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updated: 5/10/2013 8:25 PM

Glen Ellyn Dist. 41 parents debate pulling 'Wallflower' from school shelves

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  • "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky was removed from 8th-grade classrooms in Glen Ellyn.

      "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" by Stephen Chbosky was removed from 8th-grade classrooms in Glen Ellyn.

 
 

Some say a book eighth-graders were reading at Glen Ellyn's Hadley Junior High School is a relatable coming-of-age tale with important messages about individuality and making choices.

Others argue the book -- particularly the parts that include sexually explicit content and language -- isn't appropriate for students of that age.

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Ultimately, the Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41 school board supported the latter view, and as a result, copies of "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" were removed from eighth-grade classrooms.

The book, written by Stephen Chbosky and published in 1999, depicts the day-to-day struggles of a 15-year-old high school freshman who writes letters to an anonymous friend.

The novel often has appeared on the American Library Association's annual list of the most frequently challenged books. In 2009, it reached No. 3 on the list, with critics arguing the novel was unsuitable for young readers due in part to its references to drugs, suicide, masturbation, bestiality and homosexuality.

Some have called the book "anti-family," according to the library association.

The debate in Glen Ellyn surfaced when parents of a Hadley eighth-grader took issue with some passages and asked the school to remove it from classroom shelves.

The student was part of an independent reading group in a literacy class whose members selected the book. The student wasn't in school the day the group picked the novel, according to district spokeswoman Julie Worthen.

Worthen said there weren't that many copies of the book available in the class and some of the students bought their own.

After the student started reading the book and brought it to her parents' attention, the parents contacted the teacher and district administrators in December to ask that "Wallflower" be removed from the classroom. The book was not in the school's library.

The parents filed a formal request for reconsideration of instructional materials in January and a committee composed primarily of teachers and administrators met in March to consider it.

The committee recommended the book be retained for independent reading by eighth-grade students only and not be used for instructional purposes. It also recommended the school send a letter to parents at the start of every trimester to discuss the importance of awareness of their child's book choices.

The school board voted 4-2 on April 29 to reject that recommendation and remove copies of the book from classrooms.

Sam Black, who was selected the new board president at a reorganization meeting last week, said he voted to remove the book from Hadley because he doesn't believe it is age-appropriate for eighth-graders. He said he thinks the book would be better suited for high school students because most of the characters in the book are high schoolers.

"The district has policies that govern what's in (school) libraries. One of the criteria that goes in is age appropriateness," Black said. "When this recommendation was provided to us, I used that standard. When I read the book, I felt it wasn't age-appropriate for middle school."

Outgoing board member Terra Costa Howard said removing the book is censorship. She said she believes the student's parents are "naive" to think eighth-graders have not yet been exposed to some of the language found in the novel.

"I felt like I was in 1965 Mississippi," Howard said. "It's true not every eighth-grade student is ready to read that material, but we have a lot of students who are, and they should not be denied the opportunity to access a character they could identify with."

"It's not like 'Fifty Shades of Grey,'" Howard said, referring to a 2011 erotic romance novel by E.L. James.

She said the parents who objected to the "Wallflower" focused on the words it used rather than the themes. For example, one of the passages they cited about a date rape presented an opportunity for parents, Howard said, to "talk about 'No means no,' 'How do you get yourself out of that situation?' and 'What could the main character have done to stop that?'"

Jen Bradfield and her husband, the parents who sought the book's removal, said they believe the book wasn't appropriate for middle schoolers but could be better suited for high schoolers. District administrators asked if Bradfield and her husband had any objection to allowing other students to bring their own copies of the book to school, and she says they don't.

Bradfield said her daughter started reading the book but made it only to page 31 when she brought it to her parents' attention.

"She gave me the book and she said, 'You wouldn't want me to read this. I'm uncomfortable and it's really inappropriate,'" Bradfield said. "She doesn't know about those things. And as much as parents say, 'Oh they know, they're all watching 'Glee,' that's not true. ... I think it's silly to say every child is reading this and knows about this. It seems like more of a parental decision for this to be discussed or introduced than a teacher's decision."

The Bradfields want the school board to adopt a policy for books as they currently have for questionable movies. The school sends parents a permission slip when a teacher is planning to show a film that might not be age-appropriate, and if parents don't sign it, their child goes to the library while the class is viewing the film.

In fact, the same literacy teacher whose classroom contained the book has sent parents notifications about movies she is planning to show, Bradfield said.

In 2006, "Wallflower" was in the spotlight in Northwest Suburban High School District 214 when board member Leslie Pinney sought to remove it and eight others from required student reading lists. Pinney, elected in 2005 on the promise she would bring her Christian beliefs into all board decision-making, had questioned the books' validity as literature and their place in the classroom after she read explicit excerpts on the Internet.

The school board voted 6-1 to keep the books on the reading lists.

But the Glen Ellyn school board's recent decision to remove the book isn't the first time it's happened: The book was banned in 2006 from high school classrooms in Portage, Ind.

The book also was challenged, but retained, at a high school in Clarkstown, N.Y., in 2011 and a West Bend, Wis., library in 2009. The same year, high schools in Roanoke, Va., made it available to only juniors and seniors, while freshmen and sophomores needed parental permission to check out the book, according to the library association.

Glen Ellyn District 41 officials say they plan to revisit their procedures for book reconsideration.

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