What Makes a Good Book?

What Makes a Good Book?

Students and Parents Debate Book Selection Process

Today’s generation is different from their parents’ generation, said Raphael Gaefa, an 11th grader at South Lakes High School. Students are exposed to things such as violence, foul language, sex and criminal behavior every day as a part of life. So it should only be natural that the books they read also reflect the society in which they live.

“Our generation is a lot different from the parent’s generation. It’s a different society,” Gaefa said. “Kids, teen-agers, we’re curious about things. You trust the specialists when you go to the doctors. Well, teachers are the specialists.”

Gaefa, along with five other students were among the 27 speakers at a public meeting May 2 to discuss the Fairfax County Public Schools’ policy on selecting the supplemental reading materials available to the students.

The students, as well as about half the adult speakers, favored the current policy and spoke out against restricting materials to students. The others spoke of creating a minimum standard of decency, which would govern the selection process, and doing away with materials deemed too extreme to be in the public schools.

The purpose of the meeting last week was to explain the selection process for nonrequired reading materials such as novels, non-fiction books and suggested summer reading lists and to allow the public to voice its opinion about the policy. While several School Board members were in attendance, there are currently no proposals to change the selection policy.

“HERE IN FAIRFAX COUNTY, we have many wonderful and conscientious teachers who make careful reading choices for our children and we greatly appreciate all that they do,” said Kathy Stohr, presenting the position of Parents Against Bad Books in Schools, or PABBIS. “But we also recognize that in recent years our schools are becoming a minefield of vulgar, sexually explicit, graphically violent and controversially themed books in the curriculum, classroom collections and libraries. The term minefield is especially appropriate because the student is not aware until the material is right in his face and then it is too late.”

Stohr said PABBIS is advocating the creation of a minimum standard of decency to govern the selection process and to remove all books that do not meet this standard, and to create an “upfront, informed parental consent” for controversial content in the curriculum. The group says parents should be provided information about books beyond a book selection list containing just titles. As for the standard of decency, Stohr said she couldn’t define what that means. It is something that would be created by the School Board with advice from parents, she said.

In the absence of such a policy, PABBIS has created a Web site, which contains two lists of books. The first has 55 books available in county public schools that PABBIS members feel are “extreme.” Along with the book titles and authors, the Web site contains examples of the text the members say are vulgar, sexually explicit, violent or controversial.

The other list, the “List of Lists,” is a compilation of lists from the Internet of materials that were challenged in other jurisdictions. This list contains 700 books. The PABBIS Web site says these books were not all read by PABBIS members and in some cases, the organization is not sure why the books were challenged.

“Fairfax County should respect all values by establishing a minimum standard of decency and providing upfront, informed parental consent. This way no one’s rights will be violated,” Stohr said.

BY CONTRAST, some of the speakers in favor of not restricting materials available to students said all PABBIS members were trying to do was force their Christian beliefs on others. A couple of members supporting the PABBIS view spoke of a return to Christian values.

Destiny Burns, presenting the Right to Read Coalition’s point-of-view, said that teachers should not be afraid to give students suggested summer reading lists because the materials may be challenged. She said adopting a ratings system similar to movies and television wouldn’t work because the ratings are subjective. Right to Read, which has its own Web site, she said, favors allowing the teachers to teach and the parents to parent.

“Those who voted to restrict the book [Pillars of Earth] don’t know my daughter and they know nothing of her maturity level. Let us [her parents] do our jobs,” Burns said.

Several of the speakers in favor of the current policy said exposure to different kinds of books is what promotes critical thinking and does not encourage the students to act out the violence or other behaviors they read about.

“Books make you think and wonder. Books make you ask questions,” said Robin Rubio, a reading teacher.

Members of PABBIS said they were not denying that the students should be challenged by what they read, the material just needs to be toned down a bit.

PABBIS, said Stan Burton, is not denying that students should be exposed to sex and violence in books as part of the learning process, but it is the extreme sex and violence they take offense to.

“Of course, the written word affects our children,” he said. “By all means challenge our youth about the bad things in this world as well as the beautiful things in this world.”

While the debate over whether PABBIS was promoting censorship or Right to Read was in favor of an “anything goes” policy, Robinson Secondary junior Matt Keenan brought the reality of the situation home.

“There are 55 books on PABBIS’s list, four of which are required reading,” he said. “In reality, do you know how much of each of these books the students are actually going to read? They are going to read about half [of the book].”

CURRENTLY, supplemental reading materials, which are the books that are not part of the required reading, can be approved by the departments of Instructional Services or Special Services as part of the curriculum, as well as be approved by the school, or the standing supplemental review committee as long as the books relate to the county’s Program of Studies and the state’s Standards of Learning. The age appropriateness, cultural and ethic differences, language, religion and other factors are considered. School library materials must meet similar criteria as the supplemental books.

There is a challenge process that allows a parent to question the appropriateness of the material and request a book be removed from the schools. All challenges begin with a conference in the local school where the book has been challenged and progresses to a committee review with the School Board ultimately deciding whether to remove a book. A parent can also request a substitute book, if the parent feels the material is not appropriate for their child, without filing a formal challenge to the book.