Two very different young adult books—the first volume of Amy Ignatow’s lively graphic novel series “The Popularity Papers” (Amulet, 2001) and Dave Pelzer’s harrowing memoir A Child Called It (Health Communications, 1992)—will both remain on school library shelves in the Prosser school district in Yakima, WA, following several school board votes on the titles this month, according to the district’s superintendent, Ray Tolcacher. Rich Korb, a teacher at Prosser High School, had challenged both books for removal this winter.
“When it came to me back in December, it wasn’t initially a book challenge,” Tolcacher tells School Library Journal. “There was [just] a concern if the placement [of these books] was appropriate.” Thus, district librarian Vivian Jennings sent out a request to teachers requesting feedback on the titles. Jennings, the sole certified librarian in the district, supervises a staff of full-time paraprofessional instructional assistants who work on site in each of the district’s schools, from elementary to high school—a measure that preserves at least some librarian leadership for students despite dramatic state budget cutbacks, Tolcacher says.
Books in Ignatow’s “Popularity Papers” series had been available in the district’s elementary schools for fifth graders only, and at the middle school and high school libraries without restriction. A Child Called It had been available to seventh- and eighth-graders with parental permission, and in the high school libraries without restriction. Korb “didn’t agree with that, and took it to the next level, an instructional materials review committee,” Tolcacher says. “That’s one of the beauties of our system here, that you can challenge, and we have a set policy that did that. My assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, [Mary Snitily], was the chair of that committee. She held the hearings and did a great job.”
An instructional materials review committee in Prosser is typically comprised of at least one teacher, at least one parent, administrators from each of the district’s school levels, the district librarian, and at least one school board member, Tolcacher says.
According to local reports, Korb was concerned that “The Popularity Papers” stars a character with two fathers—which he said promotes a political agenda—while he objected to A Child Called It because of its graphic content describing the life of an abused boy at the hands of his alcoholic mother. At the very least, he hoped the books would be moved to the high school libraries in the district.
Upon review of both books—neither of which is required reading for students—the committee determined that they had been, in fact, properly placed within the district’s libraries, and the superintendent moved to uphold that recommendation on March 20, 2013.
But Korb appealed those decisions to the school board, and members finally considered the books in several separate votes over the course of this month.
Tolcacher says his decision was based on the findings of the committee but also his own reading of both books and research of how other districts in the state regard the books and handle their access.
“The Popularity Papers was a wonderful book, I thought; the kind of thing that goes on with kids in middle school,” he tells SLJ. “The issue of two dads was secondary. So my focus was not on those issues, it was on the kids and the strife that they were going through. I thought it was a great book.”
Tolcacher also notes that, according to his research, A Child Called It, though it does contain some graphic content, has appeared on recommended accelerated reading program lists in the state, making it appropriate for placement in school libraries with access by seventh-graders and up.
An initial vote on the books upheld Tolcacher’s decision to keep Ignatow’s book in place, but had deadlocked on Pelzer’s. In subsequent heated debates, the board considered postponing the decision until a new policy for handling challenged books could be put in place. The deadlocked decision means Tolcacher’s decision to keep the book in place stands.
“They felt that the policy that we have used was one that was for instructional materials and not library books, but it’s the only one that we had,” Tolcacher says. “That’s what was in place and had been used before successfully, and I think it was used successfully this time.”
He adds, “As superintendent, I don’t have a problem with my board asking me to review the policy and make sure that [it’s] where it needs to be. [That is] absolutely appropriate and I think that’s the board’s role, to ask those questions and to make sure that it is clear.”
However, he notes, “my main purpose is that I want to make sure that my librarian has the support to do her job, and make sure she doesn’t have people looking over her shoulder. I still believe [these books] are in the right places.” Without a clear majority decision by the school board, he says, “I was not going to take books off shelves. I just wasn’t going to do that.”
The crux of the issue, Tolcacher says, is that “people’s values are very different. Some people would be not happy that there are bibles in the schools for kids to look at or different religions, books about World War II or the Civil War where people were shot. People have to have responsibility for what their youngsters read. I could definitely see an issue if [it] were a book that was in front of a captive audience in a classroom…but every public library around here has those books without any restrictions.”
He adds, “Our librarian is doing a phenomenal job in our district, a stellar job. She knows her business. She knows how to vet these books.”