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July 23, 2014

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Isabel Allende Defends ‘House of the Spirits’ to North Carolina School Board

allende Isabel Allende Defends House of the Spirits’ to North Carolina School BoardIsabel Allende’s acclaimed novel The House of the Spirits (Knopf, 1982), which faces the first of two reviews on Wednesday evening, November 20, by a school district-wide committee of North Carolina’s Watauga County Board of Education due to a parental complaint, now has another high-profile advocate: the author herself.

Earlier this month, Allende emailed an impassioned letter to the school board members, the district superintendent, and the principal of Watauga High School, then mailed them print copies of the letter along with her book, the author’s assistant tells School Library Journal.

The district committee—a group of school board members who are specifically appointed to review a challenged work—will meet again to discuss the book on November 27, where testimony will be accepted from those opposed to and in support of retaining the book. The committee does not include the high school principal, the school’s librarian, or any members of the English department.

The parent’s complaint to the school board on October 14 claimed that the book was too graphic and too violent for use in the classroom with high schoolers, but a Watauga High School advisory committee reached a unanimous decision on October 25 to retain it as part of its tenth-grade honors English curriculum, taught by Mary-Kent Whitaker, Watauga County’s 2010–2011 Teacher of the Year.

North Carolina’s Common Core curriculum includes the book—which boasts a high Lexile score for its literary complexity—as recommended reading for tenth graders, its supporters note, but despite this, the parent appealed the advisory committee’s decision on November 6.

From the beginning, the parent’s challenge and subsequent appeal were met with national opposition from reading freedom advocates, with public support expressed by advocacy organizations and such luminaries as Joseph Bathanti, North Carolina’s Poet Laureate. However, the local debate has slowly heated up in the interim as the district review committee was formed.

Last week, several of Watauga County’s commissioners even stepped into the fray. Commissioner David Blust, called for a book rating system and argued that the book offered no life lessons. “It’s filth…. Honestly, what normal family is like this book? The Manson family, maybe, Ted Bundy? I think this is just so wrong,” he told the local Watauga Democrat.

Another, Chairman Nathan Miller, said the book’s inclusion in the curriculum was such an “egregious violation” that he recommended the district dispense with its usual book review policy. And Commissioner Perry Yates called the book “despicable.”

In Watauga County, the process for challenging educational texts has three steps: a review by a school advisory committee, a review by a Board of Education advisory committee, then a review by the entire Board of Education. Decisions made by the board apply to all schools in the system.

The heightened rhetoric has many educators and parents in the community concerned, and they have spoken out in support of the book’s literary merit—and in favor of preserving intellectual and reading freedom—in their online comments and to the local media.

Meanwhile, the text of Allende’s letter, in its entirety, is as follows:

Dear Watauga County Board of Education,

I find myself in the unusual and awkward position of having to “defend” my novel The House of the Spirits that risks being banned from a high school in Boone, North Carolina. Banning of books is a common practice in police states, like Cuba or North Korea, and by religious fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, but I did not expect it in our democracy.

No student is forced to read the book. Teachers like to teach it because they believe it gives the students insights into Latin American literature, history, politics, social issues, and customs. They usually offer their students other options but most students choose the book, they enjoy it and often they write to me. Their comments prove that they have understood the story and they are curious to learn more. The novel seems to open their minds to other places and peoples in the world.

Although it may look like an exercise in vanity, I need to explain a few facts about myself as an author and about the The House of the Spirits in order to make my point. I will be brief, please bear with me.

I have written 20 books, translated into 35 languages, and sold more than 60 million copies worldwide. Two movies have been made of my novels, Of Love and Shadows and The House of the Spirits, released in 1995 with an international cast that included Meryl Streep, Jeremy Irons, Winona Rider, Glenn Close, and Vanessa Redgrave.

I have 14 honorary degrees, 12 of them from US universities and colleges, and 50 awards in more than 15 countries. I am a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters in the US since 2004, of the Academy of Arts and Sciences of Puerto Rico since 1995, of the Academy of Language in Chile since l989, and Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, 1994. (At www.isabelallende.com you can find my extended bio.)

The House of the Spirits is my first novel, published in Spanish in 1982 and in English in 1985 to stellar reviews, including the cover of the New York Times Book Review. It has been in print for over 30 years, it is considered a classic of Latin American literature and it is taught in high schools, colleges, and universities in all Western countries, including the USA for more than two decades. It has received many awards. To mention just a few: Best Novel of the Year (Chile, 1983), Author of the Year (Germany, 1984), Book of the Year (Germany 1984), Grand Prix D’Evasion (France, 1984), Best Novel  (Mexico, 1985), Point de Mire (Belgium, 1985), XV Premio Internazionale I Migliori Dell”Anno (Italy, 1987), Best Foreign Novel (Portugal, 1987), Books to Remember Award, American Library Association (USA, 1996), and The New York Public Library (2000). The Times (London) named The House of the Spirits one of the best 60 books in the past 60 years (UK, 2009).

As you know, it takes just one parent who disapproves of a book to pressure the school and eventually the Board of Education. In this case one person has circulated fragments of the novel—taken out of context—among parents who probably have not read the book. The fragments refer mostly to sexual content. The plan is to gather support to ban the book completely, even as optional reading. Since today TV series, movies, videogames and comics exploit sex and violence, including torture and rape, as forms of entertainment, I don’t think that young adults will be particularly offended by the strong scenes from The House of the Spirits, which are always part of the historical and political content of the novel.

I have become aware of this unfortunate situation, and I am sending you a copy of The House of the Spirits by mail, although I realize how busy you are and I cannot expect you to read it,

Sincerely,
Isabel Allende
writer

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson (kpeterson@mediasourceinc.com) is a former News Editor ofSLJ.

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Comments

  1. Becka Saunders says:

    Thank you Isabel! We have some close minded people here and we progressives are enraged about this battle.

  2. It’s a lovely book. North Carolina is a national embarrassment, I’m sorry.

    • As a person who is a resident of Watauga county, I wholeheartedly agree with you.

      • Kaethe,
        You are not alone, and niether is North Carolina – there are idiots like these commissioners in every school district in every county in every state in the union.
        The south just has more of them.

  3. Perhaps some of the issue here is that Boone is a very small community with limited experiences with diversity. In fact the lack of diversity is one of the most prominent observations I made upon moving here. To ban a book because it does not meet your perceptions of the world is exactly why we need to engage students with this book. These are stories and tragedies of our world, rape, murder, revenge, poverty, oppression, political corruption, violence, women’s suffering, and yes, sex. These are realities of the world in which we live, and to refuse to allow our children to read, discuss and grapple with these realities only limits their horizon. What book or list of books is next on the chopping block?

  4. I’m fairly certain that not one of these students’ parents has engaged in sexual relations with another human. Pristine the city must be. Immaculate the city shall remain.

  5. Geez, Allende’s letter rather spectacularly fails to help the situation, doesn’t it? Not quite the call for reason I had expected.

  6. A librarian says:

    I have read the book twice, once for high school and once for college, and though I despised much of the story, and hated Esteban Trueba passionately, it did as Allende discusses. It provides a very alternate point of view, politically, historically, socially, ethically, and morally, from my own. While I would not deify any character, it is an important work that brings a different culture to bare with our own. I don’t know if I would teach it, but you know what, children can’t live in a damn bubble all their life. Awful things do happen. You can’t sugar-coat that. I may not agree with the author, but I applaud her for sticking up for her book.

  7. I am crying as I read comments by people decrying this exceptional novel as “filth” and “having no life lessons” and “despicable.” Obviously, these people didn’t bother to READ the novel. I have taught it and the result was that students LEARNED from it. For example, one student discussed it with her parents and learned–for the first time–that her family came to the United States because of a repressive government in her home country; another student, from Cyprus, said he had thought the sort of violence and disregard for people was peculiar to his home country–to learn that it occurred in other countries, while upsetting, was a valuable lesson about power over the powerless, etc. There are life lessons aplenty in this novel…and there is hope, at the conclusion, that we can learn to forgive even the worst treatment, that we can be human beings.

  8. I am a senior at Watauga High School in Boone, North Carolina and I had Mrs. Whitaker as my teacher in English. Although the curriculum was different then, I would have read anything Mrs. Whitaker put in front of me because I respect her decisions as both a teacher and a person. I have heard nothing but good comments on the novel by Isabel Allende and I hate that one parent had to cause so much drama and conflict. Boone is a wonderful place to live and I hate that people might jump to conclusions about the rest of us based on a single person’a actions. The novel is in the curriculum for a reason, and for that reason alone it should not be challenged. It is embarrassing to see members of my community referring to the novel as “filth” and “despicable.” I, and most of Watauga High School, apologize for the situation at hand.

    • You have a powerful voice. There could be no better endorsement than a teenager ‘on the frontline’. It is affriming to see that students can be the voice of reason when many adults cannot. Thank you for speaking out!

  9. As a high school student, House of the Spirits was a wonderful novel. In my class we had discussions and went into great detail about the characters and the purpose of this novel. It is so important that we keep in mind that if the students want to read this book, it will take an entire tem of parents to stop them. W can live with a little violence, it really is a watered down version of everything else we have been exposed to.

  10. forrest roberts says:

    I am actually a student at the high school that it was opposed at and I know the family trying to oppose it, and they are doing so on the grounds that it is “wrong to force a 10th grader to read rape and violence,” although they had an alternative to the book. This strikes me as highly hypocritical, since they are christians who advocate the reading of many more scenes of rape and violence in the bible to seven year olds each sunday with no choice of alternative. Keep fighting the good fight, I hope to have this a part of the curriculum again next year as a sophmore.

  11. I went to the library today i can’t wait to start this book. It looks like an amazing read.

  12. Dale Lawrence says:

    I confess that I have not read the book; only watched the movie. What struck me most powerfully about the movie is that, despite the horrendous cruelty and violence in some scenes, the theme is clearly about forgiveness. Love and forgiveness triumph over hatred and revenge, which is THE Christian gospel. I found the story to be more inspiring than disturbing. Certainly, this book provokes deep introspection into the nature of compassion and forgiveness in the face of great suffering. I hope the school board reads the book and agrees not to ban it, not only because banning books is bad policy, but because this specific book deserves to read.

  13. Kim Donius says:

    Isabel Allende, if you are listening, you do not have to defend your work. In addition, you do not have to state your accomplishments. Your writing and your personal life are your greatest testimony. Your response letter needed only the last paragraphs to drive home the point that banning your book is not acceptable. However, I sincerely congratulate you on your book banning. Your work will now be read in more than 35 translations! It will reach so many more students, parents, and teachers. Thank you so much Mrs.???, parent, of an 10th grade honor student. May your child learn much about the 1st amendment through your actions.

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