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"Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe is a graphic memoir about gender and sexuality. It ranks as the most banned book of the year, according to PEN America.
The National Education Association, a teachers union, recommended it to educators as summer reading.
At the beginning of June, the nation’s largest teachers union published a list of suggested reads — for teachers, not students.
Titled "Great Summer Reads for Educators!," the list included books about learning, literacy, race — and a few titles regularly challenged as being inappropriate for school shelves, including PEN America’s titleholder for most banned book of 2022-23, "Gender Queer" by Maia Kobabe. Kobabe’s 240-page graphic memoir deals with puberty and gender identity and includes illustrations of nude characters and sexual situations.
A month later, the National Education Association’s recommendations generated headlines, with some news outlets misstating the list’s intended audience:
"Gender Queer on NEA Summer Reading List for Kids," read a Fox News chyron during a July 5 segment of "The Faulkner Focus."
"The country’s largest teachers union (is) sending educators a recommended list of 11 books for students' summer reading, and one of those books is actually titled ‘Gender Queer,’" host Julie Banderas said during the show, describing the book as being "about masturbation and oral sex."
Fox News host Tomi Lahren said something similar in a July 6 OutKick article, describing the book as "soft porn" and asserting that the NEA "recommended teachers include the graphic gay sex novel ‘Gender Queer’ on their student’s summer reading lists."
But "Gender Queer" deals with the author’s journey of coming out as nonbinary and asexual. And the NEA says the list was always intended for adults. Fox News itself noted the NEA’s list was for educators in a separate online article published July 4. After blowback and misinformation spread, the NEA on July 5 appended the reading list with an editor’s note.
"Educators read diverse books so that they can better understand their colleagues, students, and families they serve," it said. "The books here are not recommended for students."
Fox News did not respond to PolitiFact’s requests for comment.
Published in 2019, Kobabe’s memoir was awarded two 2020 prizes by the American Library Association, including the Alex Award, given to books published for adults that also have appeal for youth ages 12 to 18.
PEN America, which advocates for free expression and tracks books that are challenged in schools and libraries, called it the most banned book of the 2022-23 school year.
The book tells the story of Kobabe’s adolescent journey toward coming out as nonbinary — having a gender identity that is not solely male or female. But critics have seized on the sexually explicit illustrations in the book as one reason for concern.
"I honestly think the book is a lot less explicit than it could be or would have been if written by a different author," Kobabe said in an interview with NPR about the criticism. "The topic of gender touches on identity and touches on sexuality, and it touches on all of these things."
Representing 3 million members, the NEA promotes traditionally liberal causes, with the majority of its donor support going to Democrats, according to OpenSecrets, a research organization tracking political finances.
The organization advocates against book bans, arguing that removing access to books puts "students and educators at a disadvantage."
An NEA spokesperson told PolitiFact in an email that the reading list "was prepared for education professionals."
"NEA will not stand for attacks on our freedoms," the statement said.
A July 5 Fox News chyron read, "‘Gender Queer’ on NEA Summer Reading List for Kids." Host Julie Banderas similarly characterized the NEA’s list as being intended for kids.
The NEA did recommend "Gender Queer" to its members, but it titled its list as being "for educators" and has since clarified in an editor’s note that this was recommended reading for adults, not students.
We rate the claim that it was recommended "for kids" False.
NEA, Great Summer Reads for Educators!, June 5, 2023
Fox News, Segment, July 5, 2023
OutKick, Teachers Unions Pushing Soft Porn In Summer Reading Lists, July 6, 2023
NEA, Great Summer Reads for Educators! (archived July 5, 2023), accessed July 11, 2023
Oni Press, Gender Queer: A Memoir, accessed July 10, 2023
American Library Association, Gender Queer: A Memoir | Awards & Grants, accessed July 10, 2023
American Library Association, Alex Awards, accessed July 11, 2023
PEN America, The 11 most banned books of the start of the 2022-2023 school year, April 20, 2023
The New York Times, How a debut graphic memoir became the most banned book in the country, May 1, 2022
Rod Dreher, Tweet, October 29, 2021
NPR, Banned books: Maia Kobabe on 'Gender Queer’, January 4, 2023
OpenSecrets, National Education Association Profile: Recipients, accessed July 11, 2023
NEA, The freedom to read and learn: educators respond to book bans, January 31, 2022
Email interview with NEA spokesperson, July 11, 2023
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