Washington Post:

The book Laura Murphy wants removed from Fairfax County classrooms is considered a modern American classic. It is a Pulitzer Prize winner and a masterpiece of fiction whose author’s 1993 Nobel Prize in literature citation said that she, “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

But Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Murphy said, depicts scenes of bestiality, gang rape and an infant’s gruesome murder, content she believes could be too intense for teenage readers.

“It’s not about the author or the awards,” said Murphy, a mother of four whose eldest son had nightmares after reading “Beloved” for his senior-year Advanced Placement English class. “It’s about the content.”

The Fairfax County School Board voted Thursday against hearing Murphy’s challenge, but she vowed to continue her quest. She said she plans to take her complaint to the Virginia Board of Education, where she will lobby for policies that will give parents more control over what their children read in class.

I would be the first person to agree that we don’t just set adult themed books like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” out on the shelf with the general population of books.   It contains very adult topics.  However, do we ban it?

Ms. Murphy is quick to assure us that she has no agenda, telling the press:

“I’m not some crazy book burner,” Murphy said. “I have great respect and admiration for our Fairfax County educators. The school system is second to none. But I disagree with the administration at a policy level.” (WaPo)

Well, yes you are if you want a book banned.  Perhaps the better approach would be to work towards better communication between school and home.  For instance,  Fairfax County requires permission, sought 2 weeks in advance, for R rated movies.   Perhaps a similar policy would work for books with graphic content such as “Beloved.”  Or, perhaps a list of books being covered could be sent home to the parents and students during the summer with warnings next to books that might be intense for some people.  The parents could then share their concerns at that time.  Another book could be selected for sensitive students.

I do believe in age appropriateness.  Just today, Elena and I were discussing the Lion King. When it first came out I went with a friend who had a younger child.  My kids were grown.  All over the theater little kids were screaming bloody murder when Scar killed Mufasa or when any of the characters were in danger from menacing hyenas.  The film was too intense for pre-school kids, obviously.  How many of us still bear scars from The Wizard of Oz monkeys or  Captain Hook?   Parents should have been discouraged from bringing pre-school children to  a Disney film with so much violence.

Books should contain warnings also.  Students should be given opt out options if content is too intense or horrifying.  In lieu of that, students should be allowed to opt out of certain passages and be allowed to read a summary of events rather than the actual graphic description.  “Alex had relations with his goat” gets the point across without having to read detailed descriptions of such an encounter.  (I just made that up….it isn’t from “Beloved.”)

Entire curriculum shouldn’t be compromised because of one parent.  There are simply too many ways to protect books and kids.  An AP class, one’s senior year, is not the time to go wimp.  School systems   assume that those students are headed to college and will be reading far more disturbing material.  Good literature doesn’t always make us feel good.  In fact, it generally disturbs our comfort level.

I can remember reading Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and a few others in class and having Lady Chatterly’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer, God’s Little Acre on my reading list for outside reading.   Back in olden days, those were pretty risque books.  At the end of the term, my mother said she threw them out in a brown bad so the garbage collectors wouldn’t see the trash I was reading.  She probably did, to make a point.  Actually, I think she didn’t want them on the living room book shelf.  My mother was a librarian by profession so who knows.

Good for Fairfax County for voting to not hear Murphy’s case.

In a letter to parents referencing the challenge, Lake Braddock English department officials wrote that society must address troubles the world faces.

“Reading and studying books that expose us, imaginatively and safely, to that trouble steels our souls to pull us through our own hard times and leads us to a greater empathy for the plight of our fellow human beings,” the letter said.

Murphy’s challenge reached the school board in late December. In a 6-2 vote announced Thursday, the board decided against hearing Murphy’s case and upheld Superintendent Jack D. Dale’s decision to retain “Beloved,” in the AP English curriculum. (WaPo)

Should schools ban books on parent request?  Do parents get the right to determine what your kid reads and doesn’t read in school?  What is one person’s pornography might be another person’s art.


Further reading:  Fairfax School Board must read “Beloved” before ruling.Further reading:

30 Thoughts to “School system staves off book banning attempt in Fairfax”

  1. Lyssa

    The teacher should have a good idea of the book content and a good teacher will be objective about the content and able to identify those that some, even as adults, may find disturbing. Those books should be noted and an alternative offered. As an avid reader, I have first hand experience with a readers imagination and there are some topics I simply won’t read.

    Beloved is focused on the psychological impacts of slavery. There are several well written books on that topic. I would recommend “Kindred” by Octavia Butler.

  2. Rick Bentley

    I never read Beloved, but I did see the movie. It’s odd. I didn’t discern anything there that’s particularly important to teenage readers. I wouldn’t object to taking the book off open shelves.

    BUT, this is a great example of obsolete thinking. Students today have no trouble getting ahold of prurient or arguably prurient material. If they ahve the slightest interest in imagery of bestiality or gang rape, they can look up pictures or erotic stories about it quickly and easily. They no longer need to get weird kicks out of eliptical art novels. Books on a shelf are no longer potential stroke material.

    I could go either way on the argument about the book – we don’t put books by the Marquis de Sade out on open shelves, do we? – but I’m convinced it has no pratical ramifications and should be left to the judgement of the librarian and school officials.

    1. I think sometimes kids (or grown ups) get hold of things unintentionally. There is a big difference in freshmen and seniors maturity wise. I would probably not stock that book in the general population of books.

  3. Rick Bentley

    Are they reading the book as an assignment? If so, it’s an odd choice IMO.

  4. Rick Bentley

    My first post was based on the assumption that this was just about whether to keep it on open shelves in the library.

  5. Elena

    Is she going to create a fuss when her son is in college and he has to read unpleasant historical novels?

  6. Lyssa

    Beloved is quite graphic and the mother does kill her children. I think an alternative is appropriate. I read it when my children were little. Gave me the same feeling as “Sophie’s Choice” which gave ME nightmares then. Why I never saw or read Schindlers List.

    I would make my child a senior in an AP class make the decision if an alternative was offered.

  7. Censored bybvbl

    In 1965 our school wouldn’t allow “Catcher in the Rye” to be discussed in our English class. The reason, heard through the grapevine, was that it included the “F-word”. If only our teachers, school board, and parents could have predicted how commonly that word would be heard a few years later. Of course, we all ran out and bought a copy.

    Ms. Murphy should have had a discussion with her son about why the book was disturbing and, perhaps, what he could expect once he was out in the big, wide world. He’s lucky that he attends a university a bit removed from Virginia because she’s probably set him up for some undeserved ridicule.

    It isn’t as though these books have never been reviewed by adults responsible for making their selection. What one parent may find objectionable may be rough language, for another it may be sexual references, for another it may be any reference to religion. Schools can’t satisfy them all and yet provide students with preparation for college or the real world.

  8. Rick Bentley

    Is “Catcher In The Rye” really that interesting or imprtant, when you get down to it?

    Seems to me it is largely an Americanized version of Camus’ “The Stranger” rather than some stunning, original thing. The best book in that style (strangely passive messed up male who acts out) is probably “American Psycho”. That’s a great and fascinating book if you ask me. BUt no one would assign it to high school kids to read.

    1. Catcher in the Rye bored the devil out of me. I figured I had missed something.

  9. Rick Bentley

    A bit off topic there … sorry, that’s my style.

    I think it’s hard to find any particular work of fiction that’s going to be important or moving across a group of American teens. Let them read the “Twilight” books or whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned.

    1. I expect there are teens who are capable of relating to greater works of literature. I was not one of them, I don’t think. I can remember Hemingway being sort of wasted on my vapid mind. I did like Lady Chatterly and Erskine Caldwell. I think I am saying there had to be some smut in my reading material to hold my interest. sigh. Confessions of a vintage woman.

    2. Twilight is pretty good. Werewolves, vampires, and Forks, Washington. Can’t go but so wrong there. Great flying scenes in the movie.

  10. Censored bybvbl

    I think some of Salinger’s books finesse the art of navel gazing. But when adults say a book is taboo, it suddenly becomes popular with kids. The Kingsmen sold a lot of records when shops pulled “Louie, Louie” from their racks. We made a beeline for a neighboring state to buy it.

  11. Elena

    I had to ready Moby Dick for my AP senior class, I still remember the contradiction of who was the real savage. Was it the cannibal or the supposed civilized man who simply repackaged his savage behavior. Mrs. Lebowitz would be so proud!

  12. Rick Bentley

    I had to read Charles Dickens a couple of times in high school. I can actually appreciate Dickens now. But at the time it was a waste.

    BTW, if you like “Twilight”, you’ll probably like that movie “Warm Bodies” that’s out now. It’s a zombie love story – a teenage Walking Dead romantic movie. Quite good, pulls you right in.

    1. I don’t like zombies. Just vamps and werewolves.

      Actually, I made the discovery that Twilight was set in Forks, Washington which was one of my old stomping grounds. I think that is my real attraction.

    2. I hate Dickens. I don’t mind films of Dickens books.

  13. Censored bybvbl

    I’m trying to think of the lit we had to read as high school Seniors. Only Beowulf, The Old Man and the Sea, and one of Shakespeare’s histories come to mind. My English teacher usually excused me from class so that I could work on the school bulletin board displays. Yeah, that’s the excuse I’ll use for my sloppy grammar.

  14. Censored bybvbl

    I think we read a couple of the Canterbury Tales – just none of the racier ones.

  15. Starry flights

    How does an 18 year old kid have nightmares over a book? What a wus. Sounds like he a’int ready to go off to college if mommy has to protect him from the evil school board.

    Cruella Deville from 101 Dalmations scared me when I was like 3.

  16. @Elena
    Unpleasant historical novels? I’m currently in college. What are those? I want to see them! I like history!

    1. What unpleasant historical fiction?

  17. Lady Emma

    I read “Beloved” for a modern American lit class when I was a sophomore in college. It was full of very graphic, gratuitous sexual violence and almost relentless physical and emotional abuse which was so overwhelming that it drowned out whatever the central theme was supposed to be. How “Catcher in the Rye” could pop into someone’s head when discussing this book is beyond me. You’d have to be a pretty bored teenager to suffer through those pages to find that rascally “F” word. I read “Catcher” again last year to see if maybe I was missing something when I read it as a teenager. I wasn’t.

    1. The relevance was “shocking books.” Did you see the list of books I can remember reading in class? Then there was the expected reading. Yes, Lady Chat, as we called her in those days, doesn’t use the F word much, if at all. However, in its day, it was extremely graphic. I was attending a private school. I doubt it would have been allowed in public school in Virginia. Catcher was shocking to our parents.

      I was not comparing content of Catcher, Lady Chat, Lord of the Flies, or Beloved. I was comparing controversial books, each in their own setting. Perhaps I failed to make my point. I hope this clarifies.

  18. Lyssa

    @Lady Emma

    Have you read “Kindred”? At first I thought it was a little light, but then I realized the imact of what the author tried to convey went far deeper than had she handed it out through one demensional overly descriptive language. A well written book (becoming a lost art as books follow the pattern of movies) doesnt hand it to you, it makes you realize what the author is trying to convey and makes a much greater impression.

    i read Beloved and my thoughts are the same as yours. I do think Morrison is a gifted writer and have preferred other works – Sula and The Bluest Eyes among them…

  19. Let me also add, I would never assign Beloved to be read as required reading. i would put it on a suggested reading list.

    I am very vulnerable to violence and cruelty myself. I can’t read animal stories. I don’t even try. Throw in anything done to animals or Indians and I end up too hysterical to read.

    Lyssa, how about some more information about “Kindred.”

  20. Lyssa

    I felt desperate for the character and her realization of the helplessness..

    Here’s a review from Amazon.. i think youd like it.

    Kindred utilizes the devices of science fiction in order to answer the question “how could anybody be a slave?” A woman from the twentieth century, Dana is repeatedly brought back in time by her slave-owning ancestor Rufus when his life is endangered. She chooses to save him, knowing that because of her actions a free-born black woman will eventually become his slave and her own grandmother. When forced to live the life of a slave, Dana realizes she is not as strong as her ancestors. Unable to will herself back to her own time and unable to tolerate the institution of slavery, she attempts to run away and is caught within a few hours. Her illiterate ancestor Alice succeeds in eluding capture for four days even though “She knew only the area she’d been born and raised in, and she couldn’t read a map.” Alice is captured, beaten, and sold as a slave to Rufus. As Dana is sent back and forth through time, she continues to save Rufus’s life, attempting during each visit to care for Alice, even as she is encouraging Alice to allow Rufus to rape her and thus ensure Dana’s own birth. As a twentieth-century African-American woman trying to endure the brutalities of nineteenth-century slavery, Dana answers the question, “See how easily slaves are made?” For Dana, to choose to preserve an institution, to save a life, and nurture victimization is to choose to survive. —

  21. anonamouse

    An AP class is a college level class. At a college level, a student should be able to handle uncomfortable material. All I could think of when I read the story is that son will never be able to live down the embarrassment of having bad dreams from a book when he was a senior in high school. AP is an optional class. If she objects, pull him out and have him take the Clep test for the same credit.

  22. @Lyssa
    THAT is a twisted plot. Whew. I think I’ll pass. Interesting..but ….wow.

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