Classrooms Gone Wild

The push to control what your kids read and write is intensifying nationwide

The push to control what kids learn and read is intensifying.

A school board in York, Pa., pulled its district’s entire list of diverse books and educational resources. An Ohio mayor called for all school board members to resign or be legally charged over a high-school writing assignment. And Texas weathered a flurry of reading-related challenges, from a suburban Austin police department’s investigation of a high-school library book to a school board member’s resignation over books he called “garbage.”

The incidents are the latest in a stream of classroom controversies as the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week approaches Sept. 26.

“I felt like I had been punched in the gut. I was shocked, terrified, disappointed,” Central York High School senior Edha Gupta told WHTM, the ABC affiliate in York. She is one of many students, teachers and parents who have protested the Pennsylvania district’s decision to designate a list of books, movies and other resources off limits this school year.

The list, developed in tandem with a diversity curriculum that the district has also tabled, features teaching resources such as “Black Lives Matter at School” from the National Education Association and videos like the six-part PBS documentary “The African Americans: Many Rivers To Cross.”

It also includes hundreds of books. The list has nonfiction titles such as Tiffany Jewell’s best-selling This Book Is Anti-Racist and Jason Reynolds’ young-adult “remix” of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped, novels such as Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ninth Ward and Erika Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, and even a coloring book of African Adrinkra symbols.

The school board voted Sept. 13 to prevent use of the materials, with board member Veronica Gemma insisting that the move was not a ban but allowed time for necessary review, a process that began in November 2020. “We will not teach a curriculum that teaches division and hate,” she said at the meeting.

The decision swirled across Twitter, as authors discovered their books were on the list.

Mooncake

“The only political statement ‘A Big Mooncake for Little Star’ makes is that an Asian child can be a main character in a (book),” tweeted Newbery and Caldecott honoree Grace Lin of her award-winning picture book.

PEN America, the U.S. arm of the international nonprofit devoted to literary free expression, called on the York board to reverse its decision in a Sept. 17 statement.

“District leaders are calling this a freeze, but this is a book ban, plain and simple—and it’s all the more outrageous in this instance because it’s targeting authors and creators of color,” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America’s director of free expression and education.

A few hours west of York, the mayor of Hudson, Ohio, threatened to bring charges against the entire school board if members did not resign over a book of writing prompts.

Mayor Craig Shubert complained to the board about 642 Things To Write About, originally assigned as part of a college-credit writing class offered to high-school seniors. Prompts in the book include making a case for your favorite fruit and detailing a perfect day as an astronaut. They also include “Write a sex scene you wouldn’t show your mom” and one about drinking beer. The district pulled the book in response to parent complaints before teachers had assigned specific prompts, Superintendent Phil Herman said.

Nevertheless, Shubert pushed Sept. 13 for the five-member board to resign or face legal consequences.

“It has come to my attention that your educators are distributing essentially what is child pornography in the classroom,” Shubert told the board. “I’ve spoken to a judge this evening. She’s already confirmed that. So I’m going to give you a simple choice: You either choose to resign from this board of education or you will be charged.”

Ralph Lusher, a staff attorney for the Ohio School Boards Association, told the Akron Beacon Journal he was unaware of any case in which school board members have faced charges over curriculum materials. The board’s president said he and his colleagues would be staying put.

Police are also involved in the latest fight over reading in Leander, Texas, a suburb of Austin. Leander police say they are investigating two parents’ complaints about Lawn Boy by Jonathan Evison. The 2018 coming-of-age novel, which delves into class issues, won the American Library Association’s Alex Award, given to adult books that also hold special appeal for readers aged 12 to 18.

Lawn Boy

The book is part of some high school libraries but they don’t assign it as reading, nor is it part of any curriculum, the district noted.

One parent complained about the book’s content at the Leander school board’s Sept. 9 meeting, citing language the main character uses and his memories of sexual experimentation in elementary school. She went on to make a formal complaint with Leander police, who told CBS Austin that the department was investigating two complaints about the book and would turn results over to the city’s Criminal Investigation Division or prosecutors.

The incident follows months of strife over Leander’s high-school book club choice reading lists, which drew complaints from parents. The district has pulled several books from its choice lists, including award winners, titles from authors of color and novels with LGBTQ themes. The district’s decisions prompted calls for changefrom PEN America.

Still dissatisfied with content in books that remained in the Leander high school libraries, board member Jim MacKay resigned. “I will keep for myself the shame and guilt of our ‘literature program’ for the rest of my life,” he noted in an email to his fellow board members.

Meanwhile, in another suburb of Austin, the Lake Travis school district has pulled a book from two middle-school libraries after complaints. The district removed Ashley Hope Pérez’s Out of Darkness, a 2015 young-adult novel about a relationship between a Mexican-American girl and a Black boy in a small East Texas town in the 1930s. Perez’s book was also removed from the Leander book-club lists.

Former school board candidate Kara Bell, who last made news when police charged her with assault on a Nordstrom employee who asked Bell to wear a mask, complained about the book and its sexual references at a Sept. 15 board meeting. The district said it had also received an unidentified phone complaint about the book being pornographic.

“Central Texas is one among many areas in the country that have become hotspots for these eruptions of local anger and disagreement,” PEN America’s Friedman told Austin NBC affiliate KXAN.

Friedman, who told Book and Film Globe via email that PEN America was monitoring the Leander complaints over Lawn Boy, will be discussing the school districts’ decisions with Pérez at a Banned Books Week event that will also feature Chris Tomlinson, a co-author of Forget The Alamo. That book, which argues that the familiar Alamo narrative erased the contributions of Tejano soldiers and Mexico’s push to abolish slavery, became a New York Times best-seller after Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urged the Bullock Texas State History Museum to cancel the authors’ appearance there.

 

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Sharyn Vane

Sharyn Vane has reported and edited at newspapers in Washington, D.C., Colorado, Florida and Texas. For the last decade she has written about literature for young people for the Austin American-Statesman.

4 thoughts on “Classrooms Gone Wild

  • September 21, 2021 at 9:36 am
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    Speaking as the Board member you reference in this article, “the district has pulled several books from its choice lists, including award winners, titles from authors of color and novels with LGBTQ themes” is a dangerous narrative and not at all what lies at the heart of the issue. The attempted slant that these books are inappropriate because they represent minority and marginalized communities only serves to minimize those you claim to want to protect. As I have stated publicly numerous times, our historically underserved voices and authors ABSOLUTELY need to be part of our American literature. However, books that describe – in exceptionally graphic detail – gang rape, pedophilia, and child sexual abuse are inappropriate in middle school and high school regardless of the author. Your assertion seems to suggest that you believe the only content our minority authors can write about is graphic sexual content. What message does that send to minority children? What role models are you providing those students when seemingly the only literature they can find that resembles them deal with rape, abuse, and drug use? This is not about censorship, this is about teaching “reading” skills – vocabulary, comprehension, and critical thinking. If you are suggesting that the only way public education can prepare our children to graduate is by providing them access to graphic sexual content and mature subject matter, then public education has much larger issues. We should be teaching how to think, not what to think.

    Reply
    • September 21, 2021 at 11:01 am
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      Not suggesting anything other than it’s a disservice to all students to ban books — or pause them, pull them, make them unavailable to students, or any other semantic dodge. If districts should indeed be teaching how to think, not what to think, then what message does it send to students that they’re incapable of reading on a page stories drawn from the real pain some of their fellow humans experience? Are you suggesting that the district’s teachers who originally chose these books didn’t pay attention to their ability to serve as a vehicle for teaching ELA skills? Or that the novels chosen with positive depictions of LGBTQ themes deal with “rape, abuse and drug use”? Why were some novels that the second round of district review deemed worthy of inclusion still removed from book-choice lists? (That’s after hybrid teacher-parent panels read and discussed the books, and thought they met the criteria.) You mention not focusing solely on marginalized communities’ pain, yet the majority of books that remain on the list which center Black students deal with police brutality and racism. It’s a dangerous, slippery slope when we start restricting access to learning materials.

      Reply
      • September 22, 2021 at 9:07 am
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        Also: I’m guessing many of these folks objecting to complex and challenging and compelling narratives for teens think it’s fine for a school library to have the Bible, which contains gang rape, incest, sexual slavery, genocide and more. (I grew up in a Bible church; I’ve read it all.) Just check out Judges 19, where a man puts his concubine out to be raped through the night, then dismembers her and sends pieces of her body around the countryside as a message.

        That’s “objectionable,” right? That behavior is “gross and disgusting,” right? But most don’t leap from that to God/preachers/Sunday school teachers are “gross and disgusting” because they understand, from a more centered place, that inclusion of a situation in a literary text is not an endorsement of it. They likely feel that the “disturbing”content is part of a whole that is valuable. And presumably folks think that there are ways for teens to read the Bible without being harmed.

        It’s important not to underestimate teen readers. It’s also important not to idealize their experiences, the world they live in, or to imagine that books are somehow the sole space in which they might encounter challenging content.

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        • September 22, 2021 at 11:18 am
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          All great points, and thank you for sharing. Framing and context matter. One could describe Romeo and Juliet as ‘two teens defy their parents in a suicide pact.’ As a parent of teens myself, I appreciate being able to talk through challenging situations on the page and via storytelling. I appreciate your comments and your advocacy for readers!

          Reply

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