Local communities and school districts in recent weeks have rallied against challenges to Alice Walker’s The Color Purple and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—garnering support for these acclaimed novels to remain, at least temporarily, on school reading lists in Brunswick, County, NC, and Billings, MT, respectively.
In the two communities, parents, students, and educators have spoken to school boards, demanding that the titles remain a part of the local high school curriculum—even as other community members object to the content, demanding more power over the books that can be presented to students.
“I think it’s playing into and against parental control and parental permission, which I think is a sticky situation for districts to get into,” says Acacia O’Connor, coordinator for the National Coalition Against Censorship’s (NCAC) Kids’ Right To Read Project in New York. “If they’re going to afford parents to have the control of what they want taught it’s going to get sticky.”
That’s certainly the case in Brunswick County, where an official challenge against The Color Purple was never declared. And yet, a relative of a high school junior—not the parent—raised issue with the book after the child had finished reading the title for his AP English class at West Brunswick High School in October. That concern worked its way to the school board where Catherine Cook, a school board member, then began to voice objections herself to language in the book.
Brunswick County Schools have clear parameters on how parents can raise concerns about content their student read, Jessica Swencki, executive director of quality assurance and community engagement for Brunswick County Schools, tells School Library Journal. Parents are also sent home reading lists at the beginning of the school year, and sign a form agreeing or objecting to the titles. Neither of those were put into play, says Swencki. However, a board meeting on November 5, parents, teachers, and community members aired their support as well as concern.
The board has now requested a review of the policy on how books can be challenged and the rights parents hold in the choice of materials their students read. That meeting is set for Tuesday, November 26. While a challenge has not yet been issued against the title, that door may still be open despite the apparent support among many.
“Parents have a tremendous amount of choice,” says Swencki. “But at the same time, if this is the book most widely recognized for the AP exam that specifically addresses certain literary themes, parents need to understand that if they’re opting out, [their child] may be missing out on an opportunity. These books were chosen for a specific reason.”
Elsewhere in North Carolina, several other novels have faced challenges in recent months, including Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Review of Allende’s novel is ongoing, while the latter two have been retained.
Meanwhile, in Montana, a heated battle over Alexie’s novel actually went through a formal request for reconsideration before the school board—and won—when a parent of a sophomore student at Skyview High School raised an objection once the child had finished reading the book for class.
This followed a previous challenge to the same title last spring, Kim Anthony, executive director of curriculum and instruction with Billing Public Schools, tells SLJ.
The challenge this fall was heard by the full Board of Trustees on November 18, who upheld the decision to keep the title on reading lists. The board did, however, request that a more standardized policy be created on how parents are informed of books their students read, potentially adding mailings in addition to the syllabus now sent home with students, says Anthony.
Parents choosing to edit what their own students is one direction often offered by districts, like Billings. But it’s the decision to challenge the appropriateness of a title—and request a book’s removal for all — that raises concern among educators and others.
“Whether it is available in the library or on Amazon is a moot point if you’re allowing a minority or even a large vocal group to dictate what happens in education because you don’t like [a book],” says O’Connor. “That’s censorship.”