somebody who’s not white,” Phillips said, “they can really learn a lot from reading about the perspectives of other people and kind of learning what they’ve been through.”

They both agree that being able to see yourself in literature is important.

“I’ve been reading “Lawn Boy” and just completely connecting with the main character even though he lives somewhere else. His background is different than myself,” Clausen said. “But just the ability to see his struggles and his dreams and his aspirations play out throughout the book, it feels like a personal connection, which I think is the most valuable part about reading.”

Michelle Burton has been a school librarian for 28 years, including at the middle school level. She’s also the president of the Durham Association of Educators.

“It’s very concerning that we here in North Carolina are getting more book challenges,” Burton, an elementary school librarian, said. “I’m hearing from school librarians, media coordinators across the state, particularly in our more rural areas, where books are being challenged because parents are not in an agreement with what the book is about.”

Burton says school librarians vet extensively all books before they’re purchased for the schools.

“Everyone has the right to read what they want to read,” Burton said. “And particularly as a school librarian, it’s very important for me to have the reading materials that speaks to my students.”  

The Wake County Board of Education is meeting Tuesday night. The books are not on the agenda, but three more students from Cary High School’s Idea Club are planning to address the issue at the meeting during public comment.






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