March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Parents, School Districts Push Back On Book Challenges

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.

Alexie, who was recently honored by the NCAC as a Defender of Free Speech, has frequently faced opposition for the novel, most recently in Belle Harbor, NY.

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.”

Lauren Barack About Lauren Barack

School Library Journal contributing editor Lauren Barack writes about the connection between media and education, business, and technology. A recipient of the Loeb Award for online journalism, she can be found at

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library JournalStronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.
Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.


  1. Oh my. Another article on SLJ absolutely devoid of balance. Doesn’t anyone get tired of the cheerleading? It’s the School Library Journal, not the School Library Soapbox. Acacia O’Connor at NCAC could have written this article just as it is and posted it on NCAC’s site, and that would be just fine. But here it is on SLJ. As if it were reporting news instead of cheerleading.

    Does anyone know why the mother in Billings, MT, challenged the book? Isn’t that newsworthy? I know why, and it has nothing to do with censorship. It has to do with Montana legal requirements for teaching a certain topic and how the Sherman Alexie book failed to meet criteria for those legal requirements. Aren’t people allowed to seek compliance with the law without being labelled as censors? Does SLJ provide this kind of balance? No. I can understand NCAC leaving out balance but not the SLJ.

    Speaking of which, SJL has this story under its “censorship” link. Censorship? Do you all realize the last book censored in the USA was Fanny Hill, and that occurred half a century ago, the year JFK was shot? How about coming into the next century and call it “challenges” instead of “censorship”? How about being truthful instead of spinning every story as censorship right in the URL?

    By the way, has someone at SLJ said “Never report on Dan Kleinman, SafeLibraries, or anything about that”? I not only report on but break major news involving school libraries. When a school in South Jersey removed a book displaying anal sex I was directly involved in that. Even the teacher herself said as an ALA speaker that SafeLibraries is changing the library profession. Later, I went to an NJLA meeting where I recorded and placed online the book’s author admitting that the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom admitted to her that it faked its annual Top 10 banned books list since other books had been challenged more than hers but hers dealt with homosexuality so they had to add it to the list (even though the reason it was removed had nothing to o with homosexuality). Is that in SLJ? Did you even listen to the recording? Aren’t you supposed to report the news instead of repeating the propaganda? The ALA’s actions in faking instances of discrimination against the LGBT community actually harm that community by getting people to think hating gays is a normal activity, thereby causing others to join in. Has SLJ reported that? Or is SLJ there every year uncritically repeating the ALA’s propaganda without the slightest balance?

    SLJ has totally spun this latest “censorship” story to report things that are simply not the truth.