By: Jamie Gregory
“If nothing ever changes, what type of man am I gonna be?” Justyce McAllister
Three books which had been recommended by teachers in Columbia County, Georgia, were not submitted for approval to be placed on a supplemental reading list last month: Dear Martin by Nic Stone, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, and Regeneration by Pat Barker. The District Reading Resources Professional Learning Community (the Novel Committee), is responsible for bringing a list of recommendations to the Superintendent, who then submits the list to the school board for approval. Two teachers read a title, noting any potential objectionable content.
According to a news article in the Augusta Chronicle quoting Superintendent Dr. Carraway, the 3 novels are “unacceptable” and the content is “extreme.” She did not submit these titles for board approval.
Dr. Carraway is quoted as saying that having a selection policy is something her district does not currently have but will be looking into, which seems like a positive step. However, she implied that a selection policy would serve to justify censorship: “We absolutely recognize we should [begin looking at a review procedure] because books like ‘Dear Martin’ and the content in that book – it’s not a book that we would want sitting on a shelf.”
For it to be true that the book is unacceptable and not worth sitting on a shelf in a school library or classroom, lots of other people would have to be wrong, including the people and organizations who issue these awards:
- New York Times bestseller
- William C. Morris Award finalist 2018
- Amelia Elizabeth Walden nominee 2018
- Lincoln Award nominee 2020
- 2019-2020 nominee, South Carolina Young Adult Book Award
- Oklahoma Sequoyah Book Awards 2019
- Nominee, 2018 Indies Choice Book Award Honor, Young Adult
- Booklist Top 10 Diverse Fiction for Older and Middle Readers: 2018
- YALSA 2018 Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers Selection
- YALSA 2018 Best Fiction for Young Adults
- Indies Introduce Summer / Fall 2017, Young Adult
- Booklist Top 10 Books for Youth 2017, First Novels
- BuzzFeed 28 Best YA Books of 2017
- Booklist starred review August 2017
- (and more…)
Another area of concern is Dr. Carraway’s description of how the district offers redacted versions of potentially offensive books to students. Teachers can redact “profanity and other content,” using extremely vague wording which alters an author’s intellectual property.
An op-ed published on October 10, 2019 argues that concerned people are overreacting. Book censorship in schools is acceptable because the school acts as the parent during the school day, and anyway, the book is still available in bookstores. But the Supreme Court has ruled that a school cannot limit the books it makes available to students based solely on an individual viewpoint or personal bias. If you ban Dear Martin because it contains strong language, how can you justify including Into the Wild or The Catcher in the Rye? The novel certainly does have educational value in the classroom; start by reading this classroom discussion guide provided by the publisher.
You may be wondering by now what happens in Dear Martin. 17 year-old Justyce McAllister is racially profiled by a white police officer. He is one of the few black students at an elite private school. His mother doesn’t want him to date a white girl. His father was an alcoholic with PTSD from being in the military. And he is riding in the passenger seat of a car driven by his best friend Manny when a white man in the car next to theirs opens fire after an argument, killing Manny. Writing letters to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as a way to find guidance, Justyce writes,
“I’ve been trying to figure out what you would’ve done if you’d been in my shoes today. I know you lived in a world where black folks were hosed and beaten and jailed and killed while fighting for equal rights, but you still managed to be, like, dignified and everything. How did you do that, Martin? How do I do that?”
Hardly “unacceptable” or “extreme.”
The National Coalition Against Censorship wrote a letter to Dr. Carraway expressing opposition to the exclusion of these three novels mostly based on certain passages which were marked for explicit language. Most notably, NCAC advised Dr. Carraway to consider the works in their entirety instead of merely the concerning passages. Furthermore, a stronger selection policy is vital to ensuring students’ academic freedom rights and safeguarding against viewpoint discrimination.
In response, Nic Stone traveled to her home state of Georgia to host an event at the Columbia County Public Library with The Book Tavern, donating a copy of Dear Martin to each teen in attendance.
Watch her entire talk on Youtube, and share the message she sends students that the issue is not the police, it’s policing. She also gives students helpful advice about identifying implicit bias in their lives. Don’t be afraid to identify it. First get honest, then get uncomfortable. Then, get educated. Because, she said, the best way to build empathy and compassion is to read books.
I had the honor of interviewing the editor and publisher of Dear Martin, Phoebe Yeh of Crown Publishing Group, who provided some insight into censorship from an editorial point of view.
She said that as an editor and publisher, she does advise authors on issues of censorship that could arise. However, what is the most important issue is upholding the integrity and purpose of the book above all. Yeh commented that one person like a superintendent having the ability to limit reading choices for students is a very powerful thing. I asked her why people are seemingly okay with accepting injustices happening in real life, but they want to limit access to such topics in books. She answered,
“in the real world, if it disappears from the news, it can be easy to forget about it. But when you see something in print, it solidifies it, and you can’t hide it as easily.”Phoebe Yeh
She said that there has to be a wide variety of books made available for kids because they have so many different life experiences themselves and deserve to see themselves represented in books. Furthermore, instead of censoring a book, let the students read it and decide for themselves.
Yeh emphasized that Nic Stone writes for the children. She has visited more than 50 schools since Dear Martin was published in 2017, and she continues to strive to write their stories. Some students have told her that they aren’t like Justyce McAllister in Dear Martin, no Ivy League education in the future. They don’t know if they’ll be alive next year. And so Stone continues writing their stories, varied as they are. Odd One Out and Jackpot followed Dear Martin, with a new novel featuring on Quan Banks (a character in Dear Martin) to be released in 2020. Encourage students to follow her on social media and write to her (@getnicced, http://www.nicstone.info/).
When Justyce begins his thought with, “If nothing ever changes,” he’s acknowledging that adults may not fix problems children encounter. But he would have to be strong anyway. We know what won’t fix them: calling books unacceptable and extreme when they feature situations some children are forced to confront every day, and then doing nothing to solve them.
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working in her 6th year as a school librarian at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, SC. Previously she taught high school English and French for 8 years. Her academic interests include book censorship and academic freedom in K-12 schools, inquiry-based learning, information literacy, and literacy in high school classrooms. She is an active member of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians serving as the 2019-2020 Chair of the South Carolina Book Award committees. When she is not reading or researching, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons cooking, traveling, playing board games, and going to Iron Maiden concerts. Find her on Twitter @gregorjm.