Outrage as school pulls ‘vulgar’ novel

Free speech groups have attacked an Illinois school’s decision to pull award-winning writer Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close from an English class.

The acclaimed novel centres on nine-year-old Oskar’s quest after he finds a key left behind by his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks.

It was removed from the curriculum at the Mattoon High School in September. The school’s decision followed concerns raised by parents about what they saw as extremely vulgar passages in the novel that detail sexual acts, according to the local paper.

The school’s principal, Michele Sinclair, told the Journal Gazette & Times-Courier: “We want full disclosure to parents about what their students are reading. The bottom line is, these are still kids. Yes, they are young adults, but they are on the cusp of adulthood.” Sinclair added: “Parents should have the right to determine what their children are exposed to in the classrooms.”

Campaigners for the Kids’ Right to Read Project have warned of the dangers of pulling the book and instituting a policy that flags “adult” content. In a letter to the school, the coalition, which includes representatives of the National Coalition against Censorship, the Association of American Publishers, the National Council of Teachers of English and the American Library Association, said: “Removing a book with recognised literary and pedagogical merit – one that has been taught for several years – simply because some disapprove of it not only disserves the educational interests of students, but also raises serious constitutional concerns.”

They also said: “Every community is home to a diversity of opinions on moral and religious questions. For every parent who objects to an assigned book, there will be others who favour it.

“In practice, the attempt to alter school curricula in response to individual objections means privileging the moral or religious beliefs of some families over others. It is precisely this form of viewpoint discrimination by government officials that our constitutional system is designed to prevent.”

The protest follows news from Michigan that a school book fair chose not to feature the latest novel in Dav Pilkey’s internationally bestselling Captain Underpants series because it includes a gay character.

Barry Martin, the superintendent of the Monroe Public Schools in Michigan, told a local TV news station that the publisher, Scholastic, had “notified us and the school that there was a book that may be a little controversial”, and so it was decided that the title would not be included in this year’s book fair.

“The school decided we’ll make it available online,” Martin said. “In this case, we felt it was necessary that, if this book was going to be purchased, the parent needed to be involved in that.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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Alison Flood
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