Karen Smith, Who Took an Oath on a Stack of Banned Books, Tells the Story Behind the Viral Photo

Central Bucks County (PA) School Board president Karen Smith shares the backstory to getting sworn in on a stack of frequently challenged books and the reason for each title selected.

The viral photo has become a symbol of the fight for intellectual freedom. It was retweeted by actor and activist George Takei and singer Pink, among thousands of others.

Smith with son Alex (left) and husband Pete (holding books). Photos courtesy Karen Smith

Central Bucks County (PA) School Board president Karen Smith’s decision to get sworn in on a stack of frequently challenged books that have been attacked in her district was not an intentional attempt to become the poster person for fighting book banners. It was not done to become known as a “badass,” as those on the internet have declared her.

In reality, an off-hand comment in a group textand nearly two years of fighting for students in the district to have access to booksled to the moment and image that lit up social media feeds after the December 4 ceremony.

Following victory in the November 7 election, an incoming board member for the Central Bucks County Board of Education wrote in a group text that they should take their oath on banned books. While no one else in the group followed through on the suggestion, Smith thought it was a great idea. Not being religious, the Bible doesn’t carry great meaning to her. On the other hand, over the past two years, she has realized how much the freedom to read and giving kids access to a diverse selection of books does mean to her.

So Smith set out to select the books on which she would lay her left hand when she held up her right. During the ceremony, as her son Alex looked on, Smith’s husband Pete held Night by Elie Weisel, Lily & Duncan by Donna Gephart, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, Flamer by Mike Curato, All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson, and Beyond Magenta by Susan Kuklin. Each was chosen for a reason.

Night was not one of the books challenged in her district. It is part of the ninth-grade curriculum, according to Smith. But when a district librarian displayed a Wiesel quote in her library, she was told to take it down. After outrage, it went back up, but the attempt to censor a Nobel Prize-winning Holocaust survivor’s words did not sit well with Smith, so she included the book in her stack.

The rest of the titles were on a list of books challenged in the district. Smith has read them all.

Lily & Duncan: Those who objected to the book said it had "inappropriate sexual material in it," says Smith, who couldn't figure out what the challenge was referring to. "The only thing of note in the book is that one of the students is transgender. I think that's why it's on our list. They don't seem to want to admit that LGBTQ peopletransgender peopleexist, that these students are in our schools and that we have to have to welcome and include all students in our school."

FlamerSmith spoke on a panel with former Texas high school student Cameron Samuels at the AASL conference in Tampa, FL, in October. During the discussion, Samuels talked about the lifeline that this book could be to LGBTQIA+ youth. Smith found hearing Samuels' comments in person overwhelming and moving. Fox News focused on the inclusion of this title in a story on Smith's swearing in ceremony. "Flamer is essentially about bullying of an LGBTQ youth," says Smith. "It's an important story. I think it's a valuable story."

The Bluest Eye: Smith says the district has students who have been victims of sexual abuse, and this book is particularly important for those kids. "They should have some resources available to them, to help them, [to] know that they're not alone."

Beyond Magenta: This book shares the stories of six transgender teens through interviews and images. "I thought it was a powerful book and important for some kids who may be looking for that type of resource," says Smith.

All Boys Aren’t Blue: Smith was moved by Johnson's memoir. "In particular, I found the scene towards the end of the book to be very, very powerful," she says. "He writes about how he felt a lot of shame and embarrassment. In the end, he decided he should tell [his] story so that he would help other young queer men in their journeys. It has won awards, and it touched me when I read it."

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