April 15, 2006
By JIM FARRELL, Courant Staff Writer
Johnna Harris went to the Prosser Public Library in Bloomfield recently and checked out a copy of a novel her grandson, a sophomore at East Hartford High School, was studying in school so she could read along.
She was appalled. By the profanity. By the explicit descriptions of sexual encounters. And by the response she received when she complained to school administrators and was told about the educational merit of the novel, "Upstate."
"That was like a slap in the face to me," Harris, 65, said. "There are loads of good books out there. Our kids don't need more raw language. Give them something that will nurture their spirit."
Disputes about literature are hardly new but are difficult to track definitively, according to Millie Davis, who works in the anti-censorship center of the National Council of Teachers of English.
The council keeps track of challenges - it received 39 censorship reports in the last four months of 2005, compared to 30 for the same time period in 2004 - but Davis said such numbers represent only "the tip of the iceberg" because most situations are handled at a school or district level.
"The Bible is an R-rated commodity if you read the right parts," said Davis, whose Illinois-based council offers advice and support to teachers faced with challenges to print and non-print works. "The bottom line is the educational value of the text."
Earlier this month, a Hartford magnet school pulled books from students when objections were raised about the content of a self-published work written by the school principal.
In East Hartford, classes have forged ahead and are finishing Kalisha Buckhanon's novel despite what administrators said was the lone complaint.
The East Hartford case also was different because "Upstate" received a 2006 ALEX Award from the American Library Association as one of the top 10 adult books of the year that will appeal to teen readers.
"I guess that's what the world is coming to," said Harris, who lives in Bloomfield. "They don't think kids can `get it' unless they are reading literature that has shock value, that has profanity. They're laying the wrong foundation for our kids, and they know it."
Buckhanon's coming-of-age story is told through intimate letters sent between Harlem teenagers Antonio - who is in prison, perhaps unjustly - and Natasha.
Anne Cocchicola, chairwoman of the language arts department at East Hartford High, said a media specialist at the school suggested the novel be considered for use in part because of the recognition it has received.
Cocchicola said a few teachers read it first, and that "for all of us, the power of the story transcended the language."
National reviews have called it "a moving and uplifting story of love and hope in the face of adversity" and a rare work that brings "dignity and integrity to urban fiction."
The novel offers opportunities to explore areas such as thematic and character development, said Cocchicola, who also noted that it has references to other literary works - such as "Catcher in the Rye" and "The Outsiders" - that become a jumping-off point to other research and projects.
"It's a balancing act, a difficult call," Principal Craig Jordan said of the decision to use books that include controversial elements. He said that students are always given the option of reading an alternative book in such situations.
Jordan noted that many of the students at his school are reading well below grade level. In the case of "Upstate," he said, "There's some rough language but the kids are into it, they're reading it."
Following the district policy used when instructional material is challenged, Jordan assembled a committee of three - a teacher, an administrator and the head of a different academic department - to read the book for review.
Jordan noted that the group might recommend that the book still be used but with, say, seniors rather than sophomores.
He said Harris also is entitled to further appeals and that the school board might ultimately make a determination about the book's suitability.
The award bestowed on "Upstate" by the librarians' group was created to recognize that many 12- to 18-year-olds enjoy and often prefer books written for adults.
The criteria used by judges were relatively broad, noting that books must come from a publisher's adult list, be "potentially appealing to teenagers" and be "well written and very readable." No mention was made of that objectionable triad - sex, language and violence - that dominates the ratings of other media such as movies.
"Profanity doesn't factor into it," said Beth Yoke, executive director of the Young Adult Library Services Organization, which oversees the awards. In the case of "Upstate," Yoke noted that "the author used authentic language to make the characters believable."
Citing imprisoned Antonio, Yoke said "it would be ridiculous to think he says `gee, golly, gosh' in his letters."
However, according to a Virginia-based group called Parents Against Bad Books In Schools, far too much literature used in public schools contains sensitive, controversial and inappropriate material.
The group has a website - www.pabbis.com - that lists many books it considers controversial and has extensive excerpts for parents to review.
"Bad is not for us to determine," the site says. "Bad is what you think is bad for your child. What each parent considers bad varies and depends on their unique situation, family and values."
According to a spokesperson, "Upstate" has not yet been reviewed because it was only recently published. But in an e-mail, the spokesperson said that the American Library Association's lists of recommended books are "a very good way to push smutty, explicit and graphic material to children."
Yoke dismissed such objections, saying, "They don't read the books, they just count the number of dirty words."
Buckhanon, who has a master's degree in creative writing from New School University and is now working with a theater in Chicago, is scheduled to visit East Hartford High in early May.
The PTO agreed last month to help pay for the trip, said Jayne Apel, the group's co-president, after hearing a pitch from a school media specialist who raved about the book.
Apel said she has not read "Upstate" yet and has mixed feelings about the controversy that surrounds it.
"You're not going to please everyone, and some people are much more strict with their children than others," Apel said, adding that she was impressed with the grandmother's involvement. "You wish that every parent or guardian was as vigilant with their children."
However, Apel also said she understood the quandary faced by educators.
"High school kids are exposed to so much these days. There's a desensitization in society in general toward violence, toward profanity, toward just a lot of bad stuff."
She added, "I just have a certain trust and faith in the librarians and the teachers that they're going to pick what's appropriate for students and present it in a way that is appropriate for an academic setting."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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