A book about gay marriage has sparked tensions in Athens, Ga., leading to a dispute between an indie bookstore and a private school. Avid Bookshop abruptly pulled out of a multi-day book fair at Athens Academy on Wednesday, after the school demanded that the bookstore remove copies of Newbery Medalist Richard Peck’s The Best Man from its display.
The dispute began when the school received complaints from parents about the book, which follows a middle-schooler who becomes the best man at the wedding of two men who have been his role models. After showing The Best Man to a student, book fair manager Kate Lorraine Rascoe overheard one student’s parent say, “Is this what we’re teaching our children?” A few minutes later, a school administrator approached Avid store manager Caleb Huett and demanded that the book be removed.
The Best Man, which was nominated for a 2017-2018 Georgia Children’s Book Award, was selected and approved by the school in advance of the fair as part of a display of award titles.
Huett, who is also the author of the children’s title Top Elf, was taken aback by the speed and abruptness of the school’s decision. “I had trouble even responding,” he said. “I am a bookseller, and I’m gay, and one of my books is featured in this book fair.” According to Huett, the administrator kept repeating the phrase, ‘We just want to take the path of least resistance.’
While the booksellers waited for instructions from Avid owner Janet Geddis, they placed the title on a back table. Soon after, Huett said the administrator returned and demanded that they remove the book from view, by placing it in a box.
Ultimately it was agreed that the book would remain on a table behind the displays. Geddis decided to staff the third and final day of the fair herself to ensure none of her employees, many of whom are queer, had to be involved in the event.
Geddis, however, said she was not happy with the decision to hide the book. “That’s making me complicit and making me seem like I’m okay with this, which I’m not,” she said. After contacting head of school John Thorsen again, saying she would have to stop hosting the fair unless the school allowed the book to be displayed and issued an apology. Thorsen did not agree, agreeing with Geddis that she would need to pull out of the book fair.
Chris Finan, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, said that it is uncommon for a dispute over a book to escalate to the point where a bookstore has to end an entire book fair, but the underlying issues are very common. “It’s not unusual for one parent to complain and one school official to overreact,” said Finan, noting that private schools also have greater discretion with first amendment issues than public schools.
“It really does seem capricious on the part of the school, especially after an agreement to sell the book with their approval,” said Finan. “Nobody was forcing anybody to buy the book.”
Amidst mounting public pressure Thursday afternoon, Thorsen sent a letter to parents explaining the school’s decision. He wrote that “several parents raised concerns over a book that contained situations they were not yet prepared to discuss with their young children, and a decision was made to remove the book to a more discreet location.”
Thorsen also wrote that the school “does not support censorship or discrimination in any form,” and “wish to apologize to our community, the team at Avid, and the broader community for this miserable situation.” In addition, he wrote that the school will host a forum on the issue in the spring.
Geddis said she was heartened by Thorsen’s letter, if not fully satisfied with the turn of events. “I’m still so sad, angry, and frustrated,” said Geddis, “but I believe in giving credit where credit is due, and am hopeful about the possibility of changing things for the better.”
Note: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Kate Lorraine Rascoe’s last name and the title of head of school John Thorsen.