The 2009 Whittier Middle School censorship case revolves primarily around two major themes: the balance between controversy and literary value and the frequent pitfalls of school board administration review processes.
There is no question about the role of sex and profanity in Glass, and the book itself is technically labeled “Ages 14 and older.” In her blog, Ellen Hopkins went as far as to admit that the book “might be too much for some 13-year-olds.” Karin Perry insisted that it was very rare for younger middle-schoolers to check out Hopkins’s work and that “only those students ready for that level of seriousness gravitated toward the books anyway.”
If it is true, as education scholar Belinda Louie suggests, that parents object to texts with undesirable worldviews, it is also, thankfully, the recognized importance of those worldviews that can save a text from censorship. “Reading books with these topics allows students to experience these things from the safety of a book,” Karin Perry says. The Norman Public Schools reconsideration committee’s results echo this sentiment, saying “the powerful message on teen drug addiction far outweighs the concern about the sexual content.”
Karin Perry and Ellen Hopkins were also sure to bring up the potential impact Glass can have on preventing a student reader from being involved in drugs or unsafe sex; after all, the lifestyle portrayed in these verse novels is far from glamorous. It is also important that, despite its controversial material, Hopkins’s work has literary value that redeems it. As the reconsideration committee writes, “the quality of writing is outstanding and motivating to reluctant readers.” It might not be enough if Glass was merely a fear-mongering, basic cautionary tale, but because its free-verse style is interesting and its characters are realistic and empathetic, it contributes to a young reader’s understanding of literature while delivering its message.
It is important to remember that while the reconsideration committee ultimately ruled in favor of Glass, the Whittier parent’s attempt at censorship was still successful in that Ellen Hopkins’s visit to the school was canceled. Because of faulty administrative action, the opinions of one parent were allowed to dictate the experience of Whittier’s entire student body.
“What irritates me is that the parent could have just asked for their student to sit out of the author visit. Why people think they have the right to force their feelings and opinions on everyone else is beyond me.”
Karin Perry says she fully supports Norman Public School’s reconsideration policy but says that to cancel the author’s visit before doing a full review of the book was a “knee-jerk reaction,” and that they should have exempted the complainant’s child rather than canceling the event for everyone. This kind of administrative oversight is what allows censorship like this to happen in school districts everywhere and casts a negative light on schools and regions where a complainant’s opinion is not representative.
In fact, censorship challenges are not very common in Norman, and this particular one was most likely brought on by the promotion of Hopkin’s books by the library before her visit. We believe that the parent might not have challenged it at all, without it being brought to their attention.
Norman and Whittier are a good example of the types of places where censorship is likely to happen, since Norman is wealthier than most of the state, and Whittier is in the wealthiest part of Norman. Upper middle class parents tend to be more involved in the content their children read, and this particular case was simply brought to the attention of the wrong parent.
When asked how the censorship of Ellen Hopkins and her books fits into the overall scope of censorship history, Perry had this to say:
“Many people aren’t aware of the process of APPROPRIATELY requesting the review of material from a school. It isn’t right to just go and remove a book from the shelf because you don’t like it. As I mentioned before, we don’t have the right to force our opinions and beliefs on others. People that are willing to do that need to know that there are others willing to fight for the right to read.“
Louie, Belinda. “Politics in Children’s Literature: Colliding Forces to Shape Young Minds” Shattering the Looking Glass: Challenge, Risk, and Controversy in Children’s Literature, edited by Susan S. Lehr, Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 2008, pp. 3-13.
Phillip, Westcott. “Bookshelves with books in a library.” Wikimedia Commons, 23 Feb. 2013.