The children’s book “A Place Inside of Me: A Poem to Heal the Heart,” will remain in two Sumner County elementary school libraries following a second vote last week by the Sumner County Board of Education.
A Jack Anderson Elementary School parent asked that the poem and picture book about a young black boy’s struggle with his emotions after a girl in his neighborhood is killed by police be removed from the school’s library in August.
The book’s subject matter was inappropriate for a 6-year-old, and references to the Black Lives Matter movement in some of its illustrations were divisive and politically loaded, the parent asserted.
A committee at the school determined that the book met the school district’s criteria for remaining in the library, and the parent appealed the committee’s decision to the 11-member school board.
After more than 30 parents, students and educators spoke both for and against the book during a school board meeting on Oct. 18, board members voted 5 to 1 to uphold the committee’s decision with two members abstaining.
Since board policy requires a majority of the board, or six yes votes, in order for a measure to pass, the issue was placed on the Nov. 15 school board meeting agenda for a second vote.
This time around, more than two dozen citizens – who were almost evenly divided on whether the book should remain or be removed — voiced their opinions.
‘Art’ versus ‘propaganda’
Hendersonville resident Patricia Smith asked the board to uphold the committee’s recommendation.
“This book is critically acclaimed and award-winning – and it is art,” said Smith.
Monique Ritterbeck, a former English teacher, said the book is propaganda for the Black Lives Matter movement. Younger elementary school-aged children are not developmentally ready for the book, she argued.
“You have every right to ban this book,” she said. “It’s not education, it’s propaganda.”
District 11 school board member Andy Lacey said it was the pictures, and not the poem, that he found offensive. One illustration shows hooded, faceless policemen — one with a raised baton – faced off against black and white protesters.
“My vote tonight will be to protect kids and support police,” said Lacey. “I believe this book is age-inappropriate.”
Steven King, who represents District 5, said he also opposed the book.
“This is a book about a racist killing of a girl because she’s black by racist police,” said King. “How is that appropriate for kindergarten and first-grade children?”
King said he believed the book violated two state laws: the Prohibited Concepts Law and the state’s new Age-Appropriate Materials Act.
“It is not an innocent book, but rather it strips away innocence,” said King.
District 6 school board member Betsy Hawkins said she thinks everyone sees the book through different lenses.
Hawkins disagreed that the book displays a racist tone.
“I see a story of something happens where a girl is killed – someone who looks like him,” said Hawkins of the young black narrator.
The boy sees protests, police doing their jobs, and not violence, she added. “The little boy has a choice, what’s he going to do with these feelings?”
Hawkins says the boy decides to meditate rather than become destructive and violent, and consoles a friend.
“Through non-violence he finds joy. He finds joy and through that joy he is free,” she said.
Added Hawkins, “A child has a right to see history, and if we start pulling books that have factual events in them, then we’re in real trouble.”
Andy Daniels, who represents District 7, became emotional at times while explaining why he believed the book should not be removed.
“There is a movement to ban books in this country and our county is not unique,” he said. “I trust our school librarians to make decisions based on the needs of their community and their student body.”
He disagreed that the book teaches young children that all police are racist.
“In fact, the book ends with the following words: ‘For there is a love inside of me. True love deep inside of me. I am in love with my people. All people,’” he read.
“You can look at any book and find things you don’t like but that doesn’t mean that it rises to the level of being reviewed or being banned or not being allowed in the hands of students who might find comfort in that,” Daniels added.
The motion to uphold the school-level committee’s decision passed 7 to 3 with Lacey, King and Allen Lancaster of District 3 voting against it. District 9 school board member Patricia Brown was absent from the meeting. The book is also available at George Whitten Elementary School.