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Beyond the ban: Haywood County bookstore continues community conversation around 'Dear Martin'

Blue Ridge Books co-owner Allison Lee hopes the event will be a valuable community conversation.
Courtesy of Smoky Mountain News
Blue Ridge Books co-owner Allison Lee hopes the event will be a valuable community conversation.

A packed house is expected at a Haywood County bookstore event that is hosting an author whose book was recently removed from a high school classroom.

In January, “Dear Martin,” a young adult novel, was pulled from a Tuscola High School classroom. The Smoky Mountain News reported that the book was pulled by the administration after one parent complained it used too much “profanity and innuendo.”

Allison Lee, co-owner of Blue Ridge Books in Waynesville says they have carried the book since it was published in 2017.

“Anytime decisions are made to limit access to books that is a concern for bookstores or libraries, authors, anyone who loves books and believes in their importance,” said Lee.

The novel follows a Black high schooler who starts writing letters to civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr in a journal to help process his experiences at a predominantly white school.

Nationally, there has been an outcry to label discussions about racism and the history of slavery in America as “critical race theory.” Some states have even banned the topic, while others have expanded discussions about diversity in schools. Lee says these hard discussions build critical thinking skills.

“You know, if it's a difficult subject, if it's very, very challenging, I think it would be better for students to read it in a classroom with some guidance, rather than just maybe a few students have access to it in the library and be left completely on their own to make sense of it,” said Lee. She is referring to the fact that after the book was pulled from the classroom it was still available in the library.

And that’s what prompted Lee to invite author Nic Stone who lives in nearby Atlanta and to make the event free for students.

Stone told the Smoky Mountain News that she wrote “Dear Martin” with her own sons in mind.

Lee relates. Her son, now 24, attended Tuscola where the book was pulled. Lee has lived in Haywood County since 1996.

“And I asked him, did you have discussions about racism and current day issues like this? And his answer was ‘No.’ They studied slavery and they studied Martin Luther King, but they never really talked about what racism looks like past that time,” said Lee.

Lee says they had to change venue to accommodate community interest. She hopes this will be a meaningful way to have a hard conversation.

“It's not an easy book. There were parts that I found distressing because the racism that it reflects from our society is also very distressing,” said Lee. “So it's kind of like in a situation where someone says, ‘Don't read this book about the Holocaust, it'll upset you, it's very upsetting.’ Well, I really hope so. If you're reading about the Holocaust and it's not upsetting you, then that's a problem.”

Blue Ridge Books co-owner Allison Lee hopes the event will be a valuable community conversation.
Courtesy of Blue Ridge Books
Here's more information about the event.

The event is on Thursday March 24 at 6pm at Haywood Community College auditorium.

Tickets are $10 or you get a free ticket with the purchase of a copy of “Dear Martin.”

Blue Ridge Books will use the profits from the event to give copies of the book to local nonprofits.

Smoky Mountains News is a sponsor of the event. The newspaper is a regular partner of BPR.

Lilly Knoepp is Senior Regional Reporter for Blue Ridge Public Radio. She has served as BPR’s first fulltime reporter covering Western North Carolina since 2018. She is from Franklin, NC. She returns to WNC after serving as the assistant editor of Women@Forbes and digital producer of the Forbes podcast network. She holds a master’s degree in international journalism from the City University of New York and earned a double major from UNC-Chapel Hill in religious studies and political science.