Nome parents packed the audience at Tuesday night’s school board meeting, debating a recent board decision to remove a handful of highly-regarded but controversial works of literature from Nome Schools’ alternative reading list.
The alternative reading list suggests texts for Nome English classes for situations in which the school’s primary reading list is deemed unsuitable; the decision up for discussion on Tuesday concerned this alternative list, not the primary one.
Nome Schools’ alternative reading list was finished in January and put up for finalization from the school board. On Friday, February 17, however, Nome parent Angela Hansen wrote a letter to the school board, supported by other parents, expressing concern for what they consider graphically sexual content in five books: Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, and Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
At the Nome School Board meeting, Hansen explained her opposition to the five novels. “Some of the books contain large amounts of profanity, sex, violence, abuse, rape, and incest,” she said. “I don’t mind teachers discussing challenging and difficult topics with students, but not in the graphic explicit details that are embedded in these books.”
Hansen’s letter mentions that she talked to a number of parents who did not know what their children were reading in school.
Julie Kelso, one of 15 parents to use the public comment period, backs Hansen’s letter. “If I knew that a teacher had asked my child to read that, I would feel that my child had been assaulted.”
Most of the five books in question have a history of opposition and attempts at censorship with varying degrees of success, especially from local school boards, related to their weighty subject matter. But the books are also highly-esteemed and, in some cases, are considered classics of modern American literature. Both Alexie’s Part-Time Indian and Walker’s The Color Purple won National Book Awards; the latter also won a Pulitzer Prize for Literature (thus placing it in the same company as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird).
Angela Hansen’s opinion on the reading list was not echoed by all parents or community members. Darlene Trigg held the opinion that reading about the subjects in question in a classroom setting allows for a constructive, guided approach to tough subjects. “I would be grateful to this school district to opening their eyes to those conversations. It’s one thing to hear that from Mom, and it’s one thing to hear it from Dad. It’s a whole other thing to have a conversation with your peers about those issues.”
Trigg was joined by 12 other parents who also advocated that the five books in question be kept on the list.
After the 40-minute public comment period ended, Superintendent Shawn Arnold kept with the board decision made before the meeting to remove The Kite Runner, Catcher in the Rye, The Color Purple, and The Bluest Eye from the alternative reading list. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will be kept on the list. Arnold says that the board can reverse this decision at any time.
Even after Arnold’s decision, board member Nancy Mendenhall did not let the issue settle. The board passed her motion to amend the alternative reading list and put the removed titles on the 12th grade supplemental reading list. The amendment also allows parents to opt their child out of reading those supplemental titles.
“This may be the last time that they’ll have the chance to read some very serious, well-written literature on very heavy subjects,” said Mendenhall, “and I think we would be doing them a disservice if they never get that chance.”
The board also passed a second amendment that instituted an annual review for the book list, so the conversation can be revisited.
David Dodman also contributed to this story.