Amid book bans, Vermont Reads sees no news on first LGBTQ+ title as good news

The young adult novel “We Contain Multitudes” is the current selection for the Vermont Reads program. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

When the Vermont reads introduced its first LGBTQ+ selection last year, it did not anticipate a record number of calls nationwide to ban such books.

“What we’re seeing right now is an unprecedented campaign,” said Deborah Caldwell-Stone of the American Library Association recently. told the New York Times.

But as patrons of Vermont Humanities prepare to welcome the author of the selected young adult novel “We Contain Multitudes” at several public events this week, the biggest related news is the lack of one.

“Certainly a debate is raging nationally and gathering steam, but we haven’t heard any pushback,” said Ryan Newswanger, director of programs for the state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Vermont Reads aims, figuratively and literally, to put community, school, and library groups on the same page by encouraging them to study the same book.

The two-decade show originally featured titles about past challenges, whether it be Montpelier author Katherine Paterson’s “Bread and Roses, Too” about turn-of-the-century labor strikes, Brattleboro writer Karen Hesse’s “Witness” about the Ku Klux Klan. from the 1920s or “First They Killed My Father” by Loung Ung, a graduate of Saint Michael’s College, about her escape in the 1970s from war-torn Cambodia.

But recent selections have tackled the present, like last year’s Black Lives Matter-inspired “The Hate U Give” by Mississippi writer Angie Thomas and current selection “We Contain Multitudes,” a story of two teens from the Canadian author Sarah Henstra.

“The novel contains many threads relevant to current community conversations, including economic disparities, how veterans come back from war, domestic violence, opioid addiction, bullying, and coming out,” Vermont Humanities summarizes the latest book. “But lest it sound too heavy, it’s also a beautiful story of friendship, poetry, coming of age, and aspirations to go beyond societal expectations.”

The program has offered 4,000 free copies to eligible groups, as well as support from partners including Absolute Vermont, Vermont Recovery and the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“Young people are hungry for stories that reflect their lives,” said Outright associate director Amanda Rohdenburg. “This book doesn’t shy away from all the difficult things they’re navigating through.”

Vermont can take pride in being the first in the nation to adopt same-sex civil unions in 2000 and full marriage rights by legislative vote in 2009, but the state’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey continues to find students who are lesbian. Gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning face higher rates of bullying, alcohol and drug use, and suicidal thoughts.

“We haven’t heard anything about this particular book being banned,” Rohdenburg said, “but we’ve heard a lot about so-called concerned citizens examining the books that young people bring home.”

Although the current Vermont Reads selection has not yet generated questions, the previous ones have. Last year’s “The Hate U Give,” for example, caused some black residents to question whether a book set in a southern inner city reflected their small-town lives. Other readers, in turn, asked why recent titles have often focused on race.

“We don’t want to intentionally create controversy, but we’re also not going to shy away from books that focus on topics that require discussion,” Newswanger said. “We see our role as helping to spark conversations.”

The author of “We Contain Multitudes” is about to present a online discussion for middle and high school students on Wednesday at 10:30 am as well as in-person public lectures Wednesday at 7 pm at the Essex Junction Senior Center and Thursday at 7 pm at Middlebury College’s Dana Auditorium.

Vermont Reads organizers are pleasantly surprised that the biggest challenge this year was the Covid-19 pandemic rather than any direct criticism. But they know that concerns remain.

“I don’t think we’re immune to what’s going on in other parts of the country,” said Vermont Humanities Executive Director Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup. “During the town meeting, there were a lot of candidates making coded or direct references to wanting to censor what children are taught in public schools or what books they have access to.”

Even so, the program is scheduled to announce its next selection on April 30 at the Vermont Book Awards in Montpelier.

“The work that is being done has been really moving and important,” said Kaufman Ilstrup. “People who read books should be able to look through windows and see worlds other than their own, be able to look into mirrors that reflect their own lives, and be able to walk through a sliding glass door and live in someone else’s life. Shoes.”

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