As Banned Book week approaches it appears that the book censors are in competition to suppress some the most interesting and recognized authors and books! Buckling under pressure from vocal individuals with narrow ideological agendas, school districts are betraying their primary responsibility: to provide young people with a quality, wide-ranging education and help them develop into thinking members of society.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Study in Scarlet was banned from a Virginia school district for its depiction of Mormons. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is one of two books banned in Republic, MO. after a parent complained about material incompatible with the Bible.
And now Monroe Township Schools in New Jersey have decided to pull Haruki Murakami‘s Norwegian Wood and Nic Sheff‘s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines from a summer reading list after a few parents complained about instances of sexual content. The school district went even farther: it apologized for ever including the books.
But was the selection a mistake?
Murakami has been placed “among the world’s greatest living novelists” and is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Franz Kafka Prize and Jerusalem Prize. Norwegian Wood, a novel about growing up, hugely popular with Japanese youth, was the book that made Murakami somewhat of a superstar in his native country.
Nic Sheff’s Tweak: Growing Up on Methamphetamines is the story of the author’s struggle with drugs. It is a harrowing first person narrative that is likely to teach more about the dangers of drugs than any amount of abstract lecturing. Here is a review from a 13 year old just as it was posted (typos and all):
“all i can say is nic sheff is amazing he is inspiring the book is negitive at one point but gets very positive; he finds himself withought being high and its great it really is an eyeopener and it does kinda scare me; i will never do meth; and reading this book is one of the reasons.. [: GREAT!”
And another from a 14-year old:
“People say this book shouldn’t be read by young teens but people should also see how kids can learn from this. this kids i go to high school now are like Nic and are going down his road. Reading this could make a big impact on their lives.”
(Both reviews were posted on the site of Common Sense Media whose approach to book ratings we have condemned, but whose publication of kids’ reviews offer great insight into how kids themselves see the books adults sometimes fear.)
The selection of both Norwegian Wood and Tweak books as engaging – and educationally sound – summer reading was clearly justified. And so one would expect, given that the books had been placed on the list by a committee of area teachers, librarians, and school administrators and approved by the board of education.
When deciding to remove the books, superintendent Chuck Earling said students see more graphic things on television or in the movies and that only about a dozen people had actually complained.
So why did he not stand behind the professional committee’s selection?
According to Mr Earling: “There were some words and language that seemed to be inappropriate as far as the parents and some of the kids were concerned.”
A few words out of context, a few parental complaints and — bang, the considered selection of a professional committee is overruled? Is that how educational decisions are to be made? Shame on Monroe Townships School district for lacking the backbone to stand up for the decisions of its selection committee and shame on them for trampling over young people’s need to read fiction that engages with their real-life concerns, fiction that lets them explore and imagine, fiction that helps them make choices and negotiate the difficult process of growing up.
Parents will continue launching complaints, that is for sure. But school districts should take seriously their main responsibility: to educate kids and prepare them for adulthood. Whenever a complaint is made it should be considered by the same committee, which made the initial selection: that committee should then respond to the complainer explaining why a book was chosen. Unless a book was selected based upon unsound educational criteria, it should never be removed just because a few parents object: those parents can always ask for an alternative assignment for their own kids, they have no right to restrict the reading choices of every student in the whole district.