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Parents challenge controversial books

Contentious texts set parents against educators, each with the child's best interest in mind

PHOTOGRAPH BY GAN YI

Kim Alexander, left, thought The Face on the Milk Carton was not age-appropriate for her daughter Jesseca Alexander, 14, to read when she was in 5th grade.

July 19, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Not in my book

Book challenges in the Columbia School District are few and far between. In fact, only one book has been challenged here in the past four years.

In 2008, Columbia resident Kim Alexander, a mother of two, challenged The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney. Her then fifth-grade daughter, Jesseca, got the book from the Paxton Keeley Elementary School library after a fellow student suggested it. The book tells the story of a 15-year-old girl who, after seeing her face as a missing child on a milk carton, runs away and decides to investigate her true identity.

Upon reading the book, Kim says she felt some of its thematic elements weren’t age-appropriate. Kim first talked to Principal Elaine Hassemer, who advised her to file a book challenge with the school.

Kim filed the challenge, in which she gave a detailed account of why she felt the book was inappropriate. “During the entire book she is frantic, crying and emotionally helpless,” Kim wrote. “No solution is ever proposed for coping skills.”

Kim says her biggest problem with the book, which is part of a series, was this failure to offer coping strategies. Instead, the novel focuses on describing the main character’s emotional and physical distress. “I realize that a lot of sensational writers will lead you into a situation like this and leave you hanging because they want you to purchase the next book,” she says. “And that’s where the book ends: It doesn’t give a resolution to her issues, and certainly not anything constructive.”

A six-member committee at Paxton Keeley evaluated Kim’s challenge. It found the book appropriate and decided to keep it in the library. In a letter to Kim, the committee noted that “everyone felt that there was a need to provide materials with interest to upper-level mature readers.”

Kim’s complaint also listed sexual themes as a concern, but the committee decided those themes were indirect. “You had to read between the lines to get a piece of sexuality out of there,” Elaine says.

Responding to Kim’s main complaint about the book, Elaine says there are plenty of valuable books that end without a resolution. “We have many children who are able to handle a book of that style in the fifth grade,” she says. “We certainly want to have materials ready for them.”

Elaine added, however, that parents play a crucial role in helping their children understand complex issues presented by such books. Kim talked to her daughter about The Face on the Milk Carton and says she explained to Jesseca that some themes in it were inappropriate for her age. Although older students have a better grasp of reality and might benefit from the book, Kim thinks the issues presented were simply out of her daughter’s frame of reference at that time.

Books go through a thorough screening process before they make their way into Columbia Public Schools’ libraries. Elaine says media specialists consider each book carefully and re-evaluate them from time to time to ensure they’re suitable for students who have access to them.

Elaine says she’s comfortable with the books that are in the library. “But are there books in there that may not agree with some families’ personal values, personal beliefs?” she says. “Absolutely. It’s a public school; it’s a public library.”

Teachers at Paxton Keeley help guide students toward books appropriate for the specific child. If parents are uncomfortable with students having access to certain books, they can request that the school prohibit their children from checking them out.

Kim accepted the committee’s decision to keep the book. “It’s opened my eyes to the world that’s out there for them at a younger age, and there’s really not much you can do about it,” she says. “I can give her the tools that she can use to deal with it, but she’s still going to be exposed.”

Elaine says there has been no further discussion about The Face on the Milk Carton. Because some students might become interested in reading the controversial book, the school made sure it was returned to the library without drawing attention to the challenge.
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The psychology of book banning

Perhaps not surprisingly, psychologists say the impulse to take books out of classrooms is about control. People with a need for control and structure “might be more likely to view new or unusual ideas as problematic,” says Laura King, professor of psychological sciences at MU. At the same time, they might be anxious about exposing kids — their own or others’ — to such ideas.

“If you are anxious or concerned, if you feel your worldview is threatened, I think you’re more likely to have this desire to close off,” Laura says. She says these people might be prone to stick with the conventional answers and not ask questions.

The issue often speaks to some deep human fears. “Sheltering people from information is certainly an expression of power,” she says, adding the impulse can be even stronger in times of social turmoil.

But censorship, on a deeper level, is also about discomfort with life’s gray areas. “There’s less existential comfort in ambiguity,” Laura says. By isolating their children from unsettling ideas, parents are able to find a sense of security.

Although few would dispute a parent’s right to restrict his or her own child from reading a certain book, the attempt to pull books from schools would extend that power to control over others’ children. Laura says that extension of power amounts to a desire to promote personal beliefs.

Laura notes that the impulse to ban books is one end of a continuum. On the other end are people who see value in questioning ideas and being exposed to contradictory beliefs. “What’s interesting is there’s such fervor on (the ban) side and so little on the other side,” she says. Although there are campaigners for the acceptance of these controversial books, the vocal minority to ban books often makes the most noise.

An attempt to ban a book from a school could affect virtually every student there, but Nicole Campione-Barr, an assistant professor in MU’s Psychological Sciences Department, says it could have the greatest effect on the children of those who lead such campaigns. And it might not be what the parents intended.

“It really kind of depends on the kids’ interpretation of the situation,” Nicole says. “If the kids really feel like this is something they should have access to, they’re going to find that process to be very controlling.”

She says children who feel overprotected, particularly in terms of their personal rights and expression, can develop negative feelings toward their parents, as well as anxiety and even depression. These responses are elevated if children feel they can’t express themselves on a regular basis.

If kids interpret their restricted expression as a lack of trust from their parents, Nicole says, it can harm the juvenile’s sense of personal autonomy. This lack of independence can lead to difficulty making decisions. Other kids, she says, might go the other way and become too independent, which can cause them to reject parental guidance.

No one said raising kids was easy. But raising everyone else’s is a whole lot harder.
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These two stories are part of an eight-story collaboration between Vox and the Columbia Missourian on the state of book challenges in Missouri. Read the rest of the stories here.

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