A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Censorship or caution?

There is a dispute at a California high school regarding the selection of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones as a reading project for grades 9-12.

Malibu High School students chose the book; second choice was George Orwell's 1984.
The book, "Lovely Bones" by Alice Sebold, rocketed to bestseller lists in 2003. It is written as a narrative in the voice of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped, murdered and dismembered by a neighbor. The girl watches from heaven as survivors grapple with her death, and as her family falls apart.

"This is adult material, and I am trying to grasp why you would pick a book that is so controversial?" asked parent Barry Schoenbrun at a Parent Teacher Student Association meeting at the school last week. The hour-long exchange in the school library was described by participants as calm, respectful and deliberate.

School principal Mark Kelly said he would take the messages he heard to a meeting with the school's English teachers this week. A decision on whether to continue with the planned assignment will come after that, Kelly said.

"I would like to point out that the book was selected by the students, and we would like to respect that," said English teacher Bonnie Thoreson. "The book was approved by the California Department of Education, with the notation that the content was for an adult readership with mature content, and that teachers should be sure to know the child given the book."

At the meeting, parent after parent, who described themselves as liberal and realistic in outlook, raised problems with the book.

Now, I have to be honest. I could not make myself read this book-- I tried. I do not want to read about young teen girls being raped and chopped into pieces. I also couldn't read Jane Hamilton's A Map of the World for the same reason. I just have a really hard time thinking about children being killed or drowning.

Nonetheless, I stand by the right of others to read this book. Perhaps, though, there might be other students who could not get through this book as well. In which case, having an alternate book for students to choose might be the right choice.


At 3/25/06, 5:04 PM, Blogger 100 Farmers said...

One major change that I had noticed after I started teaching is that I was no longer able to read certain books or to watch certain movies. The reality that I encounter sometimes in my students lives are often so graphic that I don't need fictional exposure. I have to agree on the alternative reading assignment. I couldn't read this book either.

At 3/25/06, 9:58 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this book and found it redemptive, in the sense that the protagonist came to terms with the senseless crime that took her life.

I am not sure about the book for 9th graders, but surely by 12th grade this would be a high-interest, high-response book.

I have to admit that my sense of "teen-appropriate" books is a bit warped, in that my [specific reading disability] teen looooves Chuck Palahniuk's work. Much of what he writes is too gory for me....and I'm not sure what I'd think if his work were assigned reading. But she loves his work and is immersed in it.

And I wonder how parents would respond if the plotlines of regular TV fare were reading assignments...the CSIs are far more gruesome than "The Lovely Bones" -- the O.C, I don't allow it on the TiVo; the backstabbing and venality of all the reality shows like Survivor....


At 3/25/06, 9:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry, the anon above is me, Liz, from I Speak of Dreams

At 3/25/06, 10:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have another question for you, as a real live classroom teacher. The question has to do with Scott McConnell, the fellow who was not allowed to finish his master's program at Le Moyne College. The conservative point of view is that he was discriminated against because of his conservative views.

I've posted his essay outlining classroom management philosophy on my blog


What do you think? Does McConnell have a mind-set that is appropriate for a classroom teacher?

At 3/25/06, 10:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Foo. Anon is again me, Liz, at I Speak of Dreams

At 3/26/06, 11:13 AM, Blogger graycie said...

I agree that this book might be best assigned to older kids rather than freshmen. However, it is important to consider that the students chose the book. An alternative title is not a bad idea in any case. (I have had families object to teaching Greek mythology as it was "against our religion.")

A letter sent home before the novel is begun noting potential difficulties and requiring parental approval before reading is a good idea.

At 3/26/06, 4:00 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Tree Story, is there something wrong with us, or is there something wrong with the rest of the world? :)

Graycie, I'm with you. I think student choice is important. However, I was just thinking that if I were assigned that book, I wouldn't be able to do it, so give the kids like me and tree story the chance to not flunk the project. And not have nightmares.

And Liz, this is getting to be a habit :)-- click the TOP button to not sign in as anonymous.

As a parent, I am not sure I would LIKE my daughter reading it, but, as a sign of God's perverse sense of humor, my kids so far are not all that interested in reading, so, frankly, I would be thrilled if they WANTED to read this book and FINISHED it. I would undoubtedly discuss this with them as they read it, though.

At 3/26/06, 6:53 PM, Blogger graycie said...

Last year my advanced class (and they really were advanced) needed to read a novel. Half of them had read Animal Farm (bored them and me, sorry) and the other half had read Elie Wiesel's Night (my other choice) and had said, "It's a very good book, and we're glad we read it, but please don't make us go back there." Their point was valid. No one should have to "go back there."

So, what to do? We suggested titles and researched reviews of them (in places like the School Library Journal) and wound up with books I had not read. Two different titles that we could not bring to one -- and one title was a bit problematic: What Happened to Loni Garver. So I sent home the letters and wrote a Generic Novel Plan (with bits stolen from better teachers than I) and it is on my wiki (graycie5198[at]pbwiki[dot]com) if someone wants to borrow it so that kids in one class can read more than one title at a time.

At 3/27/06, 12:44 PM, Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

Speaking not from the perspective of a teacher, but from that of a parent, I see a big difference between banning a book and not assigning it. I think including such a book on a list with warnings so that kids and their parents, if they involve themselves to that degree, can avoid it if they choose, is a good compromise. I'd be mad if somebody MADE my daughter read a book that upset her, especially if it came with warnings that it was written for an adult audience, and she was only in 9th grade.

But I think sometimes people forget that teenagers and adults have very different perspectives about things they read, so a book that an adult might find very meaningful could strike a kid as blah-blah-blah. Or upset him, or turn him against the genre. My daughter had to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in high school. I had never read it, so I read it too. I loved it, she hated it. I think the reason for that was that I read it associating with the adult narrator who is looking back at her girlhood and all the happy and sad and horrifying and poignant things that made her into the person she is today. My daughter read it associating with the little girl in the story, and reading it that way makes it just about unbearable if you have any feelings at all.

At 3/28/06, 1:44 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Parent perspective:
I understand that it is important to have students interested and invested in their work. However, "because they chose it" is not necessarily the best reason to choose a book. What if they had chosen a sexual explicit book? Would that still be ok because the majority are interested in reading it?

I like that the teacher places limits in a classroom and helps students choose quality work.

At 3/28/06, 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder how many parents that don't want their kids reading this book will let them see the movie, which is currently in development, when it comes out.

My opinion? It's an interesting choice, but I would be concerned for those who couldn't handle the material. I had a hard time getting through the first half of the book, even though it is now one of my all-time favorite books. I think it's an interesting choice for a AP-level class of 12th graders and something to be on the approved reading list for the rest.

At 3/28/06, 10:40 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Now, see, that's a whole other problem. How many times have I had students talk about the latest gross-out flick they've seen, including plenty of sex and foul language too, but their parents absolutely pat themselves on the back for trying to ban Harry Potter from the library?

At 3/29/06, 6:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

*cough* Well, that book wouldn't have been my first choice (or any choice) for assigned reading material. Not for the subject matter, but because it's so terribly written. I have no idea how it got such high reviews. The writing style strives for something lyrical but instead achieves melodrama and cheesiness. And the second part of the book? When did I stumble into a bad movie?

At 3/29/06, 8:25 PM, Blogger Laura(southernxyl) said...

Ms. Cornelius, is it always the actual parents of those very same children?

I never tried to have a book banned or raised objections at school about anything on my daughter's reading lists. I disapproved of some but she read them. But the thing is, we don't do vulgar movies or TV, never did, so when I've heard the argument about assigned reading or assigned movies(!) that "it's nothing worse than what they'll see on late-night cable", I never found that argument particularly compelling.

I did actually substitute some books on her 7th grade suggested summer reading but those weren't required. The book I remember substituting was Lost Moon, the Apollo 13 story, for Chuck Yeager's autobiography. I started reading the Yeager book first, thinking it would probably be really cool, but the amount of profanity was literally distracting. I found myself thinking, "Will he get through this paragraph without 'goddamn'? no. This one? no." And the sexism expressed by both him and his wife irritated me no end. I figured my daughter didn't need any of that.

And I guess that would be my complaint if I did complain. Aren't there enough wonderful books out there without assigning garbage to kids? Maybe sometimes teachers get tired of the classics, but they're still new to the kids. My daughter LOVED The Count of Monte Cristo. She had to read it for 9th grade and she still drags it out and rereads it from time to time. Same with Jane Eyre and so on.

At 3/29/06, 9:25 PM, Blogger 100 Farmers said...

Just a quick note about your reading list. Terry Pratchett has kep me sane through many rough schooldays. I love Granny Weatherwax.

At 3/30/06, 8:05 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Actually, laura, yes. Unfortunately, most of these parents to whom I allude have no idea what their kids are watching on the big screen or on tv. But they like to go into the libraries and keep everyone's kids from reading books that they claim are objectionable-- often books they themselves have no knowledge of except what they've heard from someone else.

My mother forbade me to read the Catcher in the Rye, so of course what did I do? Sneak it home and read it the first chance I got. After we all get a good laugh over the quaintness of the notion of a child sneaking home a BOOK to READ it, let's understand that after I did read it, I was none too impressed. I got that Holden Caulfield was disaffected and alienated and also that he had an astonishing lack of vocabulary. Take out the obscenities, and the book would have been a haiku. Then there was the fact that he was incredibly narcissistic and a whiny little crybaby. Thirteen year old me would have whacked that kid.

But I made my judgments about the book AFTER I had read it. I am automatically suspicious of people who judge a book by its cover-- or by what someone else says about it-- without at least trying to read it.

And, anonymous, I felt the same way about the film Mystic River. What was there to like about that film? It was hopeless, despairing and nihilistic. But the critics loved it. I was furious at myself for spending a rare day to myself watching it instead of seeing Master and Commander, which buckled my swash quite nicely.

Tree story, I agree! I discovered Terry Pratchet by accident, and have only had time to read Small Gods and have startedGoing Postal. I really need a laugh these days, so this hits the spot.

Which one is Granny Weatherwax in?


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