Shelved: Who decides which books are available in the state’s school libraries?
by Star Staff
At White Plains Middle School, teen vampires in the library were just too much for one adult.

At B.B. Comer High School in Sylacauga, a handbook on pregnancy and childbirth was moved to the reference shelves, with parental permission required for checkout.

At Winterboro High, the novel "White Oleander" stayed on school library shelves, though kids need a parent's permission to check it out, too.

Those local school library concerns were among several uncovered by Anniston Star reporters and University of Alabama journalism students in a months-long, statewide effort to find out which books are challenged by parents — and which are ultimately banned from libraries — in the state's 132 public school districts.

Scroll down or click this link for an interactive map of Alabama book challenges.

Book challenges are almost as old as the public school system itself, and that tradition hasn't slowed down much in the age of the Internet. In 2012, according to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, 464 books in schools and public libraries nationwide faced challenges from people who wanted them off the shelves. The year's most often-challenged books range from Dav Pilkey's potty-humor "Captain Underpants" series to Nobel Prize-winner Toni Morrison's novel "Beloved.”

In many cases, books that are well-loved in some communities get pulled off the shelves in others. But often the community isn't involved in that conversation. In Alabama, as in other states, parents who want a book pulled from the shelves can file a form with a school district stating reasons for banning the book. Those forms go to a school library committee for review and the book in question may be pulled from the shelves as a result.

The Star/University of Alabama team set out last fall to collect all book challenge forms filed in the past five years in the state's 132 city and county school districts and a few state-supported schools that aren’t part of typical districts. Some districts responded immediately; some responded after multiple requests for the forms, which are public record.

Nine districts reported challenges, a few of which predated the five-year span of The Star’s records request. Seventy-seven districts reported no challenges in the past five years; 46 districts didn't provide any information at all.

“Transparency is important for democracy,” said Barbara Jones, director of the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom. “Schools are no different. We need to know what’s going on.”

Jones said failure to report book challenges is an epidemic among school districts.

The ALA has done its own tracking of book challenges. For the past 25 years, the group has allowed librarians and others to anonymously report book challenges in their districts. Still, Jones speculates, most librarians don't report them for fear of losing their jobs.

“Only 20 percent of challenges get reported because people are afraid,” Jones said.

No thirst for blood

The vampire has been a staple of melodrama and fiction ever since Bram Stoker introduced "Dracula" in 1897. For one Oxford man, however, a teen-focused series of vampire novels took the bloodletting a little too far for kids.

In 2010, Gerald Lewallen challenged the presence of two books in the "Chronicles of Vladimir Tod" series in the White Plains Middle School library. Lewallen told The Star he was acting on behalf of a child who was in his care at the time.

The book series focuses on the life of Vladimir Tod, an eighth-grader whose mother was human and whose father was a vampire. Tod doesn't kill humans for their blood (though vampire villains in the books do) and he survives on raw beef and blood swiped from a local hospital, which he sometimes drinks from a coffee cup.

Lewallen told The Star he was concerned about the effects the books might have on kids who are inclined toward self-cutting and other destructive behaviors. On the challenge form, he stated the book could be harmful to kids who are “thinking about cutting or hurting someone, killing someone to see what a rush they might get, kill each other, or biting.”

Lewallen said he never heard back from the school system after filing the complaint. A school official said the books are still on the shelves.

The author of the series said her books had never been challenged in a school before, at least to her knowledge.

“It’s rather insulting. There’s no foul language in any of my books,” Heather Brewer said.

Brewer said her daughter started reading the series when she was 9 years old, which opened up a discussion about what it feels like to not fit in.

The series follows the teen vampire through one school grade per book, starting with "Eighth Grade Bites" and ending with "Twelfth Grade Kills." Lewallen, the White Plains Middle School challenger, requested removal of only the tenth- and eleventh-grade books in the series.

Brewer said she writes with teenagers in mind, but doesn't necessarily think about how each book fits its grade level.

"As far as age appropriate, I write the story that I want to tell," she said. "The right person will find their way to the book.”

Brewer said she's heard from many readers who say the books helped them deal with depression or bullying.

“I’m contacted daily from readers who say reading the books have saved their lives," she said.

Pregnancy book restricted

For school librarians, the decision about whether to keep a book or hide it away is a tricky one. Two Talladega County school librarians who have handled book challenges during the past 10 years say the solution lies in handling the challenges efficiently and respectfully.

"I feel the most important things to consider when reviewing a book are: is the material appropriate for the age level, is the material well presented, (and) does the material support the curriculum of the school?" said Teresa Offord, library media specialist at B.B. Comer High.

Talladega hasn't had a challenge in the past three years. But in 2005, a B.B. Comer parent protested the presence of a pregnancy guide — Sheila Kitzinger's "Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth" — on library shelves.

One in every eight births in Talladega County is to a teen mother, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

In the book challenge, the parent claimed the material showed “explicit drawings of how to make love while pregnant” and “pornographic pictures that should not be viewed by children.”

The school assembled a committee to review the book. Offord said the committee agreed to keep the book, based on the reputation of its author and publisher and the committee's belief that the book did contain helpful information on the process of childbirth. Still, the committee did agree to move the book to a reference shelf, and restrict it so that only kids with parental permission could check it out.

Offord said it wasn't an easy decision.

“It is a slippery slope at times,” Offord said. “As a media specialist, I want to supply my students with informational books, books that show all sides of a story, not just one viewpoint.”

Librarians at Winterboro High in Alpine made a similar decision in 2006 when a parent challenged "White Oleander," Janet Fitch's novel about a troubled young girl who is abandoned by her mother and forced into a series of foster homes.

The parent wrote that the book had too much sexual content, and included foul language that, if a child repeated it at school, would have led to the child being disciplined.

The school's review committee concluded that the book’s message of a brave young girl conquering difficult circumstances was an inspiration for children, particularly those in foster care. But the challenge did lead to the school placing parental-permission restrictions on the book, based on the idea that it was not appropriate for the youngest students at the school.

“In our instance, the book was not age-appropriate for a seventh-grader and changes had to be made with the circulation of the book,” said Tina Wheeler, the school's librarian. “However, we did not remove the book from circulation entirely.”

Limited information

Book-banning debates can sometimes create more heat than light, particularly when the book being challenged is prized as a classic by the rest of the world. Denizens of the Internet still poke fun at Alabama's State Textbook Committee for a 1983 proposal to ban "The Diary of Anne Frank" on the grounds that the book was "a real downer." School districts elsewhere have faced similar ridicule for objections to widely-read books ranging from "To Kill a Mockingbird" to "Slaughterhouse-Five."

Some school officials say the current book-challenging process, in which parents fill out a form explaining their objections, can make the conversation more constructive.

“Some people express themselves better when they write their thoughts down,” Offord said.

And schools sometimes find that writing back to the parents helps as well. It seems to have worked with the "White Oleander" challenge at Winterboro.

"In our instance, we responded to this parent with a letter," Wheeler said. "It is always important to assure the parent you are on their side and want what's best for their student. It is never good to get defensive."

Still, those correspondences are rarely seen by the rest of the community, even when a book gets pulled from the shelves. Getting school officials to discuss book challenges and their outcomes is often difficult.

When The Star asked Auburn City Schools for information on recent book challenges, assistant superintendent Cristen Herring said the system had seen just one challenge, to “Hunted: A House of Night Novel” by P.C. and Kristen Cast. School officials denied repeated requests for any documents related to that challenge. (Editor's note: After this story was published, Auburn school officials supplied documents showing the book was challenged by a parent who objected to profanity, including the "f-word," in the book. School documents show the review committee recommended the book remain on the shelves.)

Mountain Brook school officials were a little more forthcoming. They told The Star of one challenge in the past five years, to “Return of the Homework Machine,” by Dan Gutman. The school system kept the book, school officials said in an email. Still, Mountain Brook officials didn’t provide the challenge form or a copy of the school’s reply to the challenge.

Roughly one-third of the state's districts provided no documentation at all — neither confirming or denying any challenges in the past five years. According to the Alabama Press Association, all public records are open for public inspection unless a statute making them confidential expressly exempts them.

“I would like to think that most public officials are hesitant to grant access to public records because they are afraid they will violate a statute making them confidential or because they are not familiar with the access laws in general,” said Dennis Bailey, general counsel for the Alabama Press Association .

“However, over my 30-plus years practicing this area of law — and my work as a reporter/editor before that — I have seen too many instances when the true reason the records were withheld was to cover-up the dishonesty or incompetence of the public official refusing access,” Bailey added.

A kid’s voice

At least one district lets kids have a voice in the debate over what’s on school library shelves, school records show.

In 2011, a parent challenged Pete Hautman’s novel “Invisible” at Sanford Middle School in Lee County. The book tells the story of a 17-year-old fighting a losing battle with mental illness. The parent objected to the book, school records show, because of objectionable language in the final chapters.

“It uses God’s name in vain!” the parent wrote. “That is very sick for kids to have to read.”

The school district convened a panel to review the book — and asked two 12-year-olds who had read the book to complete forms describing their experience with “Invisible.” Both had read the book in the fifth grade

One student wrote that the book was appropriate for fifth-graders “because it talks about things that could actually happen.” The other wrote that it was a good book, but “had some parts that aren’t appropriate for fifth- and sixth-graders.”

The school panel declared the book “thought-provoking” and said its virtues outweighed the language in the last chapters. They kept the book, but flagged it for mature readers, school records show.

Jones, of the American Library Association, said librarians should be an integral part of the decision-making process when it comes to challenged material.

“Librarians are professionals… We are experts in knowing what book is likely to attract each reader,” she explained

In tough economic times, Jones said, librarians are often forced to give in to decisions they don't agree are the best. She said she gets hundreds of teary phone calls every year from librarians torn between what they’ve been taught — protecting the right to read — and their bosses’ demands.

“A lot of times people get intimidated and they don’t want to lose their jobs,” she said. “Supervisors ask librarians to break their core values.”

This story was reported by Leah Cayson, Madasyn Czebiniak, Courtney Davies, Debra Flax, Tim Lockette, Sara Milledge and Katie Turpen of The Anniston Star, with additional public records research by Kyle Pierce, Will Jackson, Andy Freeman, Matthew Conde, Jessie Hocutt, Randal Etheredge, Katherine Mitchell, Haley Pannone, Kyle Kozak and Keelan Marlowe of the University of Alabama.

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© 2013