Neil Gaiman‘s bestselling urban fantasy novel Neverwhere is still available to students at the library at New Mexico’s Alamogordo High School (AHS), despite recent news reports that the book has been “banned” in the district, the school’s media specialist, librarian Vicki Bertolino, tells School Library Journal. Although a parental challenge last week caused the book’s temporary removal from the high school’s English curriculum, Neverwhere will continue to circulate under Bertolino’s watch, she says.
Also this week, the district announced that it has opened a public comment period ahead of its planned review of the book’s literary merit. Comments of no greater than 300 words will be accepted via email until 4:00 p.m. on October 25, 2013.
The book has been a part of the AHS English department’s curriculum for nearly 10 years, but the mother’s complaint to the school board about what she characterized as the book’s “sexual innuendos” and “harsh” language—occurring on a single page of the 400-page novel—caused its temporary suspension last week.
“It’s a shame, because it’s a good book and it’s an excellent one for teenagers to read,” Bertolino says. “I think it’s wonderful, because it has so much to offer—the parables, the decision-making and critical thinking skills, and the characterizations. It’s just loaded with that.”
Pam Thorpe, English teacher at AHS, agrees. In an op-ed she wrote this week for the local Alamogordo Daily News, Thorpe touches on Neverwhere‘s appeal and literary merit. “The heart of the novel revolves around a sub-world, a London Below that exists without the knowledge, or acknowledgement, of London Above,” she explains. “Through an accidental discovery of this world by the novel’s protagonist and his subsequent journey into that world, Gaiman crafts a dark, magical experience that is both engaging and thought-provoking on many levels, challenging the reader to question his or her own perspective and purpose in society. This dialogue with self and others is the force that drives the discussion and analysis of any literature of merit—and Gaiman’s novel is certainly that.”
AHS teachers speak out
Thorpe also seeks, in her letter, to correct the contention by the mother who challenged the book that AHS was somehow negligent in choosing appropriate reading material for its students.
“As a veteran teacher of that department, I can assure you that this is not the case,” she says. “Presenting challenging material of merit that may contain some foul language or mature situations, in a sensitive and academic manner, is part of our responsibility to our students in order to engage them in evaluating the human condition. I take that responsibility very seriously and strive every day to encourage my students to think…about the world, about their community, about their friends and about themselves. Censorship is the opposite of this engagement.”
Adds Kathy Wallis, who teaches both English and film at AHS, “The teachers in the English department [at AHS] do not agree with the knee jerk reaction of pulling Neverwhere….It has been successful as a supplemental novel and since our goal is to get students engaged and encourage their thinking, this novel is a keeper—the students love it.” Wallis also says, in comments on SLJ.com that were reblogged by Neil Gaiman, “We simply cannot stand for banning a book for hundreds of students this year and in the years to come because a single parent objected over one brief passage on one page.”
According to Wallis, the school is incorrectly handling the challenge by suspending the book, since the child of the complaining parent had immediately been provided an alternate novel by the English department. “I am sorry our school administrators did not stand up and support the material the way we all would have expected them to do,” she says. “….it makes our school and our town appear as if we are fine with suspending the use of a book that is used by middle and high schools across the country and around the globe. We are not fine with it, and we want people to know that.”
Bertolino, AHS librarian for the past three years and a former English teacher at the school, confirms that AHS has long had policies in place for parents to be able to challenge any books, materials, or learning activities; if an objection is made, a teacher will immediately offer an alternate assignment or activity. But the library has not been directly involved in the challenge for Neverwhere, she says, and she has not been asked to remove it from the library or set it aside until its upcoming review. “I’d never had anybody challenge any of the books here in the library,” Bertolino says.
In fact, the book in question has enjoyed wide circulation among students, Bertolino says, adding, “Most of Gaiman’s works don’t stay on the shelf very long; they’ve always been popular.”
Freedom to read
Would Bertolino remove the book from the library, if ultimately the district directed her to? “No. No I wouldn’t,” she tells SLJ. “I, personally, don’t believe in banning anything. And I think it’s funny, because this [challenge occurred] just after Banned Books Week, where I went to a panel discussion over at the public library and we discussed this very issue. And then here, a few days later, it happens again.”
Notes Bertolino, “I have a button that says ‘I read banned books’ that I wear most of the time. Every great work of art has been banned at one time or another, and all you can do is feel sorry for these people that are so ignorant and so fearful, that they don’t let their young people or even themselves open their eyes and hearts to what’s actually happening.”
Meanwhile, widespread news coverage of the situation has sparked some passionate responses from local residents, freedom-to-read advocates, the author, and his fans.
The Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP) has already urged the district to retain the book. Says Acacia O’Connor, KRRP coordinator, “Neil Gaiman’s work is famous for both its literary merit and mass appeal to teen readers, especially boys. This book has been taught successfully and without incident to hundreds of Alamogordo students; there’s no grounds to ban it now.”
Ami Jones, youth services librarian at the Alamagordo Public Library, says she has “high hopes” that a review of the book will result in its retention at AHS. “The administrators are catching a lot of flack at the moment for ‘caving,’ but please keep in mind they are just reviewing the book—part of the process many schools have in place when a book is challenged,” she writes in comments on SLJ.com. “They have to balance rights and concerns of parents with the needs of students and educational merit.”
Thorpe, however, remains concerned. “The partnership between parent, student, and teacher is the foundation for success for all of our students. I am deeply and personally wounded that a broad and sweeping assumption has been made and stated in such a shockingly public way without any dialogue between the parent and the teacher (who is a wonderful addition to our department this year),” she writes in her op-ed. “It is my most fervent hope that as a community, you recognize the detriment this kind of censorship may have on your own children, and that you will [not] allow silence to take the place of communication nor allow narrow-mindedness to strangle vision.”
No official date has yet been announced for the book’s district-wide review, nor have the committee members been publicly named. Calls to the district were not returned.