Back in November, CBLDF co-signed a letter defending Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits after an outraged parent filed complains against the book being taught in her son’s honors English class. After months of review, the Watauga county school board held a meeting Monday evening to debate the future of the book in the North Carolina high school.
CBLDF joins coalition efforts like the one in defense of The House of the Spirits to protect the freedom to read comics. Censorship manifests in many ways, and the unique visual nature of comics makes them more prone to censorship than other types of books. Taking an active stand against all instances of censorship curbs precedent that could adversely affect the rights upon which comics readers depend.
The controversy began when Chastity Lesesne objected to the book being part of the curriculum based on what she called “pornographic” depictions of sexual situations. The House of the Spirits follows Allende and her family through the Chilean Revolution of the 1970s and does depict sex, violence, and rape as part of the story, but the book is used extensively in high school classrooms around the country. It was reviewed and recommended for the grade level by the North Carolina Department of Instruction, and any student who preferred not to read the material was allowed to complete an alternate assignment. In spite of a scant number of students ever objecting to the material, Lesesne chose to raise formal complaints and, after two votes to retain the book (both of which were unanimous), continued to fight back through the appeals process. Monday’s hearing was the result of her final appeal, which was made in December.
The Winston-Salem Journal provided an overview of the meeting, which was open to the public and included a prepared statement by Franklin Graham, son of Reverend Billy Graham, who obviously was unaware that alternate reading selections were available.
“As a parent and grandparent, I’m very concerned about what our children are asked to read and, in some cases, forced to read,” he said.
Fortunately, supporters of Mary Kent Whitaker, the teacher involved in the controversy, also spoke on behalf of keeping the book in the curriculum.
“Obviously I have a professional stake in books being banned, but I was really surprised,” said Fischer, an associate professor of English at Appalachian State University whose son was in Whitaker’s class last year. “I have taught in Mary Kent Whitaker’s class and she seems to be to be fair and intellectually honest with the kids. This is for an honors class, and that’s supposed to prepare you to think on your own and for college.”
Parents weren’t the only ones to send a message of support for free speech — the afternoon before the hearing, students as well as parents showed up in Whitaker’s classroom to deliver gifts and messages of encouragement. Whitaker commented:
“Students were in my room talking about the book and the idea of banning books from the curriculum. It was a mature and sophisticated and compassionate discussion.”
The school board had moved Monday’s meeting to a larger space to accommodate for the book’s opponents and supporters, who nearly filled a 500-seat auditorium. The school board did not make a final decision, instead scheduling Lesense’s final hearing for February 27.
Casey Gilly is a Contributing Editor for CBLDF, a Staff Writer for Comic Book Resources and, most importantly, a cat enthusiast.