Alamogordo Teachers, Librarian Speak Out On Neverwhere

October 22, 2013
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NeverwhereWith Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere currently suspended from classroom use at Alamogordo (New Mexico) High School, English teachers and the school’s librarian are speaking out to make it clear that the book has not been removed from the library and that they do not agree with the district’s handling of the challenge.

In its original shamefully biased report, Albuquerque news station KRQE said that the book had been “taken off the shelves” over footage of the parent who complained about it in what appears to be a library. Understandably, many viewers around the world took this to mean that the book was removed from the school’s library as well as classrooms; even reputable news sources like The Guardian initially repeated what KRQE implied. But in an interview with School Library Journal late last week, AHS librarian Vicki Bertolino clarified that the book is still in the library collection — and she’s doing her best to make sure it remains there:

I, personally, don’t believe in banning anything… Every great work of art has been banned at one time or another, and all you can do is feel sorry for these people that are so ignorant and so fearful, that they don’t let their young people or even themselves open their eyes and hearts to what’s actually happening.

Meanwhile, teachers from the school’s English department are also voicing their concerns. First, a comment that teacher Kathy Wallis left on a previous SLJ article went viral after Gaiman copied it onto his Tumblr. Wallis said in part:

The teachers in the English department do not agree with the knee jerk reaction of pulling Neverwhere… It has been successful as a supplemental novel and since our goal is to get students engaged and encourage their thinking, this novel is a keeper — the students love it… We simply cannot stand for banning a book for hundreds of students this year and in the years to come because a single parent objected over one brief passage on one page.

Wallis also expressed her disappointment with the way the challenge has been handled by the school district:

I am sorry our school administrators did not stand up and support the material the way we all would have expected them to do…it makes our school and our town appear as if we are fine with suspending the use of a book that is used by middle and high schools across the country and around the globe. We are not fine with it, and we want people to know that.

Wallis’ colleague Pam Thorp elaborated in an op-ed from the Alamogordo Daily News, saying that the new teacher who was using Neverwhere in class would have happily provided an alternate assignment for the daughter of the parent who complained — if she had only been contacted. Says Thorp:

I am deeply and personally wounded that a broad and sweeping assumption has been made and stated in such a shockingly public way without any dialogue between the parent and the teacher (who is a wonderful addition to our department this year). It is my most fervent hope that as a community, you recognize the detriment this kind of censorship may have on your own children, and that you will [not] allow silence to take the place of communication nor allow narrow-mindedness to strangle vision.

Also last week, the Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri offered a tongue-in-cheek take on the book’s challenge and suspension. Noting that the parent objected to only one paragraph on one page, Petri says “[t]his is censorship by text search, where you look for something to be offended by and find it nestled at the bottom of page 108.” To illustrate her point, she presents an excerpt from Moby Dick about “squeezing sperm” (whale sperm, that is) and several from Jane Eyre that include variations on the verb “ejaculate” (in the vocal sense). Banning Neverwhere based on one out-of-context paragraph makes about as much sense as banning those two classics, says Petri:

Context is everything. Especially when books are concerned. But these days, context is nothing. Everything gets remixed, quoted, plucked out of the ocean of words where it was swimming around quite contentedly causing no one any offense and held up in the suffocating air until it looks like the sort of bug-eyed thing you want to keep out of your children’s lives. ‘Burn down the forest!’ you shout. ‘There is a naked tree!’

Before you object, read the book? No. Who has time for that? Don’t bother with the forest. Just check the forest for the kind of trees you want to hate.

If you’d like to communicate your thoughts on Neverwhere to the Alamogordo School District, you can submit comments of 300 words or less to the review committee until 4:00 p.m. MDT this Friday, October 25. There’s also a change.org petition started by local resident Melissa Wilde.

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Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.