ABFE Protests Virginia School Censorship

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American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE) has joined a protest against a Virginia school district’s decision to remove several books from its summer reading list after a parent complained that they are “pornographic” and filled with “vile, vile, nasty language.”

In an August 1 letter, ABFE, the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC), Macmillan and others wrote to the superintendent of the Chesterfield County Public Schools to express their concern over the decision to remove Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park, Coe Booth’s Tyrell, and Walter Dean Myers’ Dope Sick from the list of books that students could choose to complete summer reading assignments.

“The challenged books are all critically acclaimed novels … that explore themes of importance to teenagers,” the letter said. “Removing books with educational and literary value raises First Amendment concerns.”

The letter also lists some of the honors received by the books. Eleanor & Park (Macmillan), which deals with the problems of bullying and domestic abuse, won an American Library Association (ALA) prize. Tyrell (Scholastic), a novel about an African-American teen living in a homeless shelter, received an award from the Los Angeles Times. Like Tyrell, Dope Sick (HarperCollins) addresses the problems of drug abuse, poverty, and homelessness. The ALA has recommended it for “reluctant” readers.

The controversy began when Sharon Easter, the parent of a student in the Chesterfield schools, complained to school officials about the summer reading lists for middle and high school students that were compiled by school librarians. Easter criticized Eleanor & Park and Tyrell for “explicit” depictions of sex and “profanity.” She described Dope Sick as “a very disparaging book that does not eliminate racism. It separates and divides. It’s trash.”

Easter and her supporters are also pressing for the removal of the books from school libraries. The school board has appointed a committee to review the books and to consider recommending a rating system to make it easier for parents to determine the books that are appropriate for their children. The committee, which consists of a principal, two teachers, a librarian, and three parents, is expected to meet sometime this month.

The August 1 letter opposes the use of ratings because they are often based on excerpts that give a distorted view of a book. “They also inevitably invite demands for alternate assignments, which in turn encourages teachers to avoid selecting valuable literature that some parents might consider objectionable,” the letter said.

School officials in Virginia have been under pressure recently to notify parents when books that have sexual content are assigned to students. Earlier this year, the state legislature passed a bill that would have required it. ABFE joined other free expression groups in opposing the bill, and Gov. Terry McAuliffe vetoed it.

State Senator Amanda Chase, who has children in the Chesterfield schools, voted for the parental notification bill and has been active in the controversy over Eleanor & Park, Tyrell, and Dope Sick. “If librarians are not recommending books that line up with Chesterfield County Public Schools’ core values, they should be dismissed,” she said.

Others in the community believe the controversy is overblown. “It’s a list of suggestions. That’s it,” said a high school librarian who was quoted anonymously in the local newspaper. “Walter Dean Myers is an icon in young adult literature. I think he would be rolling in his grave right now.”

More than 1,400 people have used an online form to e-mail Chase and members of the school board in opposition to censorship in the schools and school libraries. The text of the e-mail also criticizes Chase for attempting to punish librarians.

In addition to ABFE, NCAC and Macmillan, the August 1 letter was signed by the Association of American Publishers, the National Council of Teachers of English, the Authors Guild, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund.