Spurred by a parent challenge to Ellen Hopkins’ novel Identical, the Appoquinimink School Board in Delaware is now considering proposals requiring parental permission for students to read any books defined as “Young Adult” in class, and separately allowing parents to bar their children from checking out any Young Adult books from the school library.
The poorly thought out proposals were formulated by the district’s secondary education curriculum director Ray Gravuer after a parent complained that his son felt uncomfortable reading Identical, which deals with sexual abuse, in an extracurricular high school book club with mostly female members and coordinated by a female librarian. The parent then “began circulating a petition to require the school district to adopt a process for ensuring that all material was age appropriate.”
Although the district already has a policy allowing students or parents to request an alternate book for any assignment, and participation in the book club that read Identical was completely optional in any case, Gravuer obliged the parent with the proposals which he presented at a school board meeting last Tuesday. One of the documents is titled “Parent Permission for Young Adult Required Material” and would be sent home for a parent’s signature before the student could read any book defined as Young Adult for class.
Of course, there are multitudes of books considered Young Adult that do not contain sex, drugs, violence, profanity, and such, but Gravuer seems to equate Young Adult with racy, as evidenced in an accompanying document outlining “the rationale and procedures for assigning/checking out books containing mature or explicit themes (From here out referred to as Young Adult or YA materials).”
In fact, Young Adult is a somewhat arbitrary marketing term that has been adopted by many public libraries, but has no standard definition for educational purposes. Moreover the one book that Gravuer uses as an example, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, is not marketed as a Young Adult title even though it is often assigned in high school classes; it is simply literary fiction, e.g. “Adult.” (Not in the pornographic sense!) As written, then, Gravuer’s proposed permission form for required reading might add an extra roadblock for books like the Harry Potter series, but would not apply to the one title that he cites as potentially controversial.
The other form that Gravuer presented to the board is titled “Parental Restriction of Voluntary Reading /Viewing Material.” Those who choose to sign it would bar their children from checking out any Young Adult materials from school libraries. Again, uninquisitive parents who get their definition of Young Adult only from the school district (which they might logically assume to be a reliable source) could be easily swayed. The accompanying explanatory document says that “some common themes in young adult literature” are as follows:
[F]riendships, crime, divorce, forms of parenting, siblings, disease, sexual intercourse, drug/alcohol abuse, death, puberty, pop culture, race relations and school. Depending upon the author and/or work, this material may contain explicit descriptions of sensitive subject matter to which not all families are comfortable with exposing their children.
In reality, books designated by the publisher as Young Adult or Teen would comprise the bulk of high school library collections and students whose parents signed the form would be left without much to read. Fortunately, some parents who spoke out against Gravuer’s proposal at last week’s board meeting were able to foresee the can of worms it would open. Michael Wagner, who has a daughter in the Appoquinimink district, pointed out that “[w]e do not need a policy for parental restriction of reading material – it is already being done on [individual] request, and what is being proposed will be impossible to implement without broad strokes of censorship which is not appropriate in a public school system.”
Another parent, Maria Poole, argued that the darker themes explored in some Young Adult books are far from gratuitous:
If even one student sees themselves in a book with difficult subject matter – make no mistake folks, there are children in our community who are victims of abuse, of incest. There are children cutting themselves. And, these books are not a roadmap to that. These books allow a child to see themselves and not be put in a corner and be marginalized and perhaps reach out and get the help that they need.
According to the Middletown Transcript newspaper, the school board did not yet vote on the proposals because “the matter needed a chance for more public input before it is finalized.” Alarmingly, however, Gravuer maintained that “he did not need their vote in order to adopt the measure he had proposed.” Nevertheless, the proposed forms are currently available for public review on the school board’s website and stakeholders are invited to send comments to email@example.com. With enough feedback, perhaps Gravuer will realize that the proposals are illogical, redundant, and would in fact facilitate censorship despite his claim that “we are not banning books or censoring books.”
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.