On Thursday, February 27, nearly 200 people packed Courtroom 1 in the Watauga Country Courthouse to find out the fate of Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits. With a vote of 3-2, the school board elected to keep the book in sophomore honors English classrooms — a certain victory for the freedom to read.
CBLDF signed two letters from the Kids’ Right to Read Project in defense of the book. CBLDF joins coalition efforts like the one 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.
Chastity Lesesne filed a complaint against the book in October after it was assigned to her son in a sophomore honors English class. Lesesne called the book “graphic,” “immoral” and “pornographic,” but the first review committee unanimously disagreed with her assessment that the depictions of sex, rape, and violence are unacceptable for high school students. Lesesne appealed the decision, and a second committee also unanimously agreed that the book should remain in the curriculum.
Despite two unanimous votes in support of the book, Lesesne wasn’t content to walk away. She appealed the decision yet again, leaving the book’s fate in the hands of the Watauga County School Board. The board convened a special meeting earlier this month to discuss the book, and the debate in defense of the book has been vigorous.
Thursday’s meeting was originally intended to take place in the school board’s usual meeting location, not the Watauga County Courthouse. The meeting was moved to the courthouse over safety concerns. Earlier in the week, several teacher’s in the high school English department received anonymous letters of a threatening nature. Watauga County Schools Superintendent Dr. David Fonseca condemned the letters in a public statement.
Lesesne was adamant in her final attempt to ban the book on Thursday. From local NPR affiliate 88.5 WWFD:
Parental consent is required for this course. But Chastity Lesesne feels the book is inappropriate for 15 and 16- year- olds. “This book is saturated with sexually explicit material that is confirmed to create images in our students’ minds and is intentionally distributed to students without review,” said Lesesne.
In her final statement, Lesesne also used the school district’s own policies to attack the book:
“Watauga High School takes steps to block questionable content. Watauga policy exists to prevent sexual or violent lyrics in pregame music. From Watauga policy, video resources, any PG-13 or R requires prior approval from principal or parent,” explains Lesesne. “Yet this book, The House of the Spirits, is required with no analysis of inappropriate sexual content or the impact on students and no principal or parent review is required.”
High Country Press posted video of Lesesne’s final statement:
Course instructor Mary Kent Whitaker defended the book. Rather than rhetoric, Whitaker relied on statistics:
Thursday night, she reminded the board the disturbing material in The House of the Spirits is minimal. “One percent of the entire text these excerpts contain violent and sexual content. If you remove it from the curriculum even if you leave it in the library, you’ve gone against rock solid evidence from North Carolina and other education experts who deem the book appropriate for honors sophomores and not pornographic,” said Whitaker.
She added, “With two years of data, you can see that 93% of students either read the House of Spirits or desire to read it. It represents the support and permission of 300-400 parents.”
Whitaker’s final statement, courtesy of High Country Press:
For many in the community, the school board’s vote was too close for comfort. According to Jesse Wood with High Country Press, the decision ultimately came down to the vote of one board member, Ron Henries. Henries didn’t support the book itself, but he rightly decided that it wasn’t up to him to determine what is appropriate for all children in the community:
“I believe parents should have the right to decide what their children should read. Not me, and they will have the right. If they don’t want their children to read the book, then they can opt out of it,” Henries said after the meeting adjourned. “If enough people opt out of the book, it will go [the way of the dinosaur].”
While Henries’ statement regarding the removal of the book from the curriculum through attrition is itself concerning, his decision to stand up for the rights of all parents in the community — not just Lesesne’s rights — is a victory for the freedom to read. CBLDF applauds the retention of The House of the Spirits in the Watauga County classrooms.
Previously on CBLDF.org: