SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A Murray teacher read a book about a transgender child to a class of third graders last month — which set off a backlash from parents. In response, the school district has now suspended a program aimed at introducing kids to more diverse and inclusive literature.
The uproar started when a student at Horizon Elementary brought a copy of "Call Me Max" from home and asked the teacher to read it aloud during story time. The book is an illustrated account of a young transgender boy who educates his own teacher and classmates about his identity.
It starts with the teacher taking attendance. "Can you call me Max?" the boy asks, noting that his name on the roll doesn't match how he sees himself.
As the teacher at Horizon Elementary was reading it, said Murray School District spokesman Doug Perry, students in the class began asking her questions. One was specifically about puberty, Perry noted. The teacher hadn't read the book before and deflected the questions, for the most part, he said.
But some of the students talked to their parents about the book and the discussion. And a few families then called the district, angry that the book was shared with their kids without permission.
It's not the first time there's been concern about Utah schools having LGBTQ books. In 2012, a picture book about a lesbian couple raising a child was removed from the shelves of elementary school libraries in Davis County after a group of parents there raised objections.
But Murray School District is taking its response a step further, now reviewing all of the literature in its "equity book bundles" program — even though "Call Me Max" is not part of that initiative and is not in any of the district's libraries. It was only in the classroom because the student had a copy.
Perry said the goal is to examine all of the books to see if any are similar to "Call Me Max" in topic or might otherwise cause concern.
But, while it includes the LGBTQ community, the equity book program overall is more focused on addressing race and racism and introducing students to more authors of color. And the decision to suspend it falls at the start of Black History Month.
Perry acknowledged Wednesday that the timing of that is unfortunate but said it was unintentional. "That is purely coincidental," he said. "We certainly honor and revere Black History Month as an important part of our education."
The move also comes after a separate Montessori school in North Ogden was allowing parents to "opt out" of the curriculum around Black History Month, but later reversed that decision after facing community pushback.
Perry said that many books by Black authors and about people of color will still be available for teachers and kids to read, including "Of Thee I Sing" by former President Barack Obama, as well as picture books about Rosa Parks and Frederick Douglass.
Some of those also appear on the equity book bundle lists and will remain on the shelves even with the program temporarily suspended, Perry added. Nothing will be pulled until the review is completed.
"Anything in our libraries is fair game for teachers to use right now, including many books that are in the bundle program," Perry added. "In fact, the bundle program is by no means an exhaustive list of books on equity. Our libraries have many others."
The equity book bundles effort began this fall. Under it, an elementary school is given a copy of the 38 books on the district's list. The list was curated by Vanessa Jobe, a vice principal at Horizon Elementary where the program started. It includes works by diverse authors, including Ibram Kendi, and on diverse topics, such as what it means to grow up in a Latino family or to live with a disability. It's meant to encourage educators to incorporate the stories into their lessons.
The books are divided by grade level, with second graders, for instance, reading "Ohana Means Family" and fifth graders reading "This Book Is Anti-Racist."
Only two books on the list appear to be directly about the LGBTQ community. One of those is for fifth graders about the work of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials in the United States. The other is for sixth graders and titled "Rainbow Revolutionaries: 50 LGBTQ+ People Who Made History."
Even though "Call Me Max" isn't included, that's where the concern has been focused and the book that prompted the expansive review.
In addition to parents, a conservative member of the Utah Board of Education also criticized the school district for allowing that book to be read in the classroom. Natalie Cline said on social media that it was inappropriate to share "books about gender-confused children" — a label that many have found offensive and led some to start a petition asking for her to resign.
Cline also called out the district for participating in a conference last month at the Utah Pride Center about accepting all identities in the classroom. Murray School District administrators specifically talked about their experience with the "equity book bundles," Perry confirmed.
"Most schools don't have them," he added, "and that's why our principal was invited to speak."
Perry said the small district in Salt Lake County stands by the book program overall — despite wanting to review it further — as well as participating in the Utah Pride conference. But he said the district does not support having "Call Me Max" in the classroom and is not defending the teacher who read it.
"She just flat out made a mistake," Perry said. "That book is not appropriate at the grade level it was being shared."
The author disagrees.
Kyle Lukoff, who wrote "Call Me Max," told The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday that the picture book was written for a kindergarten to third grade audience. And he believes it's important for young students to see transgender characters and how those individuals are just like anyone else — with their own likes and dislikes and personalities. They're a part of the community, he said.
"I find in my experience that adults think that term unlocks a lot of confusion in children when it really doesn't," said Lukoff, who is transgender.
He said he read the story to a first grade class recently. One girl asked him what "transgender" meant and when he explained, "she just said, 'OK,' and moved on.'
"It's only a problem if you think that being transgender is itself wrong," Lukoff said. "And it's not. That's something the parent then has to work through."
Something important to Lukoff in writing it, too, was to challenge stereotypes. At one point the character Max says that he's transgender because he doesn't like dresses. At the same time, a boy in his class is wearing a dress and says that he likes them. Max then says he's transgender because he likes climbing trees. A girl in the class is climbing a tree with him.
"I try to write books about trans kids that don't reinforce misogyny and gender binaries or the concept that your body or being trans is a problem," Lukoff said.
Some kids, he said, might be transgender and appreciate the book for representing them. But, for many, he added, it's just about being accepting and understanding.
The author said he hasn't faced much pushback for his writing before. He has written more than a dozen books, including "When Aidan Became a Brother," about another transgender boy coming out and becoming a big brother. His books are printed by Reycraft Books, an imprint that highlights underrepresented communities.
Mostly, Lukoff said, he's gone to read at schools and been told that a parent has quietly pulled their kid from the class for that time. "But that's been the worst of it."
The news that the equity books program would be put on hold was shared in a letter sent to families Monday.
Murray School District will also be suspending its Diversity Equity Council, which worked on the equity book bundles, to examine the mission and work of the group. It was formed in 2019 to address issues of employee equity and complaints of mistreatment.
It was expanded this summer — in respond to nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by police in Minneapolis — to also include reports from students on their experiences.
"As a district, we recognize and acknowledge the concerns," the letter states. "We are committed to learning from this experience and doing better."
Perry said he does not anticipate that the district will dissolve the equity council or the book bundles program.
But the hold on the program will mean that no more book bundles will be distributed. And the district said it plans to talk to teachers about what they should be reading to students.