February 24, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Morrison’s ‘Bluest Eye’ Joins Wide Range of Books Challenged in Alabama Schools

Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel The Bluest Eye (Holt, 1970)—which tackles such difficult subjects as racism, incest, and child abuse—could become the latest in a wide range of books that have been officially challenged in Alabama’s 132 school districts in recent years if State Senator Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, has his way. The book is included on the Common Core’s list [PDF] of recommended books for 11th-graders, yet the legislator is calling for its removal from school libraries in the state, a position that has so far resonated with at least one local school board member.

A selection of books challenged in Alabama public schools recently.

“The book is just completely objectionable, from language to the content,” Holtzclaw told Alabama Media Group’s AL.com news site on August 28. According to Holtzclaw, a constituent had queried him about the book’s inclusion on the Common Core reading list, and he has since brought the matter to the attention of State Superintendent Tommy Bice, AL.com reports.

Although Holtzclaw supports the implementation of Common Core in Alabama—surprisingly, against the wishes of the state’s Republican party, who recently introduced a bill calling for the standards’ complete repeal—Holtzclaw says he sees no value requiring students to read the novel, and that it should not be included on any required reading lists, AL.com reports.

School board member Betty Peters, who represents Alabama’s District 2, agrees. She calls the novel “pornographic” and “utterly inappropriate,” according to AL.com.

Support for Morrison
The Bluest Eye—which tells the story of 11-year-old Pecola Breedlove, who prays for her eyes to turn blue “so that she will be beautiful”—is listed by the American Library Association as the 15th most commonly banned or challenged book during the years 2000–2009 for its sexual content and, at times, graphic subject matter. However, the 43-year-old book has long been considered to be an important contribution to American fiction for its powerful themes and literary merit.

It was named an Oprah’s Book Club selection in 2000, and its author has been consistently praised for exploring similarly difficult themes in subsequent works. Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1988 for Beloved (Knopf, 1987)—itself the 26th most challenged book in recent years—and she is also the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1993, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, in 2012.

As the situation continues to unfold against a backdrop of the start of a new school year and continued battles in the state over the Common Core, one local newspaper in Alabama, The Anniston Star, is taking a stand. Its editorial board has called out Holtzclaw for what it calls his misguided position, taking issue with both his admission that he had not read the book in its entirety (having only reviewed excerpts), and with what it sees as a mere attempt at political posturing.

“The fact that teachers are not required to adopt and teach The Bluest Eye seems to make little difference to the senator, any more than the fact that many of the ‘highly objectionable’ themes—racism, incest and child molestation—can be found in the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and Alabama’s most-loved novel, To Kill a Mockingbird,” the Star’s editorial reads.

“The education of our children is important…In a better world, parents would read the books their children are assigned and understand why those books are appropriate for what is being taught. The world would be even better if politicians would read the books instead of reviewing excerpts passed along to them for reasons that have little to do with education and a lot to do with politics.”

Challenges in Alabama
The Bluest Eye joins a motley crew of books challenged in recent years in Alabama’s schools and school libraries, according to a long-term study completed this summer by journalism students and reporters working at the Anniston Star. The list includes, but is not limited to Invisible by Pete Hautman (Simon & Schuster, 2005), White Oleander by Janet Fitch (Little, Brown, 1999), The Complete Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth by Sheila Kitzinger (Dorling Kindersley, 1980), Crazy Lady! by Jane Leslie Conly (HarperCollins, 1993), and The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks (Warner, 1996).

The statewide investigation was conceived of as an exercise in public document retrieval for newspaper interns pursuing masters’ degrees in community journalism at the University of Alabama, a Star news editor, Tim Lockette, tells School Library Journal.

At the Sanford Middle School in Lee County, Invisible, featuring a teen battling mental illness, was challenged in 2011 by a parent citing objectionable language.

Sanford school officials then asked two 12-year-old students to read Invisible and write down their thoughts, documents that were forwarded to the Star. “It was delightful to see kids getting involved,” says Lockette. Both students liked the book, he says, though “one of them said it wasn’t appropriate for his grade.” The school ultimately flagged Invisible for mature readers.

Parents objected to the presence of White Oleander, about a troubled girl shuttled through a series of foster homes, at Winterboro High School in Talladega, in 2006. At issue was the book’s sexual content and foul language. Students now need a parent’s permission to access the book.

The Complete Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth, in the library collection at the B. B. Comer Memorial High School in Talladega County, was reconsidered after a complaint over pornographic images and “explicit drawings of how to make love while pregnant,” records show.

Though one in eight children in Talladega County are born to teenage mothers, according to the Star’s own article about its challenged books study, the book was moved to a reference shelf in 2005. Students now need parental permission to check it out.

Challenged material also included two books in the “Chronicles of Vladimir Tod” series by Heather Brewer (Dutton), about an eighth grader whose father was a vampire, according to the Star.

The books were challenged by the caregiver of a student at the White Plains Middle School, located in Anniston, in 2010. While the objector stated concerns that the book could be harmful to students inclined toward violence, the titles remain on the shelves.

Other titles that parents found offensive include Hunted: A House of Night Novel by P. C. and Kristin Cast (St. Martins Griffin, 2009) in the Auburn City School system, and Dan Gutman’s Return of the Homework Machine (Simon & Schuster, 2009), at the Mountain Brook schools.

Though Auburn City did not initially disclose details on its challenge, officials later told the Star that a parent objected to Hunted’s profanity. After a review, it remains on the shelves. Gutman’s book, a story for 4th- to 6th-grade readers about a computer that completes homework, also was spared its challenge and remains on school shelves.

Though records of challenged books are technically public information, nearly one third of the schools contacted did not respond to reporters at all, according to Lockette. Other than the nine districts reporting challenges, 77 districts reported no challenges and 46 districts did not answer to repeated requests for records, he says. “I think people are scared of records requests, particularly the smaller districts,” says Lockette. “This is something they’ve never done before.”

The incompleteness of data is one possibly reason why student interns found no recent challenges to The Bluest Eye in their research, Lockette notes—not necessarily that is has not been challenged. It’s possible that the book, in previous years, was not on school library shelves, or it had been challenged only in one of the districts that didn’t respond to the Star’s request for records, he says.

“We see it all the time with public records,” he adds. “In states where there’s a strong public records law, there is an understanding that you have to comply with that law. Where people haven’t dealt with public records very much, there is bit of confusion or fear about releasing documents.”

Adds Leah Cayson, a student intern who worked on the project, “The law says that any citizen has the right” to see a public record. Thus, to withhold information was surprising.”

Involving the community
Fortunately, according to the Star’s research, “Most of these books didn’t get taken off the shelves,” Lockette says. “They remained in the libraries.”

“It’s not our idea to go in and judge the requests,” he adds. “It’s more to spark a conversation. These decisions are being made. The community is talking about books. It’s usually a good thing.”

As for The Bluest Eye, its fate remains to be seen. Will additional Alabama school board members call for its removal? Will Holtzclaw reconsider his position? Will the Alabama Department of Education come out explicitly in support of the Common Core and the novel’s inclusion in Alabama’s curriculum?

According to AL.com, the Alabama Department of Education was planning to respond to Holtzclaw’s request, although officials did not immediately reply to inquiries about the matter from School Library Journal. Also, SLJ’s requests for comment to the Senator’s office were not immediately returned.

However, Holtzclaw admitted to AL.com last week that his goal was not to ban books, but to ensure this particular novel would not be required reading of any student, noting, “There is a slippery slope, and there are folks that will find objectionable material in widely accepted classic American literature.”

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  1. Patti Henderson says:

    I am the media specialist at Sanford Middle School which was mentioned in the Anniston Star article and in this article. I would like to make one distinction….we did not ask 2 twelve year olds to read the challenged book. We searched the checkout history of the book and found 2 twelve year olds who had chosen to read the book and asked them for their opinions and comments. The documentation we provided to the Anniston Star didn’t explain how we identified the students and they didn’t ask.