In June, Laurel Nokomis School in Sarasota County, Florida, convened a committee of teachers, education professionals, and more to determine the fate of an award-winning novel that was being used in an 8th grade gifted language arts classroom. The board retained the book, but a “watchdog” blogger in Florida recently caught wind of the challenge and decried the decision, calling the book child pornography.
The book under review — Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson — was challenged by a parent in the district for “profanity, subject matter, graphic depiction of rape, alcohol.” Based on the complaint form, the parent argued that the book would cause “Embarrassment, neg. thoughts, ridicule having a negative mental and social impact,” and further indicated the book was not appropriate for 8th grade students. He wanted the book withdrawn from all students, not just his child, and listed Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea as “material of equal quality [that he] would you recommend that would convey as valuable a picture and perspective of our civilization and the subject treated.”
Based on subject matter and relevance to the audience, Hemingway is hardly a suitable substitution. Speak concerns the social ostracization of high school freshman Melinda after she calls the police during a summer party. No one understands why Melinda called the police, and as the school year goes on, Melinda has greater difficulty speaking because of the trauma she experienced at the party and the ongoing suffering caused by her status as a social pariah. The book does not reveal that Melinda was raped until near the end, when Melinda experiences a catharsis in finding her voice again to speak about the attack. The book has been widely praised for its candid portrayal of high school life, in particular its relatability, anti-bullying stance, and sympathetic portrayal of social outcasts. It was a 1999 National Book Award finalist and earned a spot on ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults list in 2000.
In deciding to keep the book, the committee declared the following:
“We feel this book should remain as an end of 8th grade book selection, with an alternate selection provided. It provides our students with a guided, approach to think about some of the choices that will face many of them within ten weeks of 8th grade graduation, as they move into high school and are socializing with much older, more mature high school students.”
The committee rightly decided to retain the book, but the challenge has moved to the district level review committee, which will convene in the fall to decide the fate of the novel.
In writing for watchdogwire.com, a website that is funded by conservative nonprofit Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity and is dedicated to training “citizen journalists,” blogger Richard Swier declared the book child pornography. Obviously, the review committee did not agree with this assessment, and in the response to Sarasota County’s “Checklist for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials,” no one on the committee indicated that the book had a “preoccupation with sex, violence, cruelty, brutality, and aberrant behavior that would make this material inappropriate for children.”
Swier is unswervingly committed to his campaign against the book, citing an unnamed parent who declared:
“The teacher [DeMarco] uses the book to denigrate the male students. She has them stand up and read passages from Speak in class. The teacher is using the book to push an agenda. It is child pornography, nothing more and nothing less. It does not belong in our public schools. We are have our youngest reading child porn sanctioned by a teacher. What message does that send? That is plain wrong!”
The review committee recognized that one parent cannot decide for all children what they can or cannot read. Swier doesn’t recognize this, nor does he acknowledge the First Amendment protection afforded the book. Swier is certainly welcome to voice his opinion — as is any American citizen — even if it is misguided and fundamentally misinformed, but he has no right to dictate what students in Sarasota County can read. Check back here for updates as the story develops.