Last week, my Facebook friend Jen posted that a parent complaint led to the removal of To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn from library shelves in Virginia's Accomack County Schools.
For me, this resurrected some unwelcome memories.
First, full disclosure: I found The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to be okay, but Huckleberry Finn never did it for me. To Kill a Mockingbird? Now there’s a great book.
Anyway, the parent, Marie Rothstein-Williams, wasn’t disputing the books’ place in history, but rather the racial slurs and offensive language. “You can’t get past that,” she said, “and right now we are a nation divided as it is.”
It appears the Accomack County School Board is following proper procedures in response to Ms. Rothstein-Williams’ complaint. A committee of school employees and community members has been convened to determine the next step. They will take their time and make the decision they feel is best. Whatever that decision is, some will like it, some won’t.
Book banning is nothing new. Huckleberry Finn is the most banned book in America, Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye. Shoot, even the Harry Potter books have been banned by some schools. Years ago, I faced my own book banning dilemma, and it turned out badly.
The book is called Julie of the Wolves. Here’s the Amazon blurb about it:
To her small Eskimo village, she is known as Miyax; to her friend in San Francisco, she is Julie. When her life in the village becomes dangerous, Miyax runs away, only to find herself lost in the Alaskan wilderness.
Miyax tries to survive by copying the ways of a pack of wolves and soon grows to love her new wolf family. Life in the wilderness is a struggle, but when she finds her way back to civilization, Miyax is torn between her old and new lives. Is she Miyax of the Eskimos—or Julie of the wolves?
Julie won a Newberry Award in 1973, and has been read in Middle School Communications Arts classes for decades. Despite all this, I’d never heard of the book until the complaint.
It came from a parent who was also pastor of a small church. His issue was a scene that is said to describe the sexual attack of Julie by her husband. It’s a common complaint about the book, as you can find through a Google search. You can also Google the excerpt in question. Author Jean Craighead-George, is emphatic that the scene is not a rape. I felt it was strong language for an upper-elementary/middle school book. But my opinion didn’t matter. What mattered was policy. Here’s the policy:
It’s a good policy. A smart policy. It allows discussion and consideration rather than a knee-jerk reaction. It ensures that one person's viewpoints can't impact an entire school.
But on a cold night two decades ago, a school board violated its own policy. The meeting convened to a packed house, as word of the complaint had leaked out. When it came up for discussion, the school principal stated that a review committee would be meeting the next week.
The response? After a few moments of silence, a board member angrily said he didn’t need a committee. The book was inappropriate and that was that. He made a motion, received a second, and a majority of the seven board members voted to disregard their own policy. Julie of the Wolves was no more.
As a school administrator, you expect to be overruled on occasion. After a while, those kinds of things don’t bother you. You do what you can do, and that’s all you can do. Julie of the Wolves, however, has stayed with me all these years. Book banning is wrong. Deciding to keep objectionable or age-inappropriate material out of kids’ hands isn’t. Where one ends and the other picks up isn’t a decision to be taken lightly.
I wish the Accomack County School Board only the best as they carefully follow their policy.
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