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Extra Credit: What Sort of Family Wants Stories Like This?

Dear Extra Credit:

I am a soon-to-be stepmother to a lovely 12-year-old girl. She recently brought home a bright pink book with yellow smiley faces on the cover titled "TTYL" (Talk To You Later, in text/Internet-speak). The author is Lauren Myracle. I thought to myself, "How cute; how perfect for a 12-year-old." I flipped through thinking I would find stories about nail polish and trips to the mall.
Instead, I found the tale of three 10th-grade girls who use the f-bomb, drink alcohol, dance topless at a frat party, have an outside-of-school relationship with a teacher and can't wait to lose their virginity. Plus, it's written as if it appeared in an online chat conversation. Our children should be expanding their vocabulary, not minimizing it. Who in their right mind thinks it's a good idea for a child to read a book that's missing most of its vowels?
This book came from the Washington Irving Middle School library in Springfield with a "Family Story" stamp on it. I immediately contacted the school counselor, who forwarded me to the librarian. She said, "It's hard to find books that don't have some cursing and sexual themes." Isn't it the job of a librarian to get age-appropriate material for the children to read? Is this the best we can do?
I submitted a formal challenge to the principal, which is now in the hands of the assistant superintendent for the Fairfax County schools. Regarding the "Family Story" stamp, the librarian told me, "That doesn't mean sit down and read it with your family. It means real-life situations." I am not ignorant of today's youth and their increasingly getting-older-younger/babies-having-babies/want-to-be-sexy ways, but why would our school libraries encourage this lifestyle? Have our schools given up?

Carole Darby
Springfield

Jay Mathews:

Wow. I would have reacted as you did, if I had bothered to read the book. Lazy parents like me let our kids pick the books and rarely check. The "Family Story" stamp is particularly upsetting. That says G-rated to me.

Fairfax schools spokeswoman Mary Shaw says she cannot comment on the book while we wait for the School Board to decide on your challenge, which usually takes at least 45 days. But I hope library supervisors will rethink their interpretation of that stamp. Not all of us are as conscientious parents as you are. I wonder whether others in the region have had similarly unpleasant surprises in our school libraries.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mail extracredit@washpost.com.

By Washington Post Editors  | June 11, 2009; 3:12 PM ET
Categories:  Extra Credit  | Tags:  middle school, school reading  
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Comments

I'm a middle and high school teacher who is familiar with Lauren Myracle's work, having read her novel, "Kissing Kate," which addresses the self-doubt that a young girl encounters when she realizes she has romantic feelings for a female friend.

I wonder whether Ms Darby has read the entire book, and not just the first few pages. In my experience, parents who object to books such as Myracle's often fail to realize that books that *contain* such material are not necessarily *condoning* bad behaviour or poor values in their characters. Does Macbeth advocate murder? Does To Kill a Mockingbird advocate racism? And yet, these classics contain significant "adult content" that in the past has drawn complain -- Bowdlerization, censorship -- because people don't bother to think critically about how they affect their readers, or, in some cases, to actually read the whole thing.

In "Kissing Kate," the protagonist comes out the other side of her teenage confusion and agony realizing that she is not evil and perverted, and also, along the way, befriends people who value her for who she is, not for the other, shallower reasons that her former friends hung out with her -- and then ditched her. It's a very poignant and powerful novel, one that has messages of tolerance and being true to oneself. And yes, it has some "objectionable" content along the way.

This knowledge of Myracle's work leads me to believe that this more recent book probably addresses controversial themes, but comes out the other side advocating strong values. Of course, I haven't read the book, but I have read countless others like it, both as a teen myself, as a young adult, and in my teaching career.

These books help students navigate their lives, often in the absence of adults they feel they can safely talk to or adults who are judgmental as they push boundaries.

I absolutely urge parents to read the books their children are reading -- but to read the whole thing, and to be willing to talk about the issues with their children, instead of pulling the books from their hands, encasing them in foam rubber, and preventing them from addressing such issues thoughtfully by trying to "protect" their children from the inevitable controversies and potential hazards of growing up in today's world.

Posted by: zinzinzinnia | June 11, 2009 4:50 PM | Report abuse

zinzinzinnia,
Beautifully said.

Posted by: researcher2 | June 11, 2009 6:25 PM | Report abuse

I am a retired teacher and I have worked in many different schools throughout my career. It is my understanding that the librarian alone does not have any power to remove a book from a public school library. In addition, most school systems, not individuals, have a specific review process for approving system-wide books and videos. I have a difficult time believing that the librarian's comments are not skewed to serve Ms. Darby's purpose, which appears to be censorship. Perhaps Ms. Darby should investigate the proper protocol before acting on her personal frustrations about a specific book that has served as a benefit to other readers. In short, parents need to make a greater effort to review what their children are read, watch, and search online because as we all should understand, what one parent views as positive another may view as negative and we all deserve to form our opinions individually.

Posted by: FP123 | June 11, 2009 8:54 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, Jay, you're wrong. I do agree about the stamp -- at the very least, they need to explain what it means. But we had precisely the same argument about Judy Blume's "Forever" back when I was in jr. high.

Kids that age are interested in stories that break the rules -- ESPECIALLY those that the grownups disapprove of (the more they hate it, the better it must be!). If she's checking out a book that involves cursing and drinking and sex, it's because she's confused/interested/worried/intrigued/etc about those issues. Would you rather she explore her feelings through a well-written book that subtly encourages the kinds of morals you'd probably want her to have? Or would you rather shield her and let her figure it out by listening to all the kids in school brag and boast, while the negative repercussions mostly stay beneath the surface and unnoticed?

Posted by: laura33 | June 12, 2009 8:41 AM | Report abuse

Sounds like the labeling system used in that school is well understood by the librarians, but not by parents and students.

My biggest concern about some books in the school library is that they don't carry a sticker warning "Poorly written!!". So many books seem to be written just to cash in on the latest "issue of relevance", with little regard for the standard of writing. There ARE well written books on most every level on most every issue.

I continue to wish that school librarians act as editors, and filter out the junk. Otherwise, students think that there is one standard for general books, and a lower standard for books about "modern issues."

Posted by: Lizz1 | June 12, 2009 10:20 AM | Report abuse

Like Carole, I read (to the end) a book my second grade daughter brought home from her school library. It was about father-daughter incest, ending in murder and the father's attempt to preserve his (pre-teen)daughter's corpse (I'm not joking). The librarian justified this book by claiming that such stories help children cope with real issues in life. My response was that presenting the issue doesn't necessarily result in the child being able to "cope" with it (assuming she ever would). But, more to the point, how in the world is this an OK book for a second-grader to have access to? The author was a well-known children's author and I'm quite sure that the librarian simply saw the name and requested the book. What a joke.

Also, declining to stock a book in a children's library is not censorship. In this case, it would have been good judgement. The oldest children in this school would have been 12, but all children had access to all books. And you want to know the truth? Librarians are fooling themselves if they think that "innoculating" children against possible traumatic experiences by giving children books that tell about those experiences, even if they present ways for the protagonists to triumph in some way, is their job.

Posted by: jane100000 | June 12, 2009 11:10 AM | Report abuse

I have read the TTYL book after buying it for my own child, and did not have a negative reaction at all. It does seem as though it is packaged to appeal to younger readers than the actual target audience, but other than that...

The problems in the story stem from something innate to the school system many children are in today, where they go from being the oldest kids in one school, to the youngest in a new school with new social rules. Trying to navigate their way often runs into difficulties and mistakes.

The characters in the story make mistakes and learn from them. A crush on a teacher, trying to show off and having it backfire, going to a party with older kids and doing things they know are wrong to try to fit in and be accepted - and then seeing why that was a terrible idea. Throughout it, they get by because they are good friends to one another.

As an above commenter says, it's probably better for a kid to read about this than have to learn it from experience.

Posted by: danaa8 | June 12, 2009 11:49 AM | Report abuse

People rush to judgement about books and try to ban them from schools. I have two girls and I have allowed/encouraged them to read a vareity of books. At this age it's important for them to understand that the world is not all sunshine and roses - never was/never will be. These books portray characters that get sidetracked/make poor choices, but hopefully learn from their choices. I'd rather my kids read it in a book, than act this out on their own! I also know that although one's kids may seem like perfect angels, what they do in school and on their own time may be another story. I never hear my girls use bad language at home, and they know I don't approve of it, but what they might say or do at school is a mystery.
BTW - my kids didn't like the book because it was written as as series of text messages.

Posted by: judithlother | June 12, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

As a parent my reading strategy was always quanitity over quality.

If your child brings home a book you don't care for see what you can do about steering the next book they read to a topic you do like.

You are aiming for a child who reads everything because that's the kind of adult you want to grow.

Posted by: RedBird27 | June 14, 2009 7:46 AM | Report abuse

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