A Chicago-area high school has discontinued use of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things in its English curriculum, saying that the novel had not gone through the initial approval process outlined in district policy and contained “subject matter in some sections that is not age-appropriate for the students who were reading the book.” Some parents and community members have also complained about Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but Lemont High School appears to be standing by that one for now.
Students in the sophomore-level Academic English II classes at LHS received copies of Roy’s novel earlier this year, but were only assigned to read excerpts rather than the entire book. Apparently some of them nevertheless came across some of the racier passages outside of their assigned reading, prompting some teachers to notify school administration of “concerns about the book.” Because the novel had not gone through the approval process outlined in the school’s policy on Instructional Materials, Principal Eric Michaelson apologized to parents for the mix-up on November 2. At that point students had already finished their assigned reading from the book.
Only after the content of Roy’s critically praised and Booker Prize-winning novel had been brought to their attention, parents and area residents took a closer look at other books on the Academic English II reading list and zeroed in on Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which includes her account of being raped at eight years old. Unlike The God of Small Things, Angelou’s book has received official approval for curricular use at LHS and has been read by students for several years, according to a statement on the school’s website. At the beginning of the school year parents were notified that the book contains “limited adult content” and offered them the option of an alternate reading assignment for their own children. No one took that option this year, the statement noted.
Nevertheless, at a November 21 school board meeting parents and other area residents pushed for Angelou’s book to be removed from the curriculum entirely. One parent of a junior said she felt the book’s “sexual content is too much for their young minds to process,” while another said she felt her child would be “ostracized” if she had chosen the alternate assignment.
Most astounding of all was a statement from area resident Rick Ligthart, who identified himself as a former teacher and recommended to the board that “no literature whatsoever [should] be inclusive of literal metaphorical, figurative or allegorical words for male or female genitals.” He added that “we can’t have 18-year-olds reading about masturbation or sexual issues.”
On its website, LHS has rightly pointed out that these quotes from community members, which have ricocheted across the Internet since they were first reported on November 29, do not reflect the school’s own position on the books. The statement reiterates that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is approved for curricular use, and that no one opted for an alternate reading assignment this year despite ample notification. It is to be hoped that this implies the school plans to stand by Angelou’s book despite the complaints brought up at the board meeting.
As for The God of Small Things: while it’s technically true that the novel had not gone through the formal approval process, obviously someone in the LHS English Department thought it (or at least part of it) was worthwhile and appropriate for students to read. Board members should now give the book a fair chance to become approved for the curriculum in future, meaning it would be offered for public review and then adopted or rejected based on public comments and pedagogical utility.
Finally, the statement from LHS also said that the book controversy served as “a springboard to review all materials that are used in our English classes – regardless of how long they have been part of our curriculum – to ensure they are appropriate for our students.” If the implication is that books previously approved may become unapproved, that would be worrying and legally dubious. Board members and administrators are urged to keep in mind the district policy on Curriculum Development, which says that changes to the curriculum should be undertaken only in partnership with a true “cross-section of teachers, administrators, parents/guardians, and students, representing all schools, grade levels, disciplines, and specialized and alternative programs.”
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.