Residents of North Carolina’s Watauga County have rallied in recent weeks in support of Isabel Allende’s acclaimed novel The House of the Spirits (Knopf, 1982), which is being challenged by a local group. Community members have been working tirelessly to keep the issue in the public eye ahead of the book’s next review—today, December 12—and even hosted a teach-in about the book last week at Appalachian State University (ASU), the event’s organizer tells School Library Journal.
A bestselling work of magical realism, The House of the Spirits (THOTS) had been included this year in the syllabus for Watauga High School’s tenth-grade honors English class, taught by the county’s 2010–2011 Teacher of the Year, Mary-Kent Whitaker. Whitaker had also successfully taught the book—which boasts a high Lexile score for its literary complexity, and is included in the state’s Common Core curriculum for college readiness—last year in the same honors class for sophomores.
However, in mid-October—about a week and a half before Whitaker was to begin reading the book with her current students—she was asked to pull it from the curriculum after a parent, Chastity Lesesne, complained that it was too graphic and violent to be taught in a high school classroom.
Whitaker declined to be interviewed by SLJ for this story, but Craig Fischer, associate professor of English at ASU and frequent visitor to Whitaker’s classroom, recalls what happened that day.
“This year, I came in to speak on Persepolis, another work about a family in difficult political times,” he says. “I was actually teaching in her class when she was summoned by the principal, and she was told two things: That she needed to pull THOTS out of the syllabus until this book challenge was over, and she wasn’t supposed to talk about it with her students.”
The book has been under review by school board officials ever since, compelling advocates from around the country—including Allende herself—to speak publicly on the merits of this particular book and on intellectual freedom in general. The issue has divided the small community of Boone, NC, an area nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains that is at once home to a conservative base who seeks to remove the book from the high school curriculum as well as progressive community members and the many students and faculty of ASU who seek to retain it.
As rhetoric against the book has risen in the community, the many students, parents, and other community members who support the book, Mrs. Whitaker, and the WHS English Department have sought ways to show that solidarity. Fischer was inspired to organize the teach-in, he tells SLJ, “because I think the idea of banning [THOTS], especially when there are alternatives, is terrible.”
Fischer called on the ACU bookstore to stock extras of the book for those who had not read it, and set out to put together a robust panel, hosted by the writer Joseph Bathanti from ASU’s English department. Bathanti is also the Poet Laureate of North Carolina and had previously written and presented a letter to the school board [PDF] in support of the book and its merits.
Nine speakers addressed the crowd of more than 125 attendees, including Susan Reed-Kelly, a parent at Watauga High School (WHS) and instructor at ASU; Lynn Schlenker, WHS parent and president of the WHS Parent Teacher Organization (PTO); Catherine Fountain, ASU professor; Alexandra Sterling-Hellenbrand, WHS parent and ASU professor; and four WHS students: Kauner Michael, Mary Margaret Zrull, Nate Fischer, and Renee Taylor. Also in attendance were members of the original WHS committee who had voted unanimously—in the book’s first review, at WHS—to retain it, including Schlenker’s son Max, who was the student representative on that original committee.
The bookstore sold more than 30 copies of the book that night, Fischer says. The event also included ‘open mic’ time for community members. Overwhelmingly, they supported the book. “Nobody favored pulling [it] from the curriculum,” Fischer says. But the highlight of the evening, Fischer and Schlenker say, was the testimony from students who had studied THOTS with Whitaker the previous year.
“I thought they were the voice that needed to be heard, and they were clearly much more articulate and much more straightforward than a lot of the adults on this issue,” Fischer tells SLJ. “They had done [the syllabus], they learned from it, they learned about the history of Chile, they had learned about magical realism, and it was really important to them. And, as my son said, ‘Mrs. Whitaker is an awesome teacher and this is the centerpiece of what she does in sophomore honors.'”
Schlenker says she was especially moved by comments from student Renee Taylor, a WHS junior. “Her words are just so poignant and representative of what all the students spoke of,” she tells SLJ.
In her passionate speech, Taylor told those assembled that “The House of the Spirits is like a tapestry; there are main threads such as magical realism, family, and hope. If one does not see the whole tapestry or use it for its intended purpose, the point of the tapestry is missed entirely….
“This controversy helped me realize the need for The House of the Spirits and its essential truths to encourage free thinking,” Taylor said. “The House of the Spirits has challenged me, made me think, and connected me to a piece of literature on a deeper level. I will always support Mrs. Whitaker and the education she gave me, because it benefited me greatly.”
To show her support for Whitaker—and to provide students the opportunity to show theirs as well—Schlenker has put together a new Facebook page, WHS Students’ Right to Read. “The vast majority of ‘likes’ and all comments are from parents, students, and the local community,” she says.
Schlenker, whose twin daughters read THOTS with Whitaker last year, also personally spoke to the school board [PDF] on the issue at its regular meeting on December 9.
“I realize every parent has the right to challenge a book, but a by-product of a mid-semester book challenge was the impact to all three classes,” she tells SLJ. “Many parents were upset their child missed the chance to study this book with Mrs. Whitaker as the semester is almost over. ”
“We’re trying to move the conversation to a broader one about censoring our English department, as well as the ramifications on all curriculum at the high school. We need to explore ideas on how to provide the framework for book challenges in a way that doesn’t trample the rights of the other students. My youngest son is taking the class next semester and I hope he will be able to experience Mrs. Whitaker’s class as designed, reflecting the current course syllabus, that includes THOTS.”
So far, these parents’ efforts appear to be successful. Earlier this afternoon, the review committee of the Watauga Board of Education voted unanimously to retain the book in the curriculum, Fischer says.
Yet despite the victory, Fischer remains concerned. “I think it’s going to be inevitable that it will go to the full board,” he says. Today’s vote marks only the second step in the process; Lesesne has the right to appeal the decision of the board’s review committee to its full membership.
“What makes me angry is that this process is taking a long time,” Fischer tells SLJ. “It already has been a de-facto censorship of THOTS out of the sophomore honors class—by stopping the teaching of THOTS when they did, they tore the heart out of [Whitaker’s] syllabus. I’m worried this is going to drag on through the spring, and the same thing might happen again. It really gets under my skin.”