A Michigan parent’s complaint that Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition is too frank for middle schoolers and should be replaced with an older, expurgated edition has been rejected by the local school board. Coverage of the challenge had gone viral in recent weeks, with bloggers and media outlets as far away as the United Kingdom picking up the story or opining on the issue.
A committee in the Northville Public Schools district had met Friday, May 3, to discuss the request, brought by parent Gail Horalek, that the district’s seventh graders read an earlier edition of the popular diary written by a Jewish teen who hid with her family for two years in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Anne Frank was betrayed and died at age 15 in a concentration camp.
“Following a thoughtful, deliberative process, the committee reached a unanimous decision to continue use of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl—The Definitive Edition as an option within the seventh grade English language arts curriculum. The committee felt strongly that a decision to remove the use of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl—The Definitive Edition as a choice within this larger unit of study would effectively impose situational censorship by eliminating the opportunity for the deeper study afforded by this edition,” says Robert D.G. Behnke, assistant superintendent for instructional services at Northville Public Schools, in a prepared statement addressed to the school community, which he provided to School Library Journal.
Horalek, a resident of Northville, a bedroom community of Detroit, MI, says her daughter’s school should have clearly communicated the differences between the definitive edition and the expurgated version that many parents remember from their school days. “I’m saying it’s inappropriate for the middle school, and [district officials] are blindsiding the parents,” says Horalek.
First published in 1947, the diary has been translated into 67 languages, with more than 30 million copies sold, according to the Anne Frank Center in New York. The diary has attracted dozens of requests to ban it from inclusion in school libraries or curriculum since its 1952 publication in United States, says Barbara M. Jones, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
Parents have objected to Frank’s directness about her sexual awakening, Jones says, or felt their children are too young to learn about the holocaust. Teachers value the diary as a tool to help young people understand history and the adolescent experiences and emotions they share with previous generations. “It’s not just about a war, but it’s also about a girl growing up,” Jones says. “The book is powerful, and it has been my experience that powerful books get censored.”
In November 2009, the definitive edition of Anne Frank’s diary was pulled from the school system in Culpeper County, VA, after one complaint about the sexual references. Culpeper schools switched to the expurgated version edited by Anne’s father, Otto Frank, a switch that parent Gail Horalek asked Northville schools to make in the city’s two middle schools.
Published in 1995 by Random House imprint Doubleday—and then in paperback by Random House imprint Bantam Books in 1997—the Definitive Edition restored passages omitted by Otto Frank, including unflattering descriptions of his wife, Anne’s mother, and others in hiding, and his daughter’s entries about her burgeoning sexuality, according to the foreword of the edition.
Among the additional material are two diary entries, written when Anne Frank was 14 years old, that Horalek considers too graphic for seventh grade. On Jan. 6, 1944, Frank reflects on puberty and her desire to kiss and touch a female friend. On March 24, 1944, Frank wonders whether her friend Peter has seen a woman nude and ponders how to describe her genitalia to him. These sections total about four pages in the 352-page book, but in total, all of the additional material represents 30 percent of the newer Definitive Edition.
Often challenges to books in schools focus on small sections outside of the context of the entire book, says ALA’s Jones. The Frank diary tells the story of a girl growing up in extraordinary circumstances and having thoughts similar to today’s adolescents, Jones says. “She’s concerned about what’s happening to her body and what is happening to her as a person,” Jones says.
Horalek’s daughter grew uncomfortable and went to her teacher and then mother, Horalek says. The school provided Horalek’s daughter with a different book. Troubled with the lack of notification to parents about the difference in editions of the diary and her daughter’s feelings that her teacher had minimized her concerns, Horalek asked the district to switch books.
Horalek clarifies that she doesn’t see the diary as pornography. Instead, she says, a number of students in her daughter’s class are distracted by Anne’s writings on her sexuality and the adolescents treat those pages like porn rather than appreciating the diary, Horalek says.
Horalek says she was initially excited that her daughter chose to read the diary. “I think Anne Frank is a person who everyone should know, not just because of the holocaust but because she truly was special,” Horalek says. “There is so much to be gained by reading her diary.”
The response to Horalek’s request to swap editions has ranged far and wide, with media outlets and their readers, including The Huffington Post, New York’s Daily News, Canada’s The Globe and Mail, and the UK’s The Guardian weighing in. The vast majority of commenters want to retain the Definitive Edition in Northville middle schools, including the Kids’ Right to Read Project, a joint effort of the National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, the Association of American Publishers, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The group sent a letter to the district formalizing its request.
Horalek’s complaint has constitutional implications because she is trying to control what other parents’ children read, says Acacia O’Connor, coordinator of the Kids’ Right to Read Project. The courts have ruled that parents can make decisions for their own children but not other people’s, she notes, adding, “The historical importance of this book would outweigh anything considered objectionable.”
The diary’s American publisher, Random House, declined to comment on the Michigan challenge, but Gina Centrello, president and publisher of Bantam Books, did sign the Kids’ Right to Read Project letter requesting that the district retain the Definitive Edition.
Requests to remove a book from a school can lead to additional challenges in other communities, O’Conner says. Often other challenges, regardless of merits or outcome, are used to justify the removal of a book from classrooms or school library shelves, she says, noting that teachers and school librarians work in an environment where parents and administrators are increasingly critical of educators’ work.
According to ALA’s Jones, school librarians and teachers frequently call ALA reporting that they will lose their jobs if they support keeping a controversial book.
“If you stand up to parents and administrators, you run a huge risk,” O’Conner says. “Every time there is a challenge, there is a chilling effect on teachers and librarians.”
Marta Murvosh, MLS, is a former newspaper reporter who works for a regional library system in the Pacific Northwest. Follow her on http://www.facebook.com/MartaMurvosh.