Sarah Bonner, a 20-year veteran teacher in Illinois, never expected to face criminal charges for offering a book to her middle school students. But that’s what happened when she included a LGBTQ-themed book in her classroom library.
The book in question is “This Book is Gay” by Juno Dawson, a bestselling nonfiction book that provides information and advice for anyone coming out as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. Bonner says she chose the book as part of a diverse collection of books that she wanted to expose her students to.
“I wanted to give them a smattering of fiction and nonfiction to choose from on a day that we call ‘Reading Monday,’” Bonner, 42, told TODAY.com. “We just read and celebrate books.”
But some parents were not celebrating when they saw pictures of the book that their child had taken in class. They filed a police report against Bonner for child endangerment, claiming that the book was inappropriate and harmful for young readers.
“The notion that I was putting children in danger because of books — I didn’t feel safe,” Bonner says. “I knew I couldn’t go back.”
Bonner says she has always tried to support her students and prepare them for the world outside their small town. She says she has seen many of her former students struggle to adapt to bigger and more diverse spaces after graduating.
“I wanted to do something to support them,” said Bonner, who has a 10-year-old son. “I wanted to create a class culture that welcomes curiosity and ignites social action.”
But her efforts were met with resistance and backlash from some parents and community members who accused her of pushing an agenda and violating their parental rights. Bonner says she understands that parents know their children best, but she also believes that educators have a responsibility to provide a well-rounded education for all students.
“The difference is that I have that love and care for all students, not just a singular student,” she adds.
Bonner’s case is not an isolated incident. According to a report from PEN America, a nonprofit group that advocates for free expression in literature, more than 1,600 books were banned or challenged during the 2021-2022 school year. More than half of the books banned or challenged had LGBTQ themes.
The report also found that the majority of challenges came from parents or community members, rather than school officials or teachers. The report warns that such censorship can have negative impacts on students’ academic achievement, mental health and civic engagement.
“It’s not necessarily about what happened to me,” Bonner says. “It’s about how things have really changed for students.”
Bonner says she hopes that her story will raise awareness and spark dialogue about the importance of diverse books and inclusive education. She says she has received support from other teachers, students and organizations who share her vision.
“I’m not going to stop fighting for my students,” she says. “They deserve better.”