Administrators walk a fine line each year as they choose books for lesson plans and reading lists that will intrigue students without riling timid parents. So what makes one book a valuable contribution to the classroom but keeps others on the shelf?
These days Holden Caulfield is an accepted cornerstone of many high school English curriculums. But J.D. Salinger’s celebrated protagonist was once a target for parents concerned about what their kids were reading for class, making “The Catcher in the Rye” one of a handful of titles to jump the line from controversial to canon.
School administrators walk this line each year, struggling to choose books for classroom lessons and summer reading lists that intrigue students without riling parents. So what makes one book a valuable contribution to the classroom but keeps others on the shelf?
On the South Shore, the choices vary widely from district to district. While some schools stick to a safe list of accepted classics, others push the envelope with new and potentially controversial work.
“I’m not sure how willing districts are to be the first to test a book that hasn’t been tried before,” said Ryan Lynch, chairman of Scituate High School’s English department.
“You pick up ‘Romeo and Juliet’ and there’s sexual content, but you’re standing behind a cortex of American tradition,” he said, “but if you grab something new, you don’t have the power of the canon.”
Parents in Litchfield, N.H., recently rallied successfully to have the English department remove short stories by Ernest Hemingway, Stephen King and David Sedaris from the reading list because they contained mature content.
In Hingham, where a collection by Sedaris is recommended for high school seniors studying memoirs – alongside “Chronicles,” by Bob Dylan, and “The Glass Castle,” by Jeannette Walls – administrators said they offer a variety of books to suit all abilities and comfort levels.
Helaine Silva, chairwoman of Hingham High’s English department, said cursing and sexual content are not automatic deal breakers – as long as the book’s literary merit and educational value outweigh the material in question.
But there are books that may be acceptable in the classroom and do not make the summer list because teachers aren’t there to put the material in context, Silva said.
“If we feel that the book contains content and language that we’re not comfortable with them processing on their own, it won’t be summer reading,” said Silva, noting that even classics like Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” have language that teachers should help put into context.
But many South Shore schools avoid the hot-button issues of newer texts, sticking instead to a safer list of accepted classics.
Rockland Superintendent John Retchless said one book considered for all-school reading was recently removed because it was decided that some content was too mature for ninth-graders.
In Braintree, English department chairwoman Mary Cunningham said administrators must respect parents’ ideas of what their children should be reading.
“You have to be aware of community standards,” she said. “Some books that might fly in Brookline, Newton or Cambridge will not fly in Braintree.”
In Scituate, Lynch said school administrators learn to read a potential text with one eye focused on literary value and the other on the possible reaction of the public and parents – without allowing the fear of backlash to diminish an important text.
“Sometimes a vocal minority can get control over the way a conversation goes,” he said.
Kaitlin Keane may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Frequently banned books
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime” by Mark Haddon: accepted by many schools despite language concerns.
“Dress your Family in Denim and Corduroy” by David Sedaris: Stories from author were banned at a New Hampshire school, but this book appears on HIngham High’s summer list
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian” by Sherman Alexie: On the summer list at Hingham, it has been turned down at other schools for mature content
“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls: A new favorite on summer lists at several South Shore schools, but passed over by others due to its mature content
“The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier: One of the most challenged books of the American Library Association in 2008, but accepted on many South Shore summer lists
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou: Frequently challenged for being sexually explicit, but still part of many South Shore curriculums
“A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” by Ishmael Beah: On summer lists in Scituate and Hingham, despite portrayals of violence
The Top 10 Most Challenged Books of 2008
1. “And Tango Makes Three” by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
2. The “His Dark Materials” trilogy by Philip Pullman
3. “TTYL”; “TTFN”; “L8R”; “G8R” (series) by Lauren Myracle
4. “Scary Stories” (series) by Alvin Schwartz
5. “Bless Me, Ultima” by Rudolfo Anaya
6. “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky
7. “Gossip Girl” (series) by Cecily von Ziegesar
8. “Uncle Bobby’s Wedding” by Sarah S. Brannen
9. “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini
10. “Flashcards of My Life” by Charise Mericle Harper
Source: American Library Association