Ohio Superintendent: Controversial Books Aren’t for Summer Reading

the-god-of-small-thingsIn response to concerns about the inclusion of Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things on a high school summer reading list, Superintendent Jim Powell of the North Ridgeville, Ohio, school district said that controversial books should be assigned only during the school year, when teachers are readily available to speak to both students and concerned parents about more mature subject matter.

Maria Sycz, mother to a 15-year-old daughter in the school district and a former school board member and president, raised concerns over the mature themes and subject matter in The God of Small Things. According to a report from Steve Fogarty with The Chronicle-Telegram, Sycz read the book with her daughter this summer and was “troubled by the way the book dealt with sensitive subjects such as rape, beatings, incest, the molestation of a young child, adultery and physical abuse.”

Sycz brought the matter to the district’s attention at a recent school board meeting. She says that she does not condone censorship, but still feels that the straightforward way in which Roy handles “disturbing” material in her novel is not age-appropriate for the sophomores who were assigned it as summer reading this year. “It was a very depressing book,” she told the school board. “I think there are a lot more books out there that are more uplifting.”

Sycz cites the use of the book in a master’s degree program at University of Wisconsin and University of North Carolina as support for her chief concern that 15- and 16-year-olds may lack the maturity required to read and learn from the themes and issues presented in The God of Small Things. According to Sycz, her daughter called the book “very disturbing” and a friend of her daughter’s referred to it as “disgusting.”

Summer reading is required for students in grades 9 through 12 in North Ridgeville, and according to Superintendent Powell separate selections are chosen for each grade level as well as for honors students by the high school English department. In an effort to keep students reading over the summer, students must read one of two selected books (two for an honors class) and complete a project based on the books. Books are chosen based on recommendations from various educational organizations.

Though Powell said that school officials were aware of only two parents concerned with the The God of Small Things, he also said the following of the books chosen for the summer reading program:

“My concern with a book of that nature is that when it is assigned over the summer, it doesn’t give students and teachers the opportunity to sit down and discuss it as they would during the school year… Those books are better-realized when you have the ability to communicate with parents about using them as learning opportunities, rather than assigning them over the summer when you don’t have that opportunity.”

Moving forward, Powell stated that the English department would review its summer reading selection process and that the North Ridgeville school district planned to have several options on future reading lists. “It’s important to be sensitive to families and the cultural ideology of the community,” Powell added.

This summer has seen a number of controversies over reading lists. The Cape Henlopen School Board in Delaware eliminated an entire summer reading list for incoming high school freshmen amidst confusion over how to handle a challenge to emily m. danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which features LGBTQ themes. Paper Towns by John Green was removed from an eighth grade summer reading list in Florida’s Pasco County School District.

Sycz says that assigned books should come with a content disclaimer to alert parents of themes or topics they may find inappropriate, and agrees that the district should offer several choices each summer. “I feel this book crossed the line,” Sycz said of The God of Small Things. “But if a kid wants to read it, by all means let them.” We couldn’t agree more with that sentiment, even if we don’t agree with attempts by anyone — whether a parent or school superintendent — to remove a book from school reading lists.

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Katie McGuire is a recent graduate of Emerson College, currently navigating post-grad life in New York.