In order to help diversify the materials to which students have access, Duval County, Florida will be including two books set in the Middle East in the elementary school curriculum as part of the EngageNY program, and the books have some parents concerned.
The children’s books in question are The Librarian of Basra and Nasreen’s Secret School, both of which take place in the Middle East and engage in topics regarding free speech and free access to information. The tales feature a young woman protecting a library in Iraq during war (based on a true story) and a young girl in Afghanistan attending a secret school in order to obtain an education. “The book being set in war time leads children to think about freedom that should not be suppressed during war time: freedom of speech, access to information,” said Superintendent Nikolai Vitti while defending the books.
Although these books offer third-graders a global perspective on oppression and censorship, a few parents are concerned that the books are encouraging children to engage with the materials in a religious manner — specifically that the inclusion of the books in the curriculum will encourage children to read the Koran and pray to Muhammad.
Most of the objection is coming from a small number of Christian members of the community. Some parents have reached out to the school board with a petition in protest. A viral campaign fueled the petition, and Mary Reilly, a local citizen, sent the following note to a member of the school board:
I have been told that elementary students in the upcoming 2015 -2016 school year will be required to read 2 books, promoting prayer to someone other than God. Nasreen’s Secret School & The Librarian of Basra. You can petition these books by going to DuvalSchools.org, Depts, Consolidated Services, Instructional Material, parent petition. I urge you to do this. If we cannot promote praying to God and Jesus Christ in our public schools, how can we promote reading the Koran and praying to Muhammad?
Neither book is a religious volume — in fact, one of the books says nothing about religion at all — they are set in an area of the world dominated by a religion other than what the complainants practice. Further, the books examine ways in which people overcome cultural oppression and censorship, some of which is fueled by religion in the region. Part of the irony in evaluating the challenges is that the First Amendment not only protects freedom of speech, but also freedom of religion, including Islam.
The goal of the EngageNY program and the inclusion of these more worldly materials are designed to help diversify students educational base, equip them with information to tackle more complex materials later on, and ultimately get them up to the national standard. “Some of the lessons do speak to world religions, Islam being one of them,” commented Vitti. “But no, there are no lessons that specifically teach the Koran or in any way are trying to convert children to Islam.”
Moreover, as Jeannette Winter, the author of both books writes:
That children would take with them the belief that one person can truly make a difference. And that they would remember the bravery of one woman protecting what was important to her, especially when they feel powerless, as we all do sometimes …. I think [The Librarian of Basra] Alia’s story has been a catalyst for all that we are feeling, as the horrors of current events are swirling all around. Her story puts a human face on the anonymity of war, and it lights a candle in the gloom.
The school has allowed parents who do not want their children to read the materials to sign a release form opting their children out of the lessons pertaining to the books. However, as we have seen repeatedly, challenges like this can have a negative impact on education and the parental right to choose what is best for their own children. Should the school board capitulate further and ban the books (which thankfully seems unlikely), it would only reinforce the oppression that is being fought in the pages of the books: the idea that a small group of people can exercise censorship and determine what is best for the greater community.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!