An Alabama public library system says it mistakenly added a children’s picture book to a list of books containing explicit material because the author’s last name is Gay.
The Huntsville-Madison County Public Library system accidentally labeled the book, “Read Me a Story, Stella,” by Marie-Louise Gay, as “potentially inappropriate” during an internal review of sexually explicit books in the children’s and young adult sections of the county’s ten libraries.
The library system admitted to the mistake this week after receiving backlash from internal library system staff and the local community.
Cindy Hewitt, the library’s executive director, told CNN the picture book was labeled as containing potentially explicit material after an automated keyword search turned up the word “gay” in the book’s title, author name or subject line.
But, she said, the purpose of the review was never to ban or censor books that dealt with topics related to LGBTQ+ issues, gender identity, race or racism.
Instead, in response to widespread efforts to ban books across the country, Hewitt said the library system wanted to survey its catalog and take steps to preempt any state efforts to ban books.
“We decided, as a whole, to look at all our collection and see what was likely to be challenged, with the purpose of protecting our collection and making sure it stayed intact,” Hewitt said. “(The) opposite of banning, we were trying to protect.”
Library managers conducted the review using a list of books provided by Clean Up Alabama, a group that claims Alabama libraries offer books “intended to confuse the children of our communities about sexuality and expose them to material that is inappropriate for them.”
The organization says it works to protect “the well-being and innocence of children by advocating for a safe and enriching environment in the children’s sections of our public libraries,” according to its website.
“Read Me a Story, Stella,” was not on Clean Up Alabama’s list of potentially inappropriate books. Hewitt acknowledged the book does not exhibit any content that could be labeled as sexually explicit.
The book is part of the popular Stella and Sam series where eldest sister, Stella, introduces her younger brother, Sam, to reading. The series has sold two million copies in 10 languages, according to summary provided by Groundwood Books, the book’s publisher.
In a statement, the company said it was “laughable” that the picture book was flagged because the author’s last name is Gay.
“The ridiculousness of that fact should not detract from the seriousness of the situation,” the publishing company said.
Although “Read Me a Story, Stella,” was not on Clean Up Alabama’s list of so-called age-inappropriate books, Groundwood Books noted other books by popular authors are.
“Although the focus here seems to be on LGBTQ+ content, books such as Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give,” Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” and Rainbow Rowell’s “Eleanor & Park,” also make appearances,” the statement read.
“This proves, as always, that censorship is never about limiting access to this book or that one. It is about sending the message to children that certain ideas — or even certain people — are not worthy of discussion or acknowledgment or consideration.”
Kirsten Brassard, Gay’s publicist, told CNN to her knowledge, none of the author’s other books in the Stella and Sam series have been censored before.
Last week, in a letter to the Alabama Public Library Service, Gov. Kay Ivey mandated the system change policies in order to receive state funding, including placing books in age-appropriate categories.
“We’re still waiting for how the Alabama Public Library service is going to respond to that and what’s going to be required of us on the local level,” Hewitt said.
She added Alabama seems to be moving in a direction where censoring books would become more commonplace.
But, Hewitt said, “Read Me a Story, Stella,” is “cute,” completely appropriate and would have never been banned. It continues to be available for loan at libraries in the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library system, she said.
As of now, Hewitt said, the Huntsville-Madison County Public Library system has stopped all collection reviews.