In a victory for the freedom to read, a school district review committee in Marion County, Kentucky voted last night to keep John Green’s Looking for Alaska in the high school curriculum. The book had been challenged by a parent who also called 12th grade English teacher Emily Veatch “godless” and “shameful” in a letter to the editor of the local newspaper.
Even though Veatch offered an alternate reading assignment and sent home permission slips before students read the book, one parent was not satisfied with those safeguards and publicly called for Veatch to be fired last month. Veatch contacted the author himself via Twitter, and Green urged his fans to write polite emails of support addressed to the school district and local community. At last night’s meeting, Veatch said over 500 emails were received and more than half came from teens who have read the book, with the balance coming from supportive parents, teachers, and librarians around the country. CBLDF and other members of the National Coalition Against Censorship’s Kids’ Right to Read Project also sent a letter last month warning the district of the constitutional issues at stake.
Veatch also received an outpouring of local support at the meeting. Before the committee voted, she read an impassioned statement which she later shared with the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. In her speech she addressedLooking for Alaska’s impact on teen readers, which she has witnessed in the past:
When I taught Looking for Alaska with my seniors last semester and part of this semester, I saw reactions that every teacher hopes to see. I saw students who had previously claimed that they “hate to read” come into class asking “Do we GET to read today?” instead of, “Do we HAVE to read today?” I saw students who struggled to stay awake in class become more alert and engaged. I witnessed students asking to take books home so they could read ahead—and after finishing Looking for Alaska ahead of their classmates, picked up more John Green books to read on their own time. The class discussions became lively, interesting, and full of insight. Students were discussing how to make it through this “labyrinth” of life. They were contemplating their own purpose in this world, and learning how to work through grief. The couple of pages that have been taken out of context fuel discussions about the importance of emotional intimacy before physical.
Finally, Veatch stressed that while she supports each parent’s right to decide what is appropriate for their own children, they do not get to make that decision for other students:
I respect each parent’s right to be involved in their child’s education—hence, why I sent the permission forms home. I respect a parent’s right to choose what is appropriate for their child—hence, the alternate reading assignment. However, I refuse to believe that one parent should be allowed to supersede the decision of 46 other parents who chose to allow their children to read this novel. If we allow this book to be taken from the curriculum, we send a message that any material that anyone has a problem with can be removed from the classroom. We open a door to a dangerous place where parents are not given the right to choose what is best for their child; instead, a minority opinion rules. We also send the message that a teacher is incapable of choosing appropriate material for his/her classroom.
Kudos to Veatch for her brave public defense of the book, to Green and his nerdfighter army for their support, and to the review committee for listening to reason!
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.