'Freedom to Read' Fights for Books

'Freedom to Read' Fights for Books

"Catch-22," by Joseph Heller. "Invisible Man," by Ralph Ellison. "Native Son," by Richard Wright. "Uncle Tom's Cabin," by Harriet Beecher Stowe. What do these four books have in common?

These titles, and others, can be found on the Advanced Placement literature outside reading list provided by Herndon High School, the Advanced Placement Exam for literature from The College Boards in Princeton and the Parents Against Bad Books In Schools (PABBIS) website of challenged reading materials.

"We're not anti-PABBIS," said Herndon High School senior Toby Quaranta, 18, of Herndon. "We're reading material we need to get into college."

"And prepare for the AP [Advanced Placement] test," said Herndon High senior Laura Taggart, 18, of Reston.

Quaranta and Taggart are two students in the Yolanda Brooks' AP English class and members of a group called Freedom to Read formed at Herndon High last November.

"We want to read what we are mature enough to handle, to have teachers have the discretion to determine what's appropriate and not have a parent group determine what's appropriate," said Herndon High senior Mike Dominguez, 18, of Herndon regarding the goals of Freedom to Read.


<bt>"Our goal is to make parents aware of the reading materials in schools and libraries," said Centreville resident Kathy Stohr, a founding member of the year-old PABBIS and mother of two daughters attending middle and high schools in Fairfax County.

"It's a lot to ask parents to pre-read all the books that children bring from school, either required reading or suggested readings by teachers. Parents don't even have to have knowledge of what their children are reading," said Stohr.

A second goal of PABBIS is to achieve "a minimum standard of decency," said Stohr. "That is the big question the school board needs to decide. They have the ultimate discretion as to what's in the libraries and classrooms."

"The school board has not been responsive to our needs," said Mount Vernon resident Richard Ess, another founder of PABBIS, who operates the website. "Currently anything goes."

"I have not voted to restrict books in libraries," said Reston resident Stuart Gibson, chairman of the Fairfax County School Board. "It is my belief that parents have the right and obligation to guide their own children's reading selections, but they don't have the right to guide the reading selections of other parents' children."

"I got involved because I'm going to have kids in the schools a long time," said Ess, the father of five children, one in elementary school, two in middle schools and two in high school.

Ess described how one of his high school-aged children was reading "Druids" in sophomore year. "I flipped through it and, for better or worse, found a passage about male-female oral sex," Ess said. "Many of these books were first published in 1995 or 1998. How do they go from just published to being on a school reading list so quickly? What happened to classical literature?"

"The standard comment is that a small group of parents shouldn't determine what everyone's children read," said Stohr. "The flaw is that kids are free to read whatever they want. The real issue is whether the school should be providing it and endorsing it. The 'it' is the extreme material, especially sexual and graphic violence. The stuff that's in R-rated movies. I'm very passionate about this."

<mh>Part of Curriculum

<bt>"Eliminating the books on the list would eliminate most of the curriculum," said Lindsay Phipps, 18, a senior at Herndon. Of the 70 books on the AP outside reading list provided by Herndon High School, 22 are also on the PABBIS list of books that have been challenged.

"The majority of literature is minority related," said Herndon senior Bob Fisher, 18. "They don't want us to talk about issues of feminism or sexuality."

"We deal with these issues every day. They won't go away," said Phipps.

"If they want us to be sheltered, we'll be shell shocked when we get to college," said Dominguez.

"As a minority, I want to learn about the culture and see how people lived," said Herndon senior Erica Logan, 17. "To take that away is appalling."

"I have southern parents," said Quaranta. "My favorite book is 'To Kill A Mockingbird.' It helps me learn about my family history," he said.

"There's a rape in 'To Kill a Mockingbird,'" said Ess. "I've read it. My eighth grade daughter just finished reading it. I didn't object to it being on her reading list. It's a rape, but it's not explicit. I'm far from a prude. I'm a fan of discussing controversial issues. I'm against graphic explicitness."

"It makes us all step out our boxes," said Dominguez. "We're affluent, middle class people. Reading 'Invisible Man' is taking us to situations beyond our realm of experiences."

"It's just opening our minds to new things," said Herndon senior Rasha Saad, 17.

"Reading makes it real," said Taggart. "Reading 'All Quiet on the Western Front' about World War I, you feel the pain and see why it was terrible."

"I have a brother," said Adrian Francis, 18, a senior at Herndon. "He'll be a freshman next year. He's had a sheltered life. He knows about history from the textbook. With literature he can understand more about feelings and emotion."

"This is a censorship issue," said Herndon High senior John Collins, 17, of Reston. "Books about AIDS, teen pregnancy and sexuality should not be banned. People should be able to learn about these matters."

"By banning all these books, they're going to have to replace the books and that will cost a lot of money to the whole county," said Herndon High junior George Ingham, 16.

<mh>Not Banning

<bt>Both Stohr and Ess deny that PABBIS is about banning books, and refer people to the website before overreacting.

"Parents should be aware of what their children can or must read in school to decide whether it is appropriate for them or not," said the PABBIS website. "Bad is not for us to determine. Bad is what you determine is bad. Bad is what you think is bad for your child."

"PABBIS is not restricting us out of school, just in school," said Herndon senior Meghan McCracken, 17. "The purpose of school is to learn new things and be educated. This defeats the purpose of school."

"We're pushing for parental consent," said Ess. He believes parents should know what the content of a book is prior to saying yea or nay to it. He suggests sending home a reading list with each student and flag books with objectionable content with a disclaimer

"I think there are some books so vile that don't belong in the curriculum of an elementary school, middle school or a high school," said Ess.

"If a parent is that concerned, they should send a note to the librarian instructing them not to allow the student to take that book out," said Gibson.

PABBIS has circulated a petition calling on the school board to "develop a policy that will protect children from inappropriate reading material in our schools and set a standard to prohibit literature with disturbing, patently offensive, sexually explicit, pervasively vulgar or educationally unsuitable content."

Thus far, Freedom to Read has sent letters to the superintendent and school board concerning PABBIS as well as collecting nearly 1,100 signatures on its petition to raise awareness.

"Anytime students want to read, I would be a fool to come up against it," said Herndon High School principal Janice Leslie.

Leslie supported the efforts of her students and of Freedom to Read. "They have done this extremely maturely," she said. "Their letter is well done. I'm proud of them."