When adults demand that officials remove books from school curricula, they assume teenagers will refrain from sex and profanity if they don’t read about it first. It’s a tale often told. This time, Cienega High School in Vail, Arizona is responding to a parent’s complaint about the oft-banned book Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.
The rural school district put together a review committee to address the complaint, according to The National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC). The committee made a recommendation to the Superintendent as to whether the classic should be retained in the school’s Advanced Placement (AP) English class reading list.
Slaughterhouse-Five has been subject to banning, challenges and even burning for decades. The American Library Association lists the title in it’s Banned and Challenged Classics page, citing a book burning in North Dakota in 1973 and a variety of bans and challenges due to language, sexual references and even because it “contains and makes references to religious matters.” ALA notes only two instances of retention after the book was challenged.
The tipping point for the Kurt Vonnegut Museum & Library (KVML) was in 2011 when a community member and university professor Wesley Scroggins from Republic, Missouri wrote in the local newspaper of his opposition to the book being taught in schools, according to an Atlantic article written that year. Because of the challenge and subsequent ban, the KVML offered free copies to Republic’s high school students. That year was also the first year the KVML began participating in Banned Books Week every fall.
Each year KVML invites “an artist, educator, or other passionate visitor to become (their) Activist in Residence, and actually “live” in the museum for the entire week behind a wall of banned books. This act protests the infringement of the right to free expression.”
The NCAC, in response to the news about the Vonnegut challenge in Vail, shared a letter with the district’s Governing Board recommending a “diverse committee of educators and stakeholders review the book” and sharing their Guidelines for Administrators who are facing such challenges.
The district already had such a committee in place and when the Vonnegut title was challenged, they were ready to address the issue, said Darcy Mentone, Vail School District’s Director of Communications. A committee of Vail educators compiled the AP student book list and after the parent complaint, the committee reconvened and determined that the title still belonged on the student reading list. Slaughterhouse Five was retained.
“We always offer an option to read alternate titles,” Mentone said regarding parent issues or complaints about titles on school reading lists.
Vail Unified School District is familiar with the issue of challenged books. Mentone said the committee that organizes reading lists and reviews challenges was established in 2012 after a parent challenged the inclusion of Another Country by James Baldwin. In that case, the principal of the school met with the parent and explained that the book would be retained. However, Mentone said the district agreed to create the committee to have a stronger approach to review challenged titles in the future.
Vonnegut’s himself had strong sentiments on the subject. The NCAC makes available Vonnegut’s own opinion on censorship in a January 16, 1986 briefing on the Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, organized by NCAC.
All these people talk so eloquently about getting back to good old-fashioned values. Well, as an old poop I can remember back to when we had those old-fashioned values, and I say let’s get back to the good old-fashioned First Amendment of the good old-fashioned Constitution of the United States — and to hell with the censors! Give me knowledge or give me death!”
Jacqui Higgins-Dailey has been a public librarian for 10 years. After three years as adjunct faculty, she is currently a full-time residential faculty librarian at Glendale Community College in Arizona. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Chico and a masters in library science from the University of North Texas. She is passionate about information literacy instruction and loves to read, write, hike and travel.