UPDATE 7/21/2016: The Chesterfield Observer reports that Senator Chase is pushing to implement warnings in school reading lists alerting parents about the content each book contains.
See also: NCAC's letter to the editor of the Chesterfield Observer opining on the label "pornographic" for the books on the reading list.
UPDATE 7/1/2016: In response to news of the reading list revision, Republican Senator Amanda Chase has criticised the Virginia school librarians who originally selected the books, describing them as "trash" and suggesting the librarians should be dismissed from their posts. According to the Chesterfield Observer, Senator Chase said much of the material on the original lists was "explictly pornographic" and "gravely concerning" for parents. The school librarians, she said, have a key responsibility to determine what is appropriate and what is not for pupils, arguing that many parents are too busy to monitor what their children are reading.
“If librarians are not recommending books that line up with Chesterfield County Public Schools’ core values, they should be dismissed," she said. "It’s their job when they recommend books to make sure they line up with the core values of [CCPS].”
Several librarians have since spoken out against Senator Chase's statement, the Observer reports, defending the literary value of the books deemed inappropriate and also questioning the decision of the school system to scrap the list. “I understand the rationale for that, but I feel like that directive and the changing of the lists all have to do with free speech, intellectual freedom,” a librarian, speaking on the condition of anonymity said, “librarians see ourselves as champions of those rights, and so I think we have an obligation to speak up.”
A petition has since been drafted appealing to Senator Chase and the school board to relinquish their attack on intellectual freedom and also to express solidarity with the criticised librarians.
See also: from April 2016, Virginia governor vetoes bill that would notify parents when "sexually explicit material" was taught in public schools
While classes are not in session, summer reading lists are an excellent way for students to hone their minds. Schools who compile readings do so with the intent both to entertain and occupy vacationing students, but also prepare them for the next grade by advancing their reading level through reads that are challenging both in terms of vocabulary and subject matter. However, for some parents in Chesterfield, Virginia, the Chesterfield County Public Schools' (CCPS) reading list has taken this goal too far. They have described certain books on the list as "pornographic" and filled with "vile, vile, nasty language."
According to the Chesterfield Observer, a mother named Shannon Easter, who has one child enrolled in the CCPS system, launched a campaign to remove a collection books from the CCPS Middle School and High School reading lists. Gathering support from other parents, Easter's campaign led the school district to edit their summer list. The objectionable books are gone and the list is updated so it, according to the Observer, "no longer contains the words 'suggested' and 'recommended.'"
A caveat in the new list also notes the school system “does not endorse any specific titles on these lists. Not all parents will consider all of the books on these sites to be appropriate, so parents are encouraged to visit these sites for reviews to determine which books are appropriate.”
A school board panel, containing one principal, two teachers, one librarian and three parents, will also convene in August to discuss the books that were removed.
One of these books, titled Dope Sick, tells the tale of a young man who is shot during a drug deal and subsequently has to run from the police. The author, Walter Dean Myers, has won the Coretta Scott King Book award for African-American authors five times. A document obtained by NCAC, compiled by the concerned Chesterfield parents, explains how the lead character "has already done time in Juvi for robbing a store with his cousin & he has a baby with his girlfriend. She is referred to repeatedly as the 'baby mama.'" It adds, "he failed his senior year of HS and will not graduate."
Speaking about the book's themes, Easter told the Observer that the book "does not help eliminate racism," but rather, "separates and divides." She goes on to describe it as "trash."
Another of the objectionable books, Tyrell, is written by Coe Booth, a winner of the LA Times Book Prize for a Young Adult novel. A review by Kirkus Reviews notes how ""Booth clearly understands how teens living on the edge – in shelters, in projects, on the street – live, talk and survive." In contrast, the document issued by the concerned parents explains how "Tyrell is loaded with sex, language, and drugs, all of which are engaged in by the main character, who is 15." It notes the book is a "better fit for older teens."
Third, a book series titled Kimani TRU, features elements like teen pregnancy and abortion that Easter considers inappropriate for Middle School student ears. The series of books is targeted at African-American young adults, focusing on difficult issues such as unwanted pregnancies, drug abuse, peer-pressure and relationships.
Aside from the books I've mentioned, several others have been removed from the list. It is worth noting that a majority of them focus on inner-city life, specifically the experience of young African-Americans. Given the diversity found in Chesterfield County, with just under a quarter of the population identifying as black, it is likely the educators selected these books to reflect the educational needs
and interests of their pupils. Indeed, James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, told the Observer that the maturity of a book's content and amount of profanity is no grounds for judging its acceptability. Even with a topic like teen pregnantcy, he says: “there are many children today that deal with these issues. It’s better to read about it and talk about it with their parents than to not read about it at all.”
NCAC agrees. The worries and viewpoint of one parent should not be imposed on those of an entire community. This is particular the case when the community is itself diverse. At at time when the need for diversity is increasingly echoed in all parts of society, it is important that cultural backgrounds– ethnic, religious or otherwise– are recognized and upheld in education systems. And what better way to do this than through engaging and interesting literature.
NCAC will update this post as news in the case develops.