Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ban "R-Rated" Books From Schools?

This essay, in a Detroit newspaper, deals with an issue that we here at AS IF! have returned to again and again: the question of "age-appropriate." The writer argues that books with profanity or sex are like R-rated movies and, as such, should never be allowed in the classroom. The writer is specifically questioning the use of The Freedom Writers Diary, the subject of a recent movie about troubled kids.

Let's listen in, shall we?
School boards have an important responsibility to their communities to make sure that the curriculum is appropriate for students. Just as showing an R-rated movie would not be appropriate in the classroom, it is right to question using an R-rated book.

There is no rating system for books. Often teachers will pick books based on awards from organizations like the American Library Association. "The Freedom Writers Diary" did win recognition as a Notable Book from the national library association -- but for adult readers. This organization recognizes that literary value does not mean a book is appropriate for a high school classroom.

Parents trust that teachers and administrators have set solid standards for what is appropriate for our communities' children learning process. This is not always the case. As a parent, who wants to find out after the fact that their child has been reading about drug abuse, oral sex or other issues in school?

It has become common practice to offer an alternative to controversial books used in public schools. But for some books, it makes more sense to use the alternative to teach the desired lesson rather than the inappropriate book.

It is the job of the schools to decide what children are exposed to in the classroom, especially since they are not adults and are not mature enough to judge what is truly worth learning at taxpayer expense. There are a plethora of curriculum choices and not all can be selected. By this definition, schools censor all the time and usually without protest.
Generally speaking, the writer is correct: we all want kids exposed to the "best" literature that's most appropriate to the class at hand and, hopefully, most relevant to the students' lives. But, as always, the devil is in the details. The point is, diverse communities have different ideas as to what constitutes the "best" and most relevant literature. A lot of people think To Kill a Mockingbird, one of the most challenged books of the last four decades, is not appropriate for high schools. Others say 1984. Or A Handmaid's Tale, or Beloved, or The Chocolate War, or Lord of the Flies. And so on and so on.

Going back to the movie analogy, is the writer really arguing that schools should never be allowed to show R-rated movies either? No Shindler's List in history? No Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? in drama class?

The point is, context matters. In fact, when it comes to literature, context is everything. Simply writing a list of topics, or compiling a list of words, that are not "appropriate" for schools means that--whoops!--we will have actually eliminated the whole concept of literature.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Update: Not All Southern Libraries Anti-Gay!

A few weeks ago, I reported on a study that showed the paucity of gay teen titles in southern states like Arkansas. Someone just posted this very cool comment after that blog post:

As an education librarian at a University in Alabama, I'm pleased to brag a little on our Juvenile Literature Collection. Feel free to visit our library's site at http://www.mhsl.uab.edu and search our "Local Catalog" for these and related titles. I've been fortunate in having faculty who recommend titles like these for our collection, and sometimes we even have money to buy books for our library. I can also tell you that these books are extremely popular here. Keep up the good work, Brent! And if anyone has recommendations for titles we don't have, please holler.--

Jonathan H. Harwell, Reference Librarian for Education, Mervyn H. Sterne Library, University of Alabama at Birmingham, jharwell@uab.eduhttp://www.bloglines.com/blog/mesoj

Saturday, January 20, 2007

So Far From the Bamboo Grove: The Plot Thickens

Here's a tip: one way to annoy a blogger who blogs in support of intellectual freedom and expression is to threaten to threaten legal action when he publishes an opinion you don't agree with. (I'm not sure what legal action could possibly be taken. A repeal of the First Amendment perhaps? Good luck with that.)

That said, opinions are obviously running high on a recently challenged book, So Far From the Bamboo Grove, as evidenced by the comments to several recent posts. Supporters of the ban are arguing that the book, which is a memoir, is historically, factually inaccurate: that it misrepresents history in a fundamental way. Below, I'll let one of them speak for herself.

And, as always, if others disagree, we encourage them to chime in. Perhaps we can run another response.

To the Editor:

On Jan. 2, 2007, Dr. Perry Davis, the Superintendent of Dover-Sherborn Schools, overturned the Oct. 30, 2006 decision made by the Schools’ Book Review Committee not to use the book So Far From the Bamboo Grove written by Yoko Kawashima Watkins “as part of a grade 6 English Language Arts unit.” In rejecting the Committee’s conclusion, Dr. Davis cited the views of Carter Eckert, Yoon Se Young Professor of Korean History at Harvard, detailed in his December 16, 2006 Letter to the Editor of this newspaper. He identifies the problem this way: “[To] teach ‘So Far from the Bamboo Grove’ without providing historicization might be compared to teaching a sympathetic novel about the escape of a German official’s family from the Netherlands in 1945 without alluding to the nature of the Nazi occupation or the specter of Anne Frank.” He then recommends this correctve remedy: “There is no reason why Watkins’s book cannot be used in the schools. Introduced carefully and wisely, in conjunction, for example with Richard Kim’s classic Lost Names, an autobiographical novel about a young Korean boy living at the end of colonial rule in the 1940s, it can help students understand how perspectives vary according to personal and historical circumstances.” I disagree.

Mrs. Watkins’s book is being challenged by a group of parents who believes that requiring young children to read a book detailing the sufferings of the daughter of a convicted war criminal due to her father’s notoriety is morally repugnant. Here, they argue Mrs. Watkins’s family is more “Joseph Mengele-like” than simply a “German official’s family.” They also challenge the book’s racist and sexually graphic content. Several private schools have agreed with this view and have removed the book from their required curriculum. In support of keeping Mrs. Watkins’s book, Prof. Eckert touts a laudable goal: “Teaching should encourage students to think ‘outside the box’ of American ethnocentricity and highlight human commonalities across cultural and historical divides.” As a parent of school-aged children, I wholeheartedly agree with this view. However, this book has a fatal flaw that will not be resolved through reading another book, as Prof. Eckert recommends, that provides counterbalancing historical context: Large portions of her “personal narrative of survival” that supply the emotional force behind this book are fabricated.

In the second part of the book, Mrs. Watkins and her older sister are described as orphans without any adult guardian to soften the horrors of dealing with the aftermath of a war. Her mother dies inexplicably, and young readers are led to believe that her demise is contributed by the deaths of Mrs. Watkins’s grandparents and the destruction of their fine home in Aomori. In short, young readers are led to believe Mrs. Watkins and her sister are destitute orphans. A copy of Mrs. Watkins’s Family Registry, which Mrs. Watkins herself provided, says that her mother is alive and well when it was certified on Aug. 8, 1952 by the Mayor of Kigukuri-machi. In fact, her grandmother in Aomori is alive and well, too. This Registry also proves that Mrs. Watkins had not one, but two sisters. It also states that with respect to Mrs. Watkins, “[d]egree of relationship was misregistered as a fourth daughter and due to the permission of Ajigasawa District Court, the relationship was changed from Fourth Daughter to Third Daughter.”

Granted, this book is historical fiction. Mrs. Watkins, however, has claimed for over twenty years to the children that this book is her story, her autobiography. Indeed, Prof. Eckert finds the book “based on the author’s life . . . compelling as a narrative of survival,” because children “can experience [Mrs. Watkins’s] ordeal and triumph as their own.” We cheat our children when we allow them to identify with someone who would fabricate the death of one’s own mother and grandmother to create a fictitious account of suffering. As the debacle surrounding the book A Million Little Pieces written by James Frey demonstrates, people will not tolerate fabricated accounts of one’s life portrayed as autobiography.

I doubt that Prof. Eckert can recommend another “classic” book that he would have our children read to provide “context and balance” in dealing with a book that fabricates the
death of one’s own mother and grandmother.

Yours truly,
Anna Y. Park
Seoul, Korea

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Just Because I'm Paranoid Doesn't Mean People Aren't Out to Get Me

I was interested/disturbed by the results of a new study by the University of Central Arkansas on the availability of gay titles in school and public libraries, especially since one of the books used in the survey was one of my own, Geography Club.

Nutshell? In a conservative state like Arkansas, gay teen titles aren't available.

At all.
We all know that some level of self-censorship takes place in libraries when it comes to gay-themed books. But how bad is it in a Southern conservative state like Arkansas? About 21 percent of public libraries, nearly five percent of university libraries, and a shocking less than one percent of school libraries have books containing controversial themes and characters in their collections, says a survey by the University of Central Arkansas.

“It surprised me the most at universities because the books were so overwhelmingly not there,” says Jeff Whittingham, assistant professor of middle/secondary education and instructional technologies, who conducted the study with colleague Wendy Rickman.

The two researchers spent the summer and fall of 2006 surveying media specialists and checking the online catalogs of public and university libraries for 21 of the most popular gay-, bisexual-, lesbian-, and transgender-themed books published between 1999 and 2005. They included titles such as Alex Sanchez’s Rainbow Boys (S & S, 2001), Brent Hartinger’s Geography Club (HarperTeen, 2003), and David Levithan’s award-winning Boy Meets Boy (Knopf, 2003). Each book they searched was described as a coming-of-age story or labeled as juvenile or young adult fiction by the publisher.

Although only 37 out of 499 media specialists statewide responded to the survey, it still gives a somewhat accurate picture of the missing titles in school libraries because those who failed to respond “were probably turned off” by the questionnaire and more likely to have fewer books about sexual orientation in their collections, says Whittingham.
Indeed. If these appalling results are from only the librarians who felt comfortable enough to respond, how bad must the situation actually be?

Needless to say, every library and every school has the right to buy the individual books that they feel are right for their community. But to have no gay books? After all, gay folks are a part of every school and every community. Gay teen lit is a vibrant and important part of contemporary teen literature. So something very different than individual librarian discretion is going on here.

I've argued for a long time that there is a strong and ongoing instituational bias against gay books, and that a sort of preemptive censorship is occurring in libraries all across the country. The results of this study suggest that that is almost certainly the case.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Update: "Bamboo Grove" to Stay in Classroom

So Far from the Bamboo Grove by Yoko Kawashima Watkins, recently challenged by some Massachusettes parents, will stay in the classroom:
A divisive book about the aftermath of war will remain in sixth-grade classrooms because the Dover-Sherborn Regional School Committee voted last night to revamp the English lesson to better reflect the story's historical context. "So Far from the Bamboo Grove" by Massachusetts author Yoko Kawashima Watkins was challenged by a group of 13 parents who said it was racist against Koreans and too graphic for sixth-graders. The award-winning book is Watkins's story, told through her eyes when she was 11 , of escaping Korea after World War II with her family and the horrors they experienced and witnessed on their way to Japan. Some parents argued that it wrongly ignores the atrocities committed by the Japanese while they occupied Korea.