February 19, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Two Books Challenged Again in Highland Park Schools in Texas


Two books that were suspended from Texas’s Highland Park High School’s (HPHS) Approved Book List in September 2014 are now being rechallenged. The titles, The Working Poor: Invisible in America” (Knopf, 2004) by Pultizer Prize-winning journalist David K. Shipler and The Art of Racing in the Rain (Harper, 2008), by Garth Stein, were among seven books that were banned from use at HPHS, only to be reinstated a week later.

The high school is part of the Highland Park Independent School District (HPISD), outside of Dallas, TX, and the two book challenges are part of an ongoing debate over the district’s book selection policy and how much influence parents should have in the district’s book selection and curricula.

“Under current policy, reading materials are selected by teachers and administrators; parents who object to their child’s book assignment may have the child opt out, with the teacher providing an alternative assignment.” says a December article from SLJ.

In mid-December, a parent from Highland Park “lodged a formal challenge with HPISD [for] the book The Working Poor: Invisible in America,” according to Lynn Dickinson, a parent and a member of HP Kids Read (HPKR), described as “a group of parents dedicated to protecting educational and academically challenging literature in the HPISD classrooms” on its website.

The Art of Racing in the Rain was also challenged at that time.

HPKR has been going head-to-head with opposition group Speak Up for Standards (SUFS), the latter which began an email campaign last spring to remove what the group deemed as “offensive” and “vulgar” reading material from the high school’s Approved Book List. The campaign sparked a chain of book challenges, which eventually lead the district’s superintendent, Dawson Orr, to initiate revisions to the district’s materials selection policy.

TheWorkingPoorThe Working Poor, taught in AP English III, covers subjects of America’s impoverished and addresses abortion and past sexual traumas. The work of nonfiction had originally been one of the seven book titles that were suspended from HPHS’s book list (that were all then reinstated), which includes Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (Little Brown, 2007) and John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines (Dutton, 2006).

The parent who lodged the formal complaint, questioned the book’s literary merit and wrote in her complaint’s summary:

“[The book is] sexually explicit…[containing] depiction of abortion and aftermath of body parts, degrading and offensive to women portraying them as weak, pathetic, ignorant, sexual objects and incapable beings.”

The Dallas Observer reports that in “the English department’s review of the text, teachers acknowledged the book contained some potentially controversial passages, but said overall it was “a means to build students’ capacity for empathy and knowledge of an issue facing millions in America and millions more across the world.”

“Considering that the author [David K. Shipler] has a new book coming out about the freedom of speech, I find it rather ironic his book is being challenged,” says Kristin Pekoll, assistant director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office of Intellectual Freedom (OIF), referring to Shipler’s book Freedom of Speech: Mightier than the Sword (Random, May).

Millie Davis, the director of the Intellectual Freedom Center at the National Council of Teachers of English, tells SLJ that literature used to teach in AP courses is targeted to meet college requirements, which are outside of the school district’s requirements—so parents have no place in selecting AP materials.

A committee to reconsider is currently being appointed to review The Working Poor, says the HPISD website.

ArtofRacingRainThe other challenged book, The Art of Racing in the Rain, was first contested in the fall of 2014. A reconsideration committee voted to uphold its use in November, however the complainant, a parent with a child at HPHS, then appealed the committee’s decision, which was upheld by the high school’s principal, Walter Kelly. The dispute is being advanced to the next step, or “level two,” in the appeals process and will be presented before the superintendent this week, says the district’s website (dated January 27).

Back in December, Orr presented his recommended changes to the material selection policy before the school board, eliciting optimism from OIF’s Pekoll, who tells SLJ that his recommendations took OIF’s guidelines on books selection policy, The Workbook for Selection Policy Writing from the OIF, into consideration.

“[Orr’s] proposed policy really shows thoughtfulness and deliberate protection of First Amendment values,” says Pekoll, who called out specific instances in the superintendent’s proposal, including continued access to challenged materials throughout the reconsideration process, no warnings or labels on the books lists, and evaluating materials as a whole.

The vote on the revised policy is scheduled to take place at a February 10 school board meeting.

“I am optimistic,” Pekoll shares about the upcoming vote. “I think the school district and the board have done a fantastic job of upholding freedom-to-read principles.”

You may also be interested in reading:

‘Highland Park Kids Read’ Takes on Censorship Battle in TX School District


Carolyn Sun About Carolyn Sun

Carolyn Sun was a news editor at School Library Journal. Find her on Twitter @CarolynSSun.

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  1. Robin Willis says:

    Hmm…it’s like they’ve never met a teen.

    • Carolyn Sun Carolyn Sun says:

      All I know is anyone who has worked with teens (and has heard them speak candidly) understands that books are a pretty spot on reflection of reality.