RAYMOND — Recently, a Tennessee school district made international headlines after its board unanimously voted to ban “Maus,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction graphic novel about the author’s parents’ experiences surviving the Holocaust, from being taught in its classrooms.
Raymond School in central Racine County was recently able to fly under the radar when it removed three books from its library.
While “All American Boys” underwent a formal challenge process, including a review committee and an appeal, “Speak” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” were removed following a board meeting during which a concerned parent read several passages, according to School Board President Jeremy Childers.
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“The other two (“Speak” and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part- Time Indian”) were removed by the district administrator (Steve Harder) at his discretion, after they had been mentioned at a board meeting,” Childers said.
“But, it never got to a formal review, because excerpts were read at a board meeting that were — I don’t really know how to say it — but they were pretty shocking and based off of the explicit content, and the racially derogatory words that were used. The district administrator just decided at his discretion that it would be best to remove those books, which he did confirm that he has the authority to do that prior to an appeal,” he said.
Raymond School administrators did not reply to requests for comment on this story.
The books in question
“All American Boys,” by Jason Reynolds and Brandon Kiely, is a young adult novel about two teenage boys dealing with racism and police brutality in their community.
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie, is a first-person narrative novel about a Native American teenager, his life on the Spokane Indian Reservation and his decision to go to a nearly all-white public high school away from the reservation.
“Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson, is a novel about a 13-year-old girl who becomes mute after a sexual assault.
While Raymond School is not alone its handling of book challenges. Burlington Area School District has faced parent complaints about reading materials. But while BASD serves students as old as 18, Raymond School is for students from kindergarten through eighth grade, generally ages 5 to 14.
While some of the books that were removed may have served the older students in the building, the concern remained for any of the youngest students seeing some of the more mature content, according to Childers.
“We support the widest diversity of views and expression in the library,” Childers said. “What the board is struggling with is the age appropriateness, and the fact that we have a combined library with younger and older kids.”
The American Library Association received word of the removal. That prompted an Illinois librarian, Holly Eberle, to write an Intellectual Freedom Blog Post about it on ALA’s website. As a staunch advocate for intellectual freedom, Eberle stands against the removal of books from libraries.
While Eberle noted that Raymond School finds itself in a conundrum due to the age group the school serves, she was also concerned for the older students that would be losing access to the materials. Eberle noted that the closest public library for Raymond students was nearly 10 miles away and the next, the Racine Public Library, was nearly 15.
“When you’re getting rid of books in the school library, you’re effectively getting rid of them, especially for kids. They can’t just hop in the car and drive to Racine or anything like that,” Eberle said in an interview.
As a librarian that works specifically with teens, Eberle said she tries to offer a wide variety of materials in her library’s young adult section, so that there is something for everyone. She asserted that reading differing perspectives helps children to grow, a sentiment she shares with Laurie Halse Anderson, author of “Speak.”
Anderson, who is both a parent and a grandparent, recognized that raising children is hard and some parents may not want their children to read her book. This, Anderson said, she could respect; but, the buck stops when it comes to removing books from circulation all together.
“One of our (country’s) foundations is that we tolerate people who are different than we are. And that means that if a book makes you uncomfortable, don’t read it and tell the teacher you don’t want your child to read it,” Anderson said in a video interview with a reporter. “But, because we have this beautiful constitution, and then the First Amendment guarantees intellectual freedom, the book gets to stay in the library.”
In some ways, Anderson said she hopes her book does make people uncomfortable. As a sexual assault survival herself, Anderson brings the unimaginable struggle of survivors to light in the pages of “Speak,” which was first published in 1999 and for which Anderson won the Golden Kite award, the Edgar Allan Poe Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.
Twenty-three years later, the novel continues to be challenged; in the case of Raymond School, it is banned both from library shelves and classrooms. While this, Anderson said, makes her feel sad, it also drives her forward in bringing awareness to the issue.
“There are a lot of people in this country who still believe that victims of sexual violence — and victims can be of all genders, any genders; if they get hurt, if they’re attacked or abused or harmed in any way — it’s their fault because of what they were wearing or things like that. And, well, I guess it’s motivated me to work for 20 years,” Anderson said.
While Childers, Eberle and Anderson said they recognized the right of parents to guide their own child’s reading, Anderson said the process is being abused.
“There are a lot of people who are using that process right now by going to school board meetings by complaining loudly, and they’re using those school board meetings to rob the children in their community of books and to rob them of an education,” Anderson said. “That’s immoral, as far as I’m concerned.”
Childers said that the Raymond School Board, while its members support the ideals of the ALA’s stance on offering a wide variety of views on its library shelves, believe there is little flexibility in the school’s small, shared library.
This could change with the upcoming $14.8 million Raymond School referendum, which Childers said would bring facility improvements to the school, including to the library, if approved.
Anderson and Eberle both emphasized the importance of local elections in creating everyday change, especially in schools. Early voting is already underway in a primary for the Raymond School Board; the final day for voting in the primary is Feb. 15. Election Day for local spring elections is April 5.
“A lot of people think the local elections don’t matter as much,” Eberle said, “but this is directly impacting your kids.”