Southern California’s Burbank Unified School District (BUSD) recently pulled five books from its middle and high school English curriculum: To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain; The Cay, by Theodore Taylor; Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, by Mildred D. Taylor; and Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck.
“Until further notice,” Newsweek reported, “teachers in the area will not be able to include” these books in their curriculum. Teachers were given notice in a September online meeting, the news outlet explained, adding, “All but Huckleberry Finn have been required reading for students in the district.”
Four parents had challenged the novels, which are often considered classic adult or young adult fiction. They argued that the novels could cause “potential harm to the district’s roughly 400 Black students.” BUSD has 15,133 students, the majority of whom are Hispanic or white.
One high school girl was approached by a white student who used a racial slur, which he evidently learned from reading Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry in middle school. According to the girl’s mother, who was one of the parents filing complaints against the books, the principal was dismissive of the incident.
Roll of Thunder was published in 1976 and received numerous awards, including the Newbery Medal, “awarded annually by the Association for Library Service to Children, a division of the American Library Association, to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.”
The book tells the story of a young African-American girl growing up in the deep South during the Depression. The author “is the great-granddaughter of a former slave who was the son of an African-Indian woman and a white landowner.” She draws from her own family’s history for her young adult novels.
To Kill a Mockingbird was first published 60 years ago, winning Harper Lee a Pulitzer Prize. It has been translated into more than 40 languages and has sold more than 45 million copies. The film version won Gregory Peck an Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus Finch, a lawyer who defends Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman. In 2019, it was adapted into “the top-grossing play in Broadway history.”
Jean Louis Finch, nicknamed Scout, narrates the coming-of-age story which is assigned to middle and high school students across the country. The book depicts racism, but Scout learns and grows, watching her father’s strength of character as he defends Robinson – both in court and from the anger and violence of a lynch mob.
While the book has had huge sales and is very popular it has been frequently challenged by parents because of some violence and language. The challenges often depend on the age of the students who are assigned the book.
To offer full disclosure, many years ago this reporter taught high school English, and To Kill a Mockingbird was part of our 11th grade, college preparatory curriculum. The class would read and discuss the book and then watch the film. So I’ve read and re-read the book many times. Lee always astounds me with her humor, insight and beautiful writing.
One year I was shocked when a student told me, “Mr. Johnston, that’s the first book I ever read all the way through.”
To Kill a Mockingbird, Roll of Thunder, The Cay, and Huck Finn do deal with racial issues and prejudice, and three of them use contemptuous terms for black people that were common during the time period in which the novels were written or take place.
But it could be argued that all four books tell stories that oppose racism. For example, Huck Finn learns to see the runaway slave Jim as a human, better and more noble than Huck’s alcoholic, abusive father And Scout watches her father stand for truth and equal treatment under the law for all people, while she wrestles with seeing the townspeople’s racism, violence and prejudice.
Focus on the Family encourages parents to be involved in their children’s school and education process, staying connected with teachers and school staff. There are, of course, offensive and biased curriculum and books, and we hope parents will be successful in removing such books from school classrooms and libraries. It’s not “censorship” to protect children from egregious material.
We also believe that schools should work with and accommodate parents who believe materials are unsuitable for their children. The five books challenged at BUSD describe difficult topics and events, and they have some language and content concerns. That doesn’t necessarily mean banning books for all students. Schools and parents can work together to decide what material is age-appropriate, and teachers can use fiction to sensitively address topics like prejudice and bigotry.
Schools should also deal appropriately with accusations of bullying and harassment. BUSD did not respond to The Daily Citizen’s request for information, so it’s difficult to know how they handled the incident of a student using a racial slur against another. The district’s homepage lists concerns such as bullying, suicide prevention, diversity, equity and inclusion, so they’re certainly aware of these issues.
We also don’t know what grades were assigned these books, so it’s difficult to assess whether they were suitable or not. The district may be going through a review process with these books, bringing teachers and parents together to address concerns, so we also don’t know if the ban is temporary or permanent.
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