Summer books too hot?

Those who have read this site for a while will not be surprised to find that I am not one to scream censorship the minute a parent complains about a book or a school changes the reading list. I believe parents and schools have the right – actually the duty – to decide what is best for the children in their charge. Sometimes that includes choices about what books should be read or even available to students. And sometimes the folks involved make decisions I might not agree with, but that doesn’t make it censorship.

I bring this up because the issue has come up again here in Ohio. Here is the story from the Columbus Dispatch (sub. may be required):

Olentangy Liberty High School’s summer reading list was a little too hot for at least one parent and the district superintendent.

Olentangy Superintendent Scott Davis rejected two of four books recommended to students entering Liberty’s 10 th-grade college-prep English class. Reading any of them is voluntary.

Davis deemed the books, The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, inappropriate after a complaint from a parent.

[. . .]

Davis defended his decision on two fronts: objectionable content and lack of communication to parents about how and why books were selected.

“Lovely Bones has a very graphic rape scene and, given the millions of books that are out there, there has to be a very strong rationale (for selecting it),” he said. “Curious Incident (was removed) largely for potentially offensive language. And I’m not sure we had a process in place that communicated the nature of the material to parents.”

I have not read Lovely Bones – and frankly don’t plan to – but I have read Curious Incident and enjoyed it. But just because I thought it was a great book doesn’t mean I think the parent was wrong to complain. While it is certainly true that most kids are exposed to violence and vulgarity at an early age these days, that doesn’t make it a good thing. I can certainly sympathize with a parents wish to keep the exposure to a minimum. As the father of a 17-month old daughter I am acutely aware of this issue.

Despite, not having read it I would lean toward concern about Lovely Bones more than the Curious Incident. Violent and/or graphic rape scenes are on a different level, to my mind, than mere profanity. But after some thought it seems to me that tenth graders should be able to handle these books or at least have the option of reading and discussing them. Given that the program is voluntary, and the intent is college prep, I think the superintendent acted to hastily.

Granted, there are some students who might not be ready for this type of material, but certainly I think I was able to handle these type of works when I was that age. I don’t think it should result in lawsuits or anything, I just think maybe he pulled the trigger a little to fast. The good news is that this incident seems to have triggered a policy review:

Davis said he envisions creating a different method next year for developing summer reading lists — one that includes teachers, administrators, board members and parents.

“I think there is a wisdom of crowds,” said Davis, who assumed the Olentangy superintendent’s job in May. “That’s the beauty of public schools. We try to get as much input as possible.”

While reading and thinking about the story I was wondering what I might do as a parent if my child was in the class. I think what I would do is discuss the issue with both the teacher and my child. Knowing what the teacher was looking to accomplish would help me understand why the book was being assigned and to get a sense of the teachers perspective. This would also be a great opportunity to read books with your kids and to discuss the important issues involved. You can impart moral guidance and critical thinking by exploring the perspectives and potential trouble spots these books might involve.

I wish my parents would have done more of this. I grew up in a rather strict household where many things were simply off limits. Instead of always leaning toward prohibition I think you can set limits but also discuss how to deal with the ugliness that is out there in the world and how to make sense of it; and more importantly how not to get caught up in it or changed by it. You shouldn’t seek out exposure to dark and ugly things just for the fun of it, but neither can you hope to avoid dealing with the world as it is in some important way.

Such are my thoughts. What does the peanut gallery think? Is it always wrong to remove books from a reading list? Who should decided what books are read or stocked in the library? What role should parents play in this scenario?

If you don’t feel like commenting on this weighty topic, have a good weekend!

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).


  1. Doesn’t anyone like books anymore? Is a word frequency search of Amazon really the criteria that parents want to use when selecting books?

    OK, today it is Curious Incident, tomorrow it is Shel Silverstein. (been there, done that one.)

    The whole point of offering the students a selection of titles is they have a choice!!!

    Important sentence from the article: Reading any of them is voluntary. If this was r-e-q-u-i-r-e-d reading then the parents would have a right to ask for another title but please, could you leave these for another student? Some other kids might find meaning and connection in these titles.

    I have always said that book protests are NEVER EVER just about the book. It is ALWAYS about the parents, their anger, their guilt, their quest for attention or power.

    I would love to know if Superintendent Davis followed the school district’s own policy for reconsideration. It is alarming how often administrations are flounting their own policy manuals in order to appease parents. (There ought to public flushings of the policy manuals these days since so many districts choose to ignore the rules whenever it suits them.) These parents are like Hamas, they cannot be bought off or appeased. They will just become more demanding and commit more literary attrocities.

    These folks are never happy just “protecting” their own child, they deny everyone! I think parents should have to pass a test to prove they have read the book before they challenge it and they should have to pay a challenge fee.

    I would love to know what kind of music their kids listen to. I know in my heart that their tender little flowers are going to see The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift at the local cinema plex this summer.

    On the other hand if they have still managed to keep their teenager’s room decorated with CareBears, I salute them.

    I could not agree with you more about talking about reading material with your kids. What a great way to have a conversation about ideals and issues.

    One of the most “progressive” reading lists I have ever seen is offered by a private Baptist school here in Texas. Their feeling is they want to discuss these incredibly important topics with the kids and a book is a great opener. Interesting that these two titles are not too “hot” for a Southern Baptist school.

    Here on the eve of our national birthday, our children’s freedom to read is on trial again. Sadly, too often in these cases the minority rules.

  2. I remember reading “Goldfinger” and “Valley of the Dolls” in the 7th grade. We covered our contraband with brown paper bag book covers – like that wouldn’t draw attention to the fact we were reading “trash”.

    The books were banned, but we still managed to get them read, and passed around a lot. I think what made them so delectable WAS the fact we were pissing the establishment off.

    Same year, I secreted out of my parent’s bedroom a copy of Harrold Robbins, “The Betsy”. Dad came home ( he worked second shift) and found me still up reading in bed. Caught me before I could hide the book. His eyebrows came up, but all he asked was if I had any questions about the book. “Nope”, I abashedly said. He just shrugged his shoulders, and after that most any book he owned was available for me to read, too. Upon his suggestion, my next book from his bedside shelf was “Dr. Zhivago”. How I loved that book, and more importantly, how I loved talking about Boris Pasternak with my dad. We discussed his poetry and the oppressive Russian government and Judaism in early Russia. Fascinating.

  3. I can tell you what the parents are doing, they are angry and fighting back. I am a parent in the district and as soon as the story broke, people began exercising their rights to complain about this unilateral decision. No, he did not follow district policy and parents that had kids in the class and complained to him directly about the decision were dismissed. He basically said “I don’t care what you think.” And, “well maybe we should just put porn up on the school website since it’s out there in the world already…” I get the feeling he is a watcher of Fox news…

    My son read the book in 6th grade and loved it. He is writing the superintendent and sending him a copy of the book since he has not read it.

    He is a new superintendent in the district and has no idea the backlash that will come from this decision. Teachers are shocked, parents are mad and kids are all begging to read the book now. This is a district of parents that has approved 7 tax increases in a row to support the amazing teachers and staff at our top-rated schools. I can guarantee you that if this sort of oppressive behavior continues, great teachers will leave, parents who can afford it will send their kids to private school and levies will fail.

    And then Mr. Davis will be out of a job…

  4. Thanks for posting about this Stacy. It sure seems to be the fashion these days to NOT follow the district policies. If they ban a book but follow the rules, I might be annoyed but at least the book had its day in court. The illegality of what is happening in so many places these days is heartbreaking for our kids.

    At least it made the news in your town. So often these things do NOT get any press because teachers and librarians are intimidated and the administrators get away with it.

  5. Thanks for posting about this Stacy. It sure seems to be the fashion these days to NOT follow the district policies. If they ban a book but follow the rules, I might be annoyed but at least the book had its day in court. The illegality of what is happening in so many places these days is heartbreaking for our kids.

    At least it made the news in your town. So often these things do NOT get any press because teachers and librarians are intimidated and the administrators get away with it.

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