Citing “the sheer volume of sexually explicit discussions and situations,” Montgomery County Public Schools removed a book from high school libraries on Oct. 11, according to documents obtained by MoCo360 from a public records request.
The book, “Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts),” is a fiction novel by Lev A.C. Rosen about a gay high schooler who writes an online sex column for other LGBTQ+ teens. As part of the libraries’ “free-choice reading” section, it is not part of specific class curriculums.
According to the evaluation completed by Brian Baczkowski, media specialist at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, the novel was disapproved because “despite multiple starred reviews by both Booklist and School Library Journal, which recommended this book for grades 10-12, the sheer volume of sexually explicit discussions and situations, which the professional review journals call ‘sex positive,’ makes the novel an extreme outlier of what the MCPS school high school library considers appropriate.” The disapproval was signed by Julie Simon, media specialist at Silver Spring’s Springbrook High School.
Baczkowski and Simon did not respond to requests for comment.
“Jack has a lot of sex—and he’s not ashamed of it. While he’s sometimes ostracized, and gossip constantly rages about his sex life, Jack always believes that ‘it could be worse.’ But then, the worse unexpectedly strikes: When Jack starts writing a teen sex advice column for an online site, he begins to receive creepy and threatening love letters that attempt to force Jack to curb his sexuality and personality. Now it’s up to Jack and his best friends to uncover the stalker—before their love becomes dangerous,” per the book description on the author’s website.
It is unclear whether the book was challenged by an individual in the community or whether it was internally reviewed.
Holly Van Puymbroeck, supervisor of MCPS School Library Media Programs; Margaret Gaudino, MCPS coordinator for Evaluation and Selection; and Sarah Breslaw, MCPS Media Content Specialist; did not respond to requests for comment.
“It appears the [Database of Accountable Evaluations] record for that particular book clearly indicates why it was disapproved,” MCPS spokesperson Chris Cram said to MoCo360 in an email.
According to MCPS policy, “school-based and central office staff will review on an on-going basis all instructional materials in schools based upon curriculum objectives and revisions, datedness of material, out-of-print items, challenge to authenticity, and comparative market prices. The library media specialist, in conjunction with other local school professional staff, will review the media center collection on an ongoing basis.”
The policy also states that media staff members may use “reviews from selected journals and MCPS bibliographies to evaluate library books.”
However, if the appropriateness of a book is challenged by a parent, student, faculty member or other member of the school community and the issue is not able to be resolved at the individual school level, a book may be reevaluated on a larger scale.
A “Request for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials and Library Books” form can be obtained from the MCPS supervisor of Evaluation and Selection and must be completed and forwarded to the Evaluation and Selection Unit.
From there, an ad hoc committee to evaluate the book is formed. The committee will include school library media specialists, teachers, principals, counselors, subject coordinators, and one librarian from the public sector other than MCPS. The decision by the committee to approve or disapprove the book can be appealed to the school superintendent or the Board of Education.
At an Oct. 23 meeting with the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Breakfast Club, Board of Education President Karla Silvestre was asked about the removal of “Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts).”
“We have a committee of experts that review books and deem them a worthy to be before our students in good libraries or classrooms,” Silvestre said. “There are mechanisms for challenging anything that that group of experts put forward so there’s checks and balances in both ways.”
“Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)” was banned from school libraries and classrooms in Wilson County, Tennessee in December 2022 and the city of Waukesha, Wisconsin in January 2023, according to the PEN America Index of School Book Bans.
Rosen responded to challenges of the book in a statement on his website. He said that he consulted with sex educators to create the answers featured in the main character’s fictional sex column, and that all but two questions were sourced from real teens.
“These columns are what most people are upset about. And I understand – no one wants to think of their child as a sexual being,” Rosen wrote, noting that the book does not contain any actual sex scenes. “Teenagers know about sex, they talk about it, they’re figuring out what they want and don’t want. And Jack of Hearts (and other parts) was written to tell them that what they want or don’t want is normal and natural and they can act on it safely and consensually.”
Rosen defended his book, writing that teenagers are old enough to self-censor and that the book was not part of a required curriculum.
“If a teenager picked it up and started reading it and felt uncomfortable, they easily could have put it down again,” Rosen wrote. “What’s important is that they have that choice, so that the teens who need these books can find them.”
While the novel has faced criticism, it’s also received praise. The School Library Journal recommended it for teen readers.
“Contemporary sex advice meets mystery in this high school story of bullying and being true to oneself. … An upbeat, conversational writing style makes this story move quickly, and the understandably creepy atmosphere surrounding the unwanted notes is punctuated by his adventures with his friends, supportive relationship with his mother, and sexual exploits… an essential addition to library collections that serve teens,” the journal’s review of the book said.
According to documents obtained by MoCo360, a second book, “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe, is currently under review by MCPS.
While the documents redact the name of the person who submitted the challenge on Oct. 6, the person identifies themself as a parent and a resident of Cabin John.
Gender Queer is considered the most banned book in America, according to the PEN America Index of School Book Bans. According to WBUR, the book was banned in 15 states during the 2022-2023 academic year alone.
The graphic novel published in 2019 follows the true story of the author’s self-discovery of gender and identifying as nonbinary. It won the Alex Award from the American Library Association and was a finalist for the Stonewall Book Award.
The parent who issued the challenge wrote: “This book has no valuable picture or perspective because the attempt at such is tainted and erased by the pornographic, vulgar content. It’s doing a disservice to the asexual and nonbinary community by being available to minors in a school setting and has put their experience in a negative spotlight. If this book featured a man and a woman having the same sexual experiences, would you put it in a school?”
In the initial evaluation record for the book, which was marked as recommended for MCPS library shelves in February 2020, Baczkowski acknowledged “mature” content in the book.
“As the themes of the story are the author’s real-life coming of age and their coming to terms with their gender-nonconformity in a heterosexual dominant world, there are several realistic visual and thematic issues that may be too mature for some communities and audiences,” the evaluation said. “If these images and text are read in isolation, they can be considered gratuitous and maybe even prurient; however, in the context of the story assisted by the writer’s restrained tone and artistry, the mature treatment of mature topics instead conveys tenderness, engenders sympathy, and builds understanding with many readers.”
Kobabe has spoken publicly about the book – which was initially released in a 5,000 copy limited run – being at the center of controversy.
“When you remove those books from the shelf or you challenge them publicly in a community, what you’re saying to any young person who identified with that narrative is, ‘We don’t want your story here’,” Kobabe told the New York Times in 2022.
In Carroll County, The Baltimore Banner reported that at least 56 books have been temporarily removed from library shelves as of September, in large parts due to an onslaught of challenges brought forward by the Carroll County chapter of Moms for Liberty, mirroring a nationwide uptick in book challenges in public school systems. According to the American Library Association, there were more book challenges in 2022 than the organization has seen in its 20 years of existence.
In an email to MoCo360, the Montgomery County chapter of Moms For Liberty said they were not involved in challenging either “Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)” or “Gender Queer” in Montgomery County, but praised the decision to remove the former from the shelves.
“Our chapter commends the decision of MCPS staff to take the initiative to internally review and decide to remove ‘Jack of Hearts’ … from our public school libraries. We look forward to more common sense decisions to ensure an academically sound, age appropriate and safe environment for all students,” Lindsey Smith, Chapter Chair for Moms for Liberty of Montgomery County, wrote. “And for parents who want their kids to read porn, this book is still available for sale across the country and for free in the [Montgomery County Public Library] system.”
MCPS has been in the spotlight when it comes to LGBTQ+ books and curriculum after three parents filed a lawsuit a lawsuit against the school board and superintendent in May over the school district’s decision not to provide prior notice or allow parents to remove their students from the classroom when an LGBTQ+ inclusive storybook is used as part of the lesson.
In August, a federal judge denied a motion for injunction that would have temporarily forced Montgomery County Public Schools to rescind its no-opt-out approach to reading elementary-level LGBTQ+ inclusive materials in class, stating that exposure to LGBTQ+ texts doesn’t violate parents’ First Amendment rights. Litigation is ongoing.
“Jack of Hearts (And Other Parts)” and “Gender Queer” were considered free-choice reading and not part of a classroom lesson or curriculum.
Many county parents are also unhappy that a book that was previously approved can be removed from shelves if one person challenges it.
Evelyn Chung, the curriculum committee chair for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, told MoCo360 that her concern is making sure that books about LGBTQ+ characters are not being held to a different standard than other books.
“[‘Jack of Hearts’] includes discussion about safe sex practices. So how does that compare to another book about safe sex practices for heterosexual individuals? Whatever the standard is that they’re applying should be the same, and that standard should be transparent,” she said.
But Chung said she doesn’t think the public is even aware of challenges or appeals against specific books.
“If you go on the website, you can’t find any lists of pending appeals. … People from the public wouldn’t have any way of knowing that this was the book that was approved once and now it’s not approved. So the appeals aren’t listed,” Chung said. “We shouldn’t have to file a public records request to get that information.”
Mark Eckstein, MCPS parent and Maryland Advocacy co-chair for the Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG, an LGBTQ+ organization, voiced similar sentiments. Eckstein said he doesn’t necessarily disagree with the school system reevaluating books if they don’t align with school values, and thinks the conflict is “solvable.”
The issue, he said, lies in making sure those values are transparent and that books that depict LGBTQ+ characters and cisgender heterosexual characters are evaluated to the same standard.
“My big buzzword for that is equitable scrutiny … we have to have a very objective protocol. We can’t just say that LGBTQ+ books are automatically more explicit,” Eckstein said. “I think scrutiny and public engagement can be a good thing … but the Board of Education and MCPS needs to make sure that those protocols are working in an objective and equitable fashion.”
MCPS policies list values required of instructional materials, but do not delineate whether these apply to free-choice reading materials.
“Materials shall be directly aligned to the MCPS curriculum and relevant to and reflective of the multicultural society and global community. … As appropriate, the materials shall offer opportunities to better understand and appreciate the issues, aspirations, and achievements of women and persons from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, avoiding those which contain negative attitudes, stereotypes, caricatures, epithets, and dialect (except in historical or literary contexts),” the policy states.
Chung said the issue is she feels there is a lack of transparency about how the school system chooses to re-evaluate books.
“We don’t want a process where it’s just being reactive to challenges being made,” Chung said. “Decisions need to be made for consistent reasons, according to a standard.”
Eckstein said he thinks this is an opportunity for the school system and community to come together and develop a more robust process for evaluating appropriate library materials. He said he is concerned that well-funded politically-backed groups are currently leading the conversation.
“We need to be more proactive and not let it be led by certain groups in the public. It can be more of a proactive and holistic approach based on standards and objectives, so that we can have a very equitable approach to which books are deemed not to be adequate for our media centers,” Eckstein said.