In Montgomery County, Kentucky, several parents whose children are in an accelerated college preparatory class questioned several books a teacher had planned on using in the class because they don't adequately contribute to accelerated college preparation. The parents apparently had the crazy idea that putting their kids in an advanced college prep course meant that they would be reading academically challenging books instead of literary fluff.
This of course sent "anti-censorship" groups into paroxysms of indignation, all the more so because, in addition to the books being light on the intellectual side, they also contained some racy content, making them all the more worthy of inclusion in school curricula.
After the dust up, the Kid's Right to Read Project, a place where indignation sometimes gets in the way of common sense, fired off a letter to Montgomery County Superintendent Daniel Freeman:
But they picked a bad time to do it: right before "Banned Books Week."
The view of the parent who objects to the books is not shared by all, and she has no right to demand removal of the book. Public schools have the obligation to “administer school curricula responsive to the overall educational needs of the community and its children.” Leebaert v. Harrington, 332 F.3d 134, 141 (2d Cir. 2003).Maybe in its next manifesto, the Kid's Right to Read Project could explain how the "overall education needs of the community and its children" are served by spending valuable time on literary cotton candy in a class that's supposed to be preparing students for the greater rigors of higher education.
You have to be careful what you do around the time of Banned Books Week because you might be unwillingly enrolled in the narrative that groups like the American Library Association propagate about conservatives running around the country censoring school books, a narrative that somehow always leaves out any coverage of the most banned book of all: the Bible.
The books in question in the Montgomery County case were these:
Twisted by Laurie Halse AndersonNow I haven't read these books, and, being an English instructor and a fairly well-read person, I've never, with one exception, even heard of them either. If they're on a list of great books somewhere, I've never encountered it. Maybe they're appropriate for a course on Early 21st Century Lightweight Pop Fiction for Bored Teenagers, but a college prep course? C'mon.
Deadline by Chris Crutcher
Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles
The Rapture of Canaan by Sheri Reynolds
What My Mother Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
What My Girlfriend Doesn't Know by Sonya Sones
The only book that has any reputation at all is The Rapture of Canaan, a story with the not-very-original politically correct plot line about an evil fundamentalist church called "The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God's Almighty Baptizing Wind." There's realism for you. And it is a measure of its literary quality that it impressed Oprah, who made it a selection for her Book Club in 1997.
According to "teenreads.com," undoubtedly a bastion of discriminating literary taste, Knowles Lessons from a Dead Girl "does a credible job of exploring friendships, particularly those of girls, in all their complexity and depth." I bet.
These are books about self-obsessed teenagers with names like "Chip," "Lainey," "Rudy," and "Chaz" who are depressed because they didn't make the football team or are upset because they can't figure out what dress to wear for homecoming. Including books like these in a serious college prep course is a little like screening Beach Blanket Bingo at a classic film festival.
Minus the bad language, sexual themes, and the drug abuse, they might pass for some of the cheap fiction my friends and I used to read in school. If you would have told us at the time that books like this would be brought into a college prep class by teachers and taken seriously, we would have had a big laugh and thought that that would be pretty cool. But that's because we were ignorant teenagers who hadn't yet developed anything remotely resembling judgment.
As it turns out, some people never did--and many of them are apparently teachers.
The teacher in whose class such literary specimens were to be held up as examples of quality literature was Risha Mullins. While students in a serious class might be reading Shakespeare's Hamlet proclaiming "To be or not to be," Miss Mullins students are treated to characters soliloquys include lines like "I was a zit on the butt of the student body."
Impressive stuff, you'll have to admit.
Mullins apparently travels the country giving lectures to other teachers on promoting student reading. This, in and of itself, is a scary thought.
If merely trying to maintain some reasonable level of quality in the literature students read at school is now to be labeled censorship, then the odds of improving schools may have just become prohibitive.
In the Montgomery County case, all you had was parents challenging whether books deserved a place in the curriculum of a college prep course. They weren't removed from the school library or eliminated from the readings for the reading club there. They were adjudged unfit for a place alongside Beowulf and the Canterbury Tales.
Oh, and then there's Kentucky's state teachers union, which, with admirable consistency, almost always gets it wrong, rushing to the aid of the teacher, whose job they claim is in jeopardy despite the fact that it's not. Action against the teacher hasn't even been considered. It's simply a question of deciding what gets taught in a class, a judgment that is made every day and gets that much more difficult when national groups whose only interest is making a few cheap headlines stick their bothersome noses in places they don't belong.
UPDATE: I have begun responding to some of the arguments made in the comments section of this post here. My first response addresses the question whether a person is justified in making certain assertions about books they have not themselves read. Other responses will be noted here as they are posted.