Brandy Kissel, a junior at Mountain View High School in Meridian, Idaho managed to demonstrate a maturity and initiative lacking in her “elders”. Her story started when a minority of parents, fearful of the world and intent on keeping their children “innocent” of the evils of this world, complained to the Meridian School District about a book on the District’s reading list, “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, by Sherman Alexie.
Alexie’s book is a masterpiece. Published in 2007, it won the National Book Award and has become very popular with young teens and English teachers for its universal themes of fitting in, making sense of race, and sexual discovery. It was the sex and supposedly anti-Christian content that led a small group of vocal parents to demand the School Board remove it from the supplemental reading list. As so frequently happens in this era of “parental choice”, the School Board meekly gave in to the parents and voted to remove the book.
At that point, it was a story of fear and failure. Adults who feared their own children. Adults with power who lacked the courage to stand up against unwarranted censorship. The National Coalition Against Censorship immediately called on the Meridian School Board to reverse its decision.
The book is widely taught in high schools across the country because of its appeal to reluctant readers. The novel addresses vital issues such as the struggles of young adulthood, the search for personal identity, bullying and poverty. It is ultimately an uplifting story of triumph by a boy with few advantages… [Removing the novel] because some object to, or disapprove of, its content violates basic constitutional principles under the First Amendment… school officials have much wider discretion to include material that has pedagogical value than to exclude it.
This is where Brandy Kissel enters the picture. She and fellow students at the school started a petition to have the book reinstated. They quickly collected 350 signatures, which is an impressive number of young people to rally around a cause like reading. The story might have ended there, but two women read about the censorship and the response of the students and decided to start a crowdfunding campaign to buy a book for each of the 350 kids who signed the petition. The campaign raised $3,400, enough for a book per kid.
According to one of the young women, Sara Baker,
Jen & I read about the Meridian School District’s decision to remove True Diary from the supplemental reading list despite 350 students having signed a petition to keep it. We love the book and wanted to share it with the students who were obviously disappointed with the school board’s decision. We started the book drive with the help of a teacher and a librarian in Meridian, and the expectation that we might only get 25-30 books. Needless to say, we got quite a few more than that! We partnered with Rediscovered Bookshop- an indie bookseller in Boise- to purchase the books at a good price through the publisher.
Rediscovered Books worked with Brady and the other students who started the petition to distribute the books on World Book Night, an initiative to provide reluctant young readers with free, engaging, books to read. They distributed all but 20 of the books to kids who came in to claim them, but not before parents called the cops to shut down the operation. Police told local news channel KBOI they had been called by “someone concerned about teenagers picking up a copy of the book without having a parent’s permission.” The police examined the books, found nothing wrong going on, and let the book giveaway proceed as planned. KBOI asked the students for comments about Alexie’s book.
“I didn’t find it offensive at all, in fact there’s a lot more raunchy stuff that kids look up online,” said Mindy Hackler, a junior. “This is really nothing. ”
“There’s a paragraph right here where it has some sexual content,” Kissel said. “But, if you look at it, it’s a paragraph this big in a 230 page book.” That page reads ‘If God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs.”
Not only did the World Book Night distribution go as planned, but when Alexie’s publisher Hachette got word of the incident, they sent Rediscovered an additional 350 copies on the house. So while the book may still be banned in the school curriculum, it was available free of cost for any kid who wanted to stop into Rediscovered Bookshop and pick one up.
In case you think fearful Idaho school boards might learn something from the Mountain View students, there is this headline from North Idaho- CdA school committee proposes restricting Steinbeck book.
Mary Jo Finney thinks one of the novellas Coeur d’Alene high school students read is unworthy of its standing as an American classic.
“The story is neither a quality story nor a page turner,” Finney said of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.”
Finney and three other members of a district curriculum-review committee have recommended “Of Mice and Men” be pulled from classroom instruction and made available only on a voluntary, small-group basis in ninth grade English classes. The school board will vote on the recommendation next month.
Its use of profanity – “bastard,” for instance, and “God damn” – makes the 1937 book unsuitable for freshmen, said Finney, a parent who has objected to other books from the Coeur d’Alene School District curriculum over the years.
She said she counted 102 profanities in its 110 pages, noting that “the teachers actually had the audacity to have students read these profanities out loud in class.”
In addition to the profanity, the curriculum committee found the story of two migrant ranch hands struggling during the Great Depression too “negative.”
To quote a frequently censored American author, Kurt Vonnegut, “And so it goes…”