The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines an activist as: “One who advocates or practices activism: a person who uses or supports strong actions (such as public demonstrations) to support or oppose one side of a controversial issue .”
When strangers wanted to make decisions for her high school last year, Ava Kirtley deployed every cell of activism she had.
Kirtley, a junior at Walla Walla High School, was unwilling to let a group of people who wanted certain library books banned go unchallenged.
The uproar from this group – people who weren’t present or working at Wa-Hi – over four particular library books began last winter.
“Gender Queer”, by Maia Kobabe; “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison; “The Hatred You Give,” by Angie Thomas; and “Not All the Boys Are Blue,” by George M. Johnson, were or were about to be in circulation in Walla Walla high school libraries. Critics said these books were agenda-driven, political, sexually explicit, and filled with foul language.
The protests and prayer vigils underlined the sentiments of a group of people calling for the books to be removed from the library shelves.
All four books are currently available at district libraries, but none are required reading or are otherwise assigned by district teachers, officials said.
These challenges and responses gave Kirtley a lot to think about, she said. Not only about these books, but how to find solutions to community problems.
Kirtley cares deeply about the town she lives in, and it shows in the things she participates in.
She played the double bass, to begin with, at school, in the Ritmo Jazz Trio and in the Walla Walla Youth Symphony. She participates in the YMCA Youth and Government program which sends students to Olympia for an experience of government in action.
Earlier this month, Kirtley was inducted into the National Honor Society. She also belongs to the Wa-Hi’s Green Club, which promotes the defense of the environment; the Girls’ League club, which works for justice and equality on campus and beyond; Gay Heterosexual Alliance; Students for Justice and more.
This spring, however, the local book banning movement added one more activity to its list.
“I’ve done a ton of research on this, and I think banning the books is a bad idea,” Kirtley said. “There is a lot to be said about censorship and its impact on young people. And as it is now, it’s obviously super politically motivated.
The teenager rallied other students and attended the December Walla Walla School Board meeting, equalizing the view on the books in question, she said.
“Half of the comments from citizens came from students talking about the importance of these books, and the other half came from adults complaining about the books.”
She went home after that meeting, also feeling torn in two, Kirtley recalled.
“I was both excited about my peers and furious about what I heard. I had a conversation with my family, and my family is the type to buy into this stuff. So we got together. is like, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a club that could buy these books for kids who want to read them?’
Within two days, Kirtley launched a crowdfunding campaign, and two days later she was ordering the books.
David Cosby, owner of Earthlight Books on Main Street, was happy to make ordering easier, reducing the cost of the 160 books.
“I support book readers and oppose book bans,” Cosby said last week.
“It usually backfires, anyway. Banning efforts draw attention to the book, and more people end up reading it.
He is happy to see young people realizing the power of words and understanding the effect of censorship efforts, Cosby added.
With about 40 Banned Book Club members on board — the response to her idea was immediate and very positive, she said — Kirtley hatched a plan to have everyone read a book a month and then attend a virtual meeting. to talk about it.
Not everyone was able to do it at the same time, due to schedules, but each meeting over the past four months has drawn close to 20 attendees.
Kirtley used the fundraiser money to hire discussion leaders, including Rosa Tobin, a 2013 Wa-Hi graduate, who led the group through “Gender Queer.”
Tobin was a co-founder of the Gay Straight Alliance at school during her time there and went on to earn a degree in English Literature from Western Washington University and later a Masters from Michigan State University in Numerical Rhetoric and professional writing.
Tobin has done a number of digital projects and now works on fair housing in Massachusetts.
Having the privilege of being invited by Kirtley to lead that first book discussion, however, transcended everything, Tobin said.
“It was absolutely beautiful. I think I communicated it as “life giving, nourishing”.
The former Walla Wallan spent about 90 virtual minutes with young people in the community “doing way more than I did at that age,” Tobin said last week.
“The energy was so intentional, caring and thoughtful. It was everything you could hope for.
As a queer and trans person, it was very special to talk to teenagers about “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” Tobin said.
Kobabe’s graphic novel explores self-identity, the confusion of teenage crushes, how to come out to family and society, and bond with friends over erotic gay fanfiction, among other topics .
“I’m so grateful to have been able to be part of the queer community of Walla Walla,” Tobin said. The former Walla Wallan, who uses the pronoun they, said sharing his experience with young people learning about the subject was a gift.
“I spent a lot of time being impressed. Seeing people bring so much of themselves to it,” they said.
During his last meeting in the series, members of the Banned Book Club also heard about author George M. Johnson after reading the author’s book published in 2020.
“All Boys Aren’t Blue” is a compilation of essays about Johnson’s journey growing up as a queer black man in New Jersey and Virginia, and it encompasses topics such as consent, agency and sexual abuse.
School boards in many states have removed the book from their libraries, according to Kirkus Reviews.
It’s the kind of action, coming from uninformed people, that Kirtley vehemently opposes.
“They haven’t read those books,” she said of Walla Walla residents who want this and other books banned. “It’s offensive and crazy.”
All four books read by his club are still on the list of the 10 most banned books in America, Kirtley pointed out.
Despite local outcry over the books, as Kirtly began building the Banned Book Club, she found support in many ways, not just financial donations, she said.
“At the very beginning, there was a lot of anger, a lot of offense, a lot of feeling that our maturity was being questioned.”
Using advocacy muscles to counter this through reading, learning and talking seemed all right, the teenager said.
“The civilian agency has been part of my family for a very long time. I never knew what I wanted to do in a career… People asked me that, and I never got a good answer. But for the past two months, I’ve been thinking, “Maybe a librarian.”
The job seems to suit his need to be involved in community outreach and in literature and organizing.
“All things are rooted in me,” she said.
Then there’s activism, something Kirtley is determined to never lose her taste for and hopes other teens are just as determined.
“We are a very important voice in these conversations. They listen to us more now, but probably not enough.
“I want to get involved. I want to have a voice and let others speak. Banning books takes that away, but it’s part of freedom of expression… Problems arise when one is missing.