A parent in Marshfield, Wisconsin has filed a challenge to Jeannette Walls’ memoir The Glass Castle, saying that high school students “deserve better” than a book he describes as “full of foul language, and explicit and disturbing materials.” In accordance with its challenge policy, the Marshfield School District will form a review committee to read the book and recommend a course of action to the superintendent.
Walls’ book about her impoverished childhood is a popular choice in high school curricula, but also a frequently challenged one. At last week’s meeting of the Marshfield Board of Education, parent Dan Alsides asked that it be removed from the 10th grade curriculum and replaced with another unspecified book that would “inspire our children to greatness.” A representative from the school district said that Alsides’ complaints about the book included “language and ideas put forth in the book by someone with addictions and mental illness.”
Once a review committee is formed, members have only seven days to read the book and agree on a recommendation to send to the district superintendent, who in turn may take action herself or recommend a course of action to the school board. If Alsides is unsatisfied with the superintendent’s decision, he may appeal it to the board as well. Marshfield’s challenge policy states that the book is to remain in the curriculum during the review process; moreover, it can only be removed altogether by a vote of the board, not unilaterally by the superintendent. Finally, the policy includes a clause that will likely prove crucial in defense of The Glass Castle:
[N]o challenged material may be removed solely because it presents ideas that may be unpopular or offensive to some. Any Board action to remove material will be accompanied by the Board’s statement of its reasons for the removal.
Strangely enough, this is not the only book about poverty that has recently faced a challenge in the Marshfield school district. In 2015 parent and school board member Mary Carney asked that the United Nations-published picture book For Every Child a Better World be removed from the kindergarten curriculum. The book features Kermit the Frog and a multicultural cast of Sesame Street-like humanoid characters shown in global settings. Its aim, says the publisher’s description, is to teach “young readers about the plight of young children who lack the basic human necessities and the efforts of the United Nations to provide such essentials as housing, water, food, and medical aid,” but Carney alleged that it contains too much “negative, dark, depressing imagery.” An eight-member review committee unanimously voted to keep the book in classrooms.
The Glass Castle has also faced its share of challenges in other schools. Last year the full text of the book was replaced by excerpts in the ninth grade curriculum at West Allegheny High School in Pennsylvania, prompting students to launch a petition in favor of restoring it. The petition garnered about 200 signatures and was presented to the school board by one of the organizers, but the board took no further action despite praising the students’ initiative. Walls’ memoir was also one of seven books that were temporarily suspended en masse from the approved reading list of Highland Park High School near Dallas in 2014. The district reversed course after a public outcry.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.