High School Reading Assignments Challenged in Illinois, New Jersey

Extremely Loud & Incredibly CloseBanned Books Week is barely over, but book challenges continue around the country! Today we got word that Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close was pulled from a high school English class in Mattoon, Illinois before students could finish it, while parents in Rumson, New Jersey are petitioning the local school board to remove Ariel Dorfman’s play Death and the Maiden and Bernard MacLaverty’s novel Cal from the curriculum there.

Mattoon’s local newspaper reported on September 23 that Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close had been abruptly removed from an Honors English III class at Mattoon High School due to “several passages that were ‘extremely’ vulgar detailing sexual acts.” The school’s principal Michele Sinclair said that when some parents brought up concerns about the content, “we didn’t really feel like we had a lot of alternatives” other than removing the book. It does not appear, however, that those parents were first offered the chance to opt their own children out of the assignment or to file a ‘Uniform Grievance,’ both of which are laid out in district policy. (Sections 6.260 and 2.260 respectively.)

Two days later, MHS graduate Emma Diltz sent a letter to the editor in protest of the ban, pointing out that the book has been used in the same class “for years without a public complaint.” Diltz, herself a former editor of the MHS student newspaper, also said that the school board had forbidden current newspaper staff from writing an article about the issue. The irony of their action apparently escaped the school board, so Diltz spelled it out for them:

One of the most important lessons the advisor of this paper teaches her students is to fight for what’s right. She’s teaching her students what it means to be great journalists at this level, and though it will be a learning experience, it shouldn’t have to be. Students should have the right to learn about why they aren’t allowed to learn.

Meanwhile, halfway across the country in Rumson, New Jersey, an online petition established on September 21 called for the removal of Cal and Death and the Maiden from Rumson-Fair Haven Regional High School’s curriculum, along with “any other material that is not age appropriate.” The petition’s founder also demanded “that the administration institute a policy, whereby parents must sign a permission slip if assigned reading material, films or any media contains profanities, explicit sexual passages or vulgar language such as Fuck, Twat, Tits, Dick, etc.”

Although the online petition is attributed to “Concerned Parents and Students 2015-2016,” local newspaper The Two River Times reports that the effort is in fact led by Siobhan Fallon Hogan, the mother of a freshman and a senior at the high school. The petition was closed on September 24 with only 222 signatures and the claim that it had “achieved [its] goal,” but it seems more likely that organizers quickly realized the drawbacks of online petitions which can be signed by anyone and become targets for trolls. A counter-petition established on September 23 is still open with 837 signatures, but is also larded with troll comments and fake names.

Instead of the online petition route, Hogan and other parents who have concerns about reading assignments will now do what they should have done to begin with: bring their complaints before the school board where all local stakeholders will have a chance for input. The Asbury Park Press reports that the issue will be addressed at a school board meeting next Tuesday, October 13. Rumson-Fair Haven school district policies do not seem to be available online for public perusal.

CBLDF and its partners will be watching these stories for further developments in the coming weeks. Stay tuned for updates!

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