Highland Park Requires Parental Permission for Classics

Forging ahead with an ill-considered plan that drew criticism from the National Coalition Against Censorship (including CBLDF) and the American Library Association, the Dallas-area Highland Park Independent School District last week revealed some of the books that students now need parental permission to read. In addition to three books that were previously suspended from and reinstated to the district’s curriculum, the list of cautionary books now includes the classics Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and Brave New World.

The district has instructed teachers to send home permission slips for “all books that are being challenged by district parents, have been listed on the American Library Association’s Top 10 Challenged Book List in the last decade or have been flagged for parental permission by the district’s literary selection committee.” Last week, perhaps to make a point, teachers sought parental permission for three other classics that meet those criteria: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Scarlet Letter, and A Farewell to Arms. Superintendent Dawson Orr later said that permission form was “unnecessary” even though Huckleberry Finn appeared on the frequently challenged book list as recently as 2007. Orr failed to clarify how teachers were expected to know that book didn’t require permission when others found on the ALA list do.

Despite the broad criteria cited above, Orr now says that only six books actually require parental permission. Those six are:

  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  • The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
  • The Working Poor: Invisible in America by David K. Shipler
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

The first three books were among the seven briefly suspended in September, but only The Art of Racing in the Rain has ever had a formal challenge lodged against it in the district. Brave New World and The Glass Castle are likely singled out because they have both appeared on ALA’s frequently challenged lists within the past ten years. That leaves Dracula, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and The Working Poor, all of which must therefore fall into the third category: “flagged for parental permission by the district’s literary selection committee.”

The approved reading list text rationales found on the district’s website provide some clues as to why those particular books may have been flagged. Under the heading “‘Objectionable’ words/passages,” the rationale for Dorian Gray lists:

Sex: Suggestions of the homoerotic nature of Hallward’s interest in Gray occur throughout the text.

Murder: Dorain [sic] murders Hallward, blaming him for his Faustian situation. Hallward’s body is disposed of through the help of a chemist.

Drug use: Dorain seeks solace in an opium den following the murder of Hallward.

Suicide: Sybil Vane kills herself when she learns that Dorain no longer loves her.

The specific objection to Dracula is less clear. In the rationale for that book, a teacher wrote:

Some may be concerned about the vampire aspect of this work; however, it should be noted, that although the title implies that Dracula is a principal character, this work really follows the character development and points of view of those who choose to go on the journey to pursue him. Dracula does take two particular female characters who succumb to his dominion as a result of his biting their necks. In addition, the only way to end the  perpetual “life” of vampires is to cut off their heads or to drive a wooden stake into their hearts. The Christian cross is presented as an antithetical barrier to vampires and protection for the living.

Based on that description of now-familiar vampire tropes, HPISD’s literary selection committee apparently decided at some point that high school students need permission from their parents before they can read the novel in class. As for the nonfiction book The Working Poor, the teacher who submitted the text for approval correctly anticipated pushback over one particular chapter that dealt with drugs and sexual abuse. When the book was briefly suspended from the curriculum in September, the Dallas Morning News said that some parents objected to “a passage about a woman who was sexually abused as a child and later had an abortion.”

The HPISD board and administrators obviously were not swayed by the letters from NCAC and ALA warning that the book-flagging proposal was severely misguided. For the sake of teachers and students in the district, we hope that those in charge will eventually come to realize just how illogical and repressive the system they’ve constructed really is in practice.

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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.