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A Michigan school district considers banning two books

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Two award-winning novels are at the center of a book-banning effort in the Plymouth-Canton school district.

One of the books up for review is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a story about slavery, rape and the effects of trauma.

Meredith Yancy, 16, is reading the book in her Advanced Placement English Literature class at Salem High School. She says she didn’t have a problem with the book’s mature content.

"I handled it just fine. Slavery, that’s a really serious issue. And a lot of events in the book are not there to be gratuitous and offensive; they’re there to make a point of how awful those times really were."

Another student, 16-year old Alexis Bentley, says she was "offended" when she heard Beloved might be banned.

"African-American history is not pretty," says Bentley, who is African-American. "It’s not going to be all flowers and daisies; it’s going to be ugly, and there are going to be times where you’re going to be appalled at what’s in the history.  But it’s education."

One of the AP English teachers, Brian Read, says he’s taught Beloved for 10 years without any complaint from parents. Read points out that students and parents were given the full AP reading list before the semester began, so they could have voiced their concerns then.

And he says there are always alternative options if a parent doesn’t want a student to read one of the assigned books. "I’ve done that in the past with Huckleberry Finn, with Catcher in the Rye; so there are always options. I think what surprises me is the desire to remove it from access to all students."

Read says the content in Beloved is mature, so he understands why some parents are concerned. But he adds that "most literature we teach has some content that people will disagree with. It’s when we confront those things that we’re really confronted with our own humanity."

The district held public hearings last week about the Morrison novel. A committee is expected to vote tonight on whether the ban Beloved from the classroom.

Several calls to the school district for comment went unreturned.

In a note on the Plymouth-Canton school district's website, superintendent Jeremy Hughes describes the review process:

The process requires the creation of a committee of teachers, parents, administrators, literary experts, and community members who will be invited to read the book, consider arguments for and against its use, and in the end, develop a recommendation to the administration. It will be my intention to accept the recommendation of the review committee.

The committee will vote in a closed meeting on whether to ban the book.

The book Waterland by Graham Swift will go through the same review process soon. Waterland was originally brought to the attention of superintendent Jeremy Hughes by two parents, Barb and Matt Dame. Here's how Hughes describes it in his letter on the school's website:

I had originally explained that passages from the book that had been submitted to me in a parent complaint were shocking in their graphic explicitness and, in my judgment, not suitable for a high school English class. As a former high school English and Latin teacher, I am certainly aware that much of modern literature contains sexual material. It was my judgment, however, that the passages I read from Waterland had crossed the line in terms of graphic portrayal of sexual activity.

Hughes demanded the book be removed from the classroom midway through the lesson.

As it turns out, from the comments I have received from parents, community members, students, and media commentators, what HAS become overwhelmingly objectionable to the community is my decision to remove the book without instituting the complaint and review processes provided for in our district’s Administrative Guidelines.

The review process for Waterland will begin soon.

Jennifer is a reporter for Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, which looks at kids from low-income families and what it takes to get them ahead. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and was one of the lead reporters on the award-winning education series Rebuilding Detroit Schools. Prior to working at Michigan Radio, Jennifer lived in New York where she was a producer at WFUV, an NPR station in the Bronx.
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