After a directive by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) last week to restrict student access for all grades below 11 to Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s award-winning memoir about growing up during the Iranian Revolution, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett quickly issued a memo clarifying that the graphic novel should remain on library shelves, as per its own collection development policy. However, the clarification has not stemmed the immediate tide of protest from librarians and other educators who remain wary about the classroom restrictions, prompting the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) and the Freedom to Read Foundation (FTRF) to respond.
“Let me be clear—we are not banning this book from our schools,” Byrd-Bennett said in her memo to principals. “It was brought to our attention that it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh grade curriculum…Due to the powerful images of torture in the book, I have asked our Office of Teaching & Learning to develop professional development guidelines, so that teachers can be trained to present this strong, but important content.”
Byrd-Bennett said that CPS would also be considering whether the book should be included in grades 8 to 10, although there is no official timeline for these decisions.
Barbara Jones, director of ALA’s OIF and FTRF executive director, responded in a letter addressed jointly to Byrd-Bennett; David Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education; and Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago, seeking an explanation and urging that the book be returned to classrooms. “While we applaud the CPS Department of Libraries for adhering to its own very well-crafted policies on school library collection development…we remain exceedingly troubled by the standing directive to remove the book from classrooms,” Jones said.
Jones also called the directive to restrict access “a heavy-handed denial of students’ rights to access information” that “smacks of censorship.”
Although the CPS maintains that the mounting protests have been “much ado about nothing,” according to Dave Miranda, deputy press secretary for CPS—who characterizes the re-evaluation of the book’s appropriateness as “just a shift in the curriculum”—the decision was so surprising (and so abrupt) that FTRF has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents related to it.
At the same time, many educators seem perplexed at the efforts to “recall” Persepolis since the book is identified as an instructional text as part of Chicago’s Common Core State Standards.
Aside from an unsuccessful challenge in 2009 in the Northshore (WA) School District, Persepolis has been widely recognized as an outstanding work since its first publication in France, notes Brigid Alverson, editor of School Library Journal’s Good Comics for Kids blog.
Since its 2003 publication stateside, Persepolis has received numerous accolades including two Eisner Award nominations, for Best Graphic Album and for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material, and Newsweek included it in its list of the top 10 fiction books of the decade, Alverson says. It was also adapted into an animated film, which was awarded the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007 and a nomination for an Academy Award that same year.
Although Alverson concedes that the graphic novel format could make its subject matter “more immediate, and more disturbing, when it is presented as pictures as opposed to print,” she notes that the ”the art in Persepolis is quite stylized, however, and not excessively gory.”
Alverson adds, “This isn’t a book about torture, it’s a book in which torture occurs. I think it’s important to consider the book as a whole, and not fixate on a particular image—that image will look different when regarded as part of the story than when taken on its own. The question I would be asking is whether the story is told in a way that seventh graders can understand. I can’t answer that, but the Chicago curriculum committee said yes, at least initially.”