Should depressing books be banned from school?

January 1999
The assistant prosecutor's wife hasn't drummed up much support yet in her move to banish 20 books from Waddell School.
'Whatcha doing, Jess?
'It's a secret, May Belle.
'Tell me.
'When I finish, OK?
    - from Bridge to Terabithia

Joan Joyce really doesn't want anything in the paper about it.

She's hoping that without much of a fuss, a list of 20 books, including Katherine Paterson's Newberry Award-winning Bridge to Terabithia, will be removed from the shelves at Waddell Elementary School.

School officials don't want to make much of a fuss about it, either. They hope Joyce, who is the wife of assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Bucky Joyce, will just drop the request before it goes through the bureaucratic procedure the Lexington schools have for reviewing books that a parent finds offensive.

The list that Joyce submitted to Waddell includes C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Lloyd Alexander's The High King, the Goosebumps series of scary books, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and others.

Some of the books being protested are part of the regular fifth grade curriculum, says Waddell principal Mary Atthowe. Some of them are supplemental books. And some of them are the personal property of the fifth grade teacher of Joyce's child.

The offending properties of the books is not sex drugs or rock and roll. (There is no copy of Catcher in the Rye or the works of the Marquis de Sade in the school library.)

What has apparently offended Joyce, Lexington superintendent Dr. Nick Mascal says, is either that they talk about witchcraft - as in a book about the Salem witchcraft trials that is on Joyce's hit list; or they are scary stories – as in the Goosebumps books; or they have non-Christian gods being worshiped; or they have "depressing" endings.

Joyce, Atthowe and Mascal all declined to furnish a copy of the complete list to this newspaper.

The schools officials say that it is not really public information unless Joyce begins to go through the official channel to challenge the books.

The city's book challenge procedure, adopted four years ago, calls for the challenger to fill out a form for each offensive item. The form includes a series of questions:

"How did you become aware of the use of this work in the school system?"

"What do you find objectionable in this work?  (Please be specific ... .)"

“What effect do you believe the objectionable material might have on a student?"

“What value, it any, do you see in this work?"

“Which portion of the work did you read, view or hear?"

“What do you request the school to do with this work?"

The challenge is the first one that has been made since the city adopted the policy.

By press time, Joyce had not submitted the forms for the books she asked to be banned.

Once she does, if she does, school officials say, a committee will be established to go over the books and the complaints and to try to resolve the issue.

"I think we can stand by these books," says Atthowe.

"Short of pornography, we should give children a wide diversity of literature," says Mascal, 'Things that make people think so they can decide for themselves what's good."

"Scary stories have a place. Depressing stories have a place. Stories about diversity of religions, culture and ethnicity have a place," Mascal says.

Mary Atthowe seems genuinely hurt that the whole issue would even come up. "They are coming from a religious standpoint," she says. "That bothers me [because] I'm a Christian. I'm appalled that anyone would think I'd do anything that could harm a child."

Some of the books on the list, she says, are books that children borrow from the school's 11,000-title library, or from their teachers, and share with each other. "it a kid's sharing books, that's good. It's better than watching TV."

Parents, she says, have a perfect right to decide what they want for their own children, "but not for all children. I never dreamed this would happen."