By Anna Miller and Sam Dorman
IFF’s recent article about public school libraries circulating radical, obscene books has naturally prompted outrage. People want questions answered.
Why, for example, would any school official think it’s appropriate to teach kids how to masturbate or normalize polyamory? How could a school district that’s supposedly accountable to taxpayers be so willing to distribute material harmful to kids?
For Idaho, Centennial High School provides answers to these questions. The Centennial High School library has many books containing explicit or concerning content about gender and sexuality. Public records requests yielded a long list of explicit and left-wing books circulating in five of Idaho’s public school districts (Idaho Falls, Nampa, Pocatello, West Ada, and Twin Falls). Two high schools stand out for the presence of such material: Centennial in West Ada and Magic Valley High School in Twin Falls.
We sought to discover how a book like “Let’s Talk About It: The Teen’s Guide to Sex, Relationships, and Being a Human” could make it into an Idaho public school.
The answer points to a much broader problem than just one library. Rather, it seems a system of reviewers, stakeholders, federal agencies, and public employees facilitates the provision of inappropriate books for minors.
West Ada has offered a confusing and contradictory set of answers on how available “Let’s Talk About It” came to be shelved in Centennial. As of Thursday, the district said that school librarian Gena Marker purchased the book for the library and checked it out about a month after acquiring it in April 2022. By the beginning of June, Marker had purportedly determined it was too inappropriate to keep in the library, raising questions about why she decided to purchase it in the first place and whether she thinks any limits would be considered censorship.
Where did Marker get the idea to purchase a book by the same authors as “Oh Joy, Sex Toy”? According to public records requests, Marker said that she purchased the book through Follett’s Titlewave, which she described as “a commonly-used platform for ordering library books.” She ordered it after “reading several positive reviews.”
“I chose to purchase this book last spring after reading several positive (some starred) reviews on it. This book covers a content area in our nonfiction collection that was outdated and needed to be refreshed with some new titles.”
Marker did not provide any further comments. The “positive reviews,” which West Ada provided on Feb. 23, are fairly detailed in describing the book’s content and indicate, among other things, that it contains “how-to ideas” for masturbation, as well as normalizing pornography, polyamory, kink, and alternative sexual activity (Full review screenshots inset). The reviews also praise the book’s use of “testosterone-rich” bodies and variations in “gender identity and expression.”
The reviews, which were posted to Titlewave’s website, came from Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal, raising questions about their reliability for recommending suitable content. West Ada did not respond to multiple requests for comment on these reviews and whether they thought Marker’s purchase was appropriate.
As Marker indicated, two of the reviews were “starred” or signaling a purportedly high quality.
Reading reviews would seem to align with West Ada’s policy, which instructs librarians to “consult reputable, professional sources to help determine if the resource is appropriate for its anticipated use.” Certainly the average parent reading West Ada’s policies would not expect a “reputable, professional” source to recommend obscene books.
Even if the reviews were somehow not indicative of appropriateness, simple googling would have revealed the debauched backgrounds of the authors.
Each of the reviews Marker noted refers back to authors Erika Moen and Matthew Nolan’s other work with specific shout-outs to “Oh Joy, Sex Toy,” an “18+ Only” webcomic that appears to use a butt plug for its logo. The webcomic has been around for 10 years and puts its pornographic content on full display on its homepage. The same was the case in March of 2022 when Marker, according to West Ada, purchased “Let’s Talk About It.”
According to its website, the comic features a host of characters dubbed “masturbateers,” [sic] which are “gender-neutral characters who portray the use of the sex toys that we are reviewing.” It adds: “Their pronouns as individuals are “They, Them and Their” and they refer to their genitalia by their medical, anatomical names. The Masturbateers’ sexuality is: Horny.”
For an idea of that content, consult the internet archive. Doing so will also reveal a July 2020 blog post in which Moen describes the book as being directed toward “young adults.” One of the reviews, which came from Booklist, also begins with “Grades 9-12” while another from Kirkus vaguely describes the book as a “resource for teens.” One of the screenshots from West Ada also shows a description with “School Library Journal: Gr 9-Up.”
It’s unclear why a school district would consider a book review website to be reputable and professional when it gives obscene books harmful to children positive ratings.
Marker’s history and advocacy
It’s actually not surprising that someone with Marker’s past purchased “Let’s Talk About It” in spite of those reviews. What is surprising is that she would have deemed it too inappropriate to distribute.
The month after she purchased the book for herself, Idaho Ed News reported that Marker handed a teenager two books with graphic sexual content. One of those was “Genderqueer: A Memoir,” which has understandably encountered nationwide resistance and has been named on lists like the Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2021. The book, which was pulled from Centennial’s shelves, includes scenes with homosexual activity and descriptions of masturbation following:
Most Idahoans would likely be embarrassed to personally hand such content over to a teenager. Not Marker. Instead, she was defiant, telling Idaho Ed News that she would continue protecting titles like those. “Would I do this again in the name of intellectual freedom? You bet,” she reportedly said. “Will I do this again in the near future? Most likely.”
Like “Let’s Talk About It,” the other book Marker protected (“This Book is Gay”) contains detailed instructions for how to engage in sexual activity (e.g. “play[ing]” with your anus, approving of bathhouses, and joking that “any hole’s a goal”).
One might be tempted to think Marker’s purchase was a fluke, given the nature of the “Let’s Talk About It” content, but as noted above, scandalous books seem to be commonplace at Centennial, where Marker has served for years.
That can be seen in the public records results obtained by IFF of books purchased since December 2019. Among the books (full list below) purchased by and/or circulated in Centennial’s library were “Trans+,” “Beyond Magenta,” “Beyond Male and Female: the gender identity spectrum,” “Be gay, do comics: queer history, memoir, and satire from the Nib,” and “Queer, there, and everywhere: 23 people who changed the world.”
Many of her library’s books promote left-wing ideas about gender, as well as disparaging traditional sexual ethics and conservative politics. Another, “Stamped: racism, antiracism, and you” has sparked national controversy for its ideas about race. It was also co-authored by Ibram X. Kendi, who has explicitly called for more racial discrimination. Others have prompted challenges for their inappropriate or explicit content.
State and federal agencies circumvent local control of libraries
Marker’s tenure raises questions about not just Centennial but the stakeholders supporting school library systems. Federal agencies subsidize the leftward trajectory of public libraries. State library associations train and organize librarians to advance a progressive political agenda in local libraries.
Consider the Idaho Digital E-Book Alliance (IDEA) database, one of the ways K-12 students can access explicit material. The IDEA came under fire last year as lawmakers sought to reduce funding for its parent organization, the Idaho Commission for Libraries (ICfL). IDEA continues to offer “This Book is Gay” and lists “Let’s Talk About It” as “recommended.” Pro-“transgender” books like “Trans Mission” and “Aidan Becomes a Brother” are offered by IDEA as well.
The ICfL has been pushing diversity, equity, and inclusion in public school library collections as part of a project funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), a federal agency. According to ICfL’s website, Marker has long been active within the organization — serving on committees, providing recommendations for reports, and attending/facilitating events. For example, the Idaho Commission for Libraries School Library Action Plan 2018-2022 lists Marker as part of the original School Library Action Planning Committee formed in 2011 when ICfL featured her in its newsletter.
A newsletter from September/October of 2009 announces her addition to the ICfL’s Special Projects Library Action Team (SPLAT). She also served as vice president of the Idaho Library Association (ILA) and sat on its Information Literacy Committee. Her tenure has seen support through awards and funding from both state and federal sources. For example, she’s listed on ICfL’s website as a 2010-2012 grant participant for the IMLS Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program. ILA also named her School Librarian of the Year in 2014. Other documents suggest she received more than $1,000 in conference grants.
One of those grants appears to be for a conference with the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), which is part of the American Library Association and has featured Marker’s blog posts. It’s unclear how Marker learned about “Let’s Talk About It,” but just a month before she purchased it, YALSA listed the book as one of its 2022 “Great Graphic Novels for Teens.”
Public school libraries, such as Centennial, are staffed by activists aided and abetted by state and national groups pushing the same corrupt and corrupting ideology. Restoring sound morals in these institutions requires recapturing or dismantling them. A good place to start is rejecting national money subverting local control and creating a civil cause of action to hold public school officials accountable for distributing obscene content to minors.
Books that have circulated in Centennial High School’s library: