A small coalition of parents in Florida are trying to ban two children’s books set in Afghanistan and Iraq from the curriculum, following similar pushes to have the books removed at other schools in the US. Critics have said that the books – Nasreen’s Secret School and The Librarian of Basra – are inappropriate for students because they promote another religion besides Christianity and are too violent for young children.
But neither book is about religion and educational groups have said the books are acceptable for that age group. Christine Jenkins, an associate professor at the University of Illinois who studies children’s literature and censorship was shocked to hear that these are the books parents want banned.
She has read The Librarian of Basra, as well as Nasreen’s Secret School. “They know very well that they can’t protect their children from any depiction of violence,” Jenkins said. “And this book is such a thoughtful perspective of wartime and what wartime does to a city and the various things you would think when you’re considering – what’s the impact of war?”
Both books are based on true stories, and are written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter, who could not be reached for comment. The Librarian of Basra is inspired by a 2003 New York Times story about Alia Muhammad Baker, who saved part of the Basra library’s collection before the building was burned in a fire after British forces entered the city.
According to the School Library Journal, “the invading country is never mentioned” in Winter’s children’s book about the events. Nasreen’s Secret School is about a young girl in Afghanistan whose grandmother sends her to a secret school for girls.
Review journal The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books said that Nasreen’s Secret School makes the situation in Afghanistan “accessible”. The Facebook post that prompted the petition drive asks: “If we cannot promote praying to God and Jesus Christ in our public schools, how can we promote reading the Koran and praying to Muhammad?”
Other comments share concerns about violence and whether it is appropriate to discuss a wartime book when some of the students’ parents may have served in the conflicts. Parents of children in schools in New York unsuccessfully tried to ban the books in 2013. In online reviews, some people have shared similar concerns as the parents in Florida, though the books have received overall positive reviews.
“As soon as it’s a political issue, in which there is any sort of disagreement, the book sort of symbolizes, or is perceived to supply, the particular stance on an issue,” said Jenkins. Parents who oppose the books were directed to a petition tool on the school’s website to fight the curriculum, which said the books will be discussed as part of lessons on writing, brainstorming and organization.
A district spokesperson said eight petitions had been filed and that they will be handled at the school level, where students will be given options for different books. It is typical for schools to provide alternatives for books parents’ might find disagreeable, said Jenkins.
“If you want to take it out of the library, you want to take it out of the classroom, it’s not ‘my school’, it’s ‘our school’ and there could very well be parents and children who are eager to read about contemporary issues,”
Jenkins said. Duval County public school libraries has a banned books list of 10 literary works, including Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes, Tom Robbins’ Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and Tony Kushner’s Angels in America – which has also been removed from a textbook.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the Florida Times Union that deciding which books to ban from the curriculum is “a slippery slope” and noted that there were similarities to the plan and the lessons in the book. “Ironically, it’s the same themes that are discussed in the books themselves,” Vitti said.
by Amanda Holpuch