Beyond ‘Beloved’: books that are commonly challenged

Back in 2010, a Culpeper County Public School parent wanted a version of Anne Frank’s famous Holocaust diary — the one she wrote while hiding from the Nazis before dying in a concentration camp — removed from its eighth grade curriculum because of passages in the book the parent thought were sexually explicit. The book was temporarily pulled. Now we have another parent, this time in Fairfax County, who wants Toni Morrison’s acclaimed novel “Beloved” removed from the curriculum. Here we go again with parents who think that their sensibilities about particular books should apply to everybody.

In the newest episode, my colleague T. Rees Shapiro explains in this story how Laura Murphy is pushing to bar “Beloved,” a graphic story about slavery and survival, because she thinks the material is too graphic. Her son read it when he was a senior at Lake Braddock Secondary School in an Advanced Placement English literature class — which by design is intended to offer college-level material. Shapiro quoted the young man, Blake Murphy, who now attends the University of Florida, as saying, “It was disgusting and gross. It was hard for me to handle. I gave up on it.”

A poster from "Beloved" film A poster from the film “Beloved.”

So now his mother wants everybody in AP English Literature to give up on it. The good news is that the school refused, and the Fairfax superintendent, Jack Dale, refused, and the Fairfax Board of Education upheld Dale’s decision. That isn’t stopping Murphy from taking her case to the Virginia Board of Education. That should be interesting.

Parent involvement in education is seen as a good and positive thing, but, as this makes clear, not always. Any parent who doesn’t want a child reading a specific book can appeal to the teacher or principal to find a substitute book; I’ve never heard of a school insisting that a child read a book that a parent does not want that child to read.

The American Library Association maintains a list of books that are most commonly challenged in schools and libraries for reasons including sexually graphic material and portrayal of religion. “Beloved” is 26th in the top 100 of the past decade but it didn’t make the top 10 of the books most challenged in 2011, the latest year for which there is information.

Here is the 2011 list:

  • “Harry Potter,” by J.K. Rowling
    Reasons: anti-family, occult/Satanism, religious viewpoint, violence
  • “Of Mice and Men,” by John Steinbeck
    Reasons: offensive language, racism, unsuited to age group, violence
  • “The Chocolate War,” by Robert Cormier
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group, violence
  • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” by Maya Angelou
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit
  • “Summer of My German Soldier,” by Bette Greene
    Reasons: offensive language, racism, sexually explicit
  • “The Catcher in the Rye,” by J.D. Salinger
    Reasons: offensive language, unsuited to age group
  • “Alice” (series), by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
    Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • “Go Ask Alice,” by Anonymous
    Reasons: drugs, offensive language, sexually explicit
  • “Fallen Angels,” by Walter Dean Myers
    Reason: offensive language
  • “Blood and Chocolate,” by Annette Curtis Klause
    Reasons: sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
  • Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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