Thought You'd Never Ask

Just mouthing off -- because I can.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Great Literature in the Public Schools, Part 2

For Part 1 of this series, click here.

"Mommy, this is a really weird book with bad words in it."

My 10-year-old daughter had just stuffed everything into her backpack and was about to run outside to catch her bus to fourth grade. But she looked a little tentative and troubled, as she held a book out to me. “I don’t think you’ll like this, Mom.”

“What is it, honey?”

“It’s the book we’re reading in class right now, and it’s got bad words in it—and other weird stuff.”

It was a novel called The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. I had never heard of the book or the author. “Hmmm,” I said to her, flipping through the book to try to get a quick sense of what my daughter had found disturbing. It didn’t take longer than a moment to find out. Gilly Hopkins, the 11-year-old protagonist and narrator of this novel for children, had a foul mouth. The book was studded thoughout with swear words and profanity--“hell,” “damn,” “dammit,” “Jeez,” and “my God.” No wonder that my daughter, who does not hear language like this at home, and who has been taught at Sunday school not to take the Lord’s name in vain, was disturbed not only by encountering this book, but by being assigned this book by her teacher in school. And so was I.

“Look at this,” my daughter said, pulling the book out of my hands and turning to a page early on in the book. “Read this, Mom. It's just...weird.”

The passage she had turned to was one where Gilly Hopkins comes face-to-face with an elderly black man. Evidently Gilly is also a racist, for the reader is then treated to Gilly’s bigoted internal dialogue against blacks and not wanting to ever have to touch “one of those people.” But that was not all. Gilly also called people all kinds of names, like “lard can,” and “bale of blubber,” thought Christians were “religious fanatics,” and on and on.

I don’t know who was made sicker by this passage—my daughter, for encountering its graphic ugliness and racism which she, in her innocence, barely even understood—or me, for realizing that this ugliness was being injected into my daughter’s life by her own teacher, without even a “by-your-leave.”

“You’re right,” I told her. “This is a weird book. You were right to bring it to me and tell me about it. I’m going to talk this over with your teacher.”

Having only recently wrangled at length with my son’s 9th-grade English teacher over the extreme profanity in his first assigned text (to no real avail), I was now in no mood to yet again open an extended diplomatic discussion about literary values or community standards. And I was really riled. Twice this situation was happening in our family in the span of just a few weeks. Not only was this déjà vu all over again, but now it was my 10-year-old being slipped swear words in fourth grade. My mother-tiger reflexes were in an uproar. What next? What’ll they do to up the ante in fifth grade—or in seventh? And why did somebody think that fourth-graders needed to study a book with this content and this language?? What educational goal was this intended to serve? And what or who was it actually serving?

My anger distilled my shock about all of this down to one point. I pounded out a brief, polite email to her teacher: “After the ‘Gilly Hopkins’ class assignment is completed, would you please not require my daughter to read any more books containing profanity?”

Then I checked my own copy of the book (a Newberry Award-winner, by the way) out of the public library and sat down and read it.

Some may say that the average 10-year-old child has already heard (on TV, or even at school or on the bus) these swear words, or that the average 10-year-old has already encountered lots of name-calling and instances of racism, aggression, stealing, cheating, lying, and all the other unsavory traits served up for contemplation and entertainment in The Great Gilly Hopkins. I can even hear the most cynical social critics saying that all children, even the most innocent and protected, should be forcibly exposed to such realities as part of their education. That the fictional Gilly Hopkins is an abandoned foster child struggling with these issues, and that she straightens out in the end of the book can be argued to be a moral tale.

But some argue that these kinds of dark, "realistic" moral dramas are being foisted upon our young readers too much, too soon.

That protected, privileged, well-behaved, civil, non-racist, non-profane children who come from a loving home (like mine, who are not average, do not watch network TV, and do not run unsupervised in the neighborhood or on the internet) need to learn sometime about what people are like who are not like them is a truism.

But so what? Beyond all of that, is it up to the school to decide when, where, and how to actively instill these moral lessons, or is that the business of the parents in conjunction with their churches, synagogues, Scout lodges, and community organizations?

And since when did the well-educated child have to be instructed in profanity by the schools, as part of their so-called education? I thought profanity on the school campus was rightfully discouraged and frowned-upon, grounds for detention or a visit to the principal’s office, not spoon-fed to the students in language arts reading circles. How ignorant I was.

For if your teacher is teaching you (by the detailed examples in novels like this one) how to swear (and along with it, how to steal, lie, cheat, and bully--especially if you are an unhappy "victim" of circumstances) then how can your teacher or your principal then turn around and without hypocrisy of the worst sort, demand you not do it? If it is so important that you must study it and include it in the classroom, then why rule out profanity on campus in the student handbook?

Am I the only one who sees the contradictions here? If this is confusing me, wouldn’t it confuse a child? And most bizarrely, why is this controversy between the home values and the school assignment taking place in the fourth grade? Am I the only one who suspects an agenda here? Is this the best our teachers can offer our students? Are these books intended to desensitize children to such language, and is that a valid educational goal? Or are they merely pandering to what they think is the “average” child’s curiosity and/or prurient interest in the “bad” and the “forbidden”? That my daughter found the book disturbing and “weird” I felt revealed a good honest reaction that I shared and applauded. That she told me it made her uncomfortable, I was glad of. She told an adult about something that made her uncomfortable, as she had been taught to do in the very same school. She did right; but what about the school’s role and responsibility in this particular encounter?

I thought parents and teachers were supposed to be working together for the good of the children. How much controversy can there be about that in the fourth grade? How much of what children need to be taught in the lower grades is open to controversy anyway—unless opened by the school, that is?

My daughter’s teacher emailed back and apologized, saying my daughter could be given an alternate assignment, and assuring me the book had been approved by our county. (Big whooping deal; my internet surfing had by now taught me that this is no longer any guarantee of anything). I wrote back and said it was probably too late to excuse my daughter from the reading assignment without singling her out among her classmates for undue attention. But in the next week or so my daughter told me that the teacher had let the whole class drop The Great Gilly Hopkins and was reading something else without such sensational content. Whatever educational value fourth-graders are meant to receive from Gilly Hopkins, I hope they are able to find substitutes for it among the thousands of other high-quality books used by good teachers for generations.

Perhaps I wasn’t the only parent who had registered an objection. That thought cheers me.

I did not voice my displeasure earlier in the year, when the same teacher was reading aloud to my daughter’s class “a really funny book” (as my daughter described it) called There’s a Boy in the Girls’ Bathroom by Louis Sachar. My daughter came home talking about “making out” thanks to this book, so I checked it out of the library and read it myself. It had more name-calling, violence, and bathroom matters in it than I cared for, but I decided it wasn’t worth making a fuss about, and let it pass. But why a teacher would dwell on bathroom subjects in the classroom, in lieu of other, better books to read to the children, I couldn’t fathom (and I wished she hadn’t). Maybe I should’ve mentioned my alternate viewpoint to her then.

One thing I do know is that I will now continue to raise my objections and at least let my voice (crying alone in the wilderness?) be heard. My hitherto innocent/ignorant trust and good-will faith in the teachers is gone and I can no longer assume all of them are my buddies or partners or share my values as they (otherwise nice people that they are) diligently dedicate themselves for hours on end to educating my children.

I have always been involved in my kids’ schooling (considering their education to be ultimately my responsibility, and viewing the public schools as merely our place to outsource the bulk of the daily instruction and resources for the present, subject to revision or revocation at any time). I keep in touch with the teachers, volunteer in the schools, monitor what I think is going on. Now I also check in advance (on’s reviews or by Googling) the books my children are assigned.

Sad to say, I believe now that some teachers, counselors, staff (including librarians), and administrators deliberately slip in sensational, controversial, and inappropriate texts and lessons to our children without wanting the parents to know. This is unconscionable (and unfortunately does not only happen in public schools but in private ones as well). There does not really need to be any controversial content delivered to elementary school children unless the teachers, administration, or staff have a personal, ideological, or political agenda driving them to do so. That they would do this against parents’ wishes or behind parents’ backs in the name of “educating” the children is despicable.

It’s all over the U.S. and it’s getting worse.

And the literature waved in front of my daughter will only get worse as she gets older.

And worse. (Have you checked out the PreTeen and Teen or Young Adult sections of your local book store or public library lately? Meanwhile, some parents are still trying to get Harry Potter banned from school libraries!)

I feel sorry for the next generation of girls.

Where are the teachers who want to pass on the love of real literature?

Here's one: Beyond Nancy Drew and back into literature...

(I'm relieved at this point that my daughter is choosing Nancy Drew from her school library instead of something worse, but how long will that last?)

To be continued.... Part 3: “Banned Books Week” at the school library


  • At Saturday, April 29, 2006 10:39:00 PM, Anonymous Bookworm said…

    What you're writing about is very important. I'm pretty blogged out today (and parental duty calls), but I'll be linking in a day or two (or, if I get time and inspiration, even today).

  • At Sunday, April 30, 2006 3:07:00 PM, Blogger Anna said…

    I came here through Bookworm Room (love her blog) and after reading her post and your two as well, I am very thankful that we live where we do. Our school district would probably be considered out of date because there is more emphasis on the classics than on the NYTimes bestseller list.
    My youngest is in 8th and her most recent reading assignment was A Midsummer Night's Dream. Books for extra credit from 4th grade on do not include Goosebumps or any of the other "series" books, but are Where the Red Fern Grows, Anne of Green Gables and the like.
    My older is an English AP student and is a Junior. Her required reading list has included Rebecca, To Kill a Mockingbird, Harry Potter, works by Nathanial Hawthorne, Arther Miller, Mark Twain and other classics that you may have read in high school. Yes, some are considered "banned" books, but they are not these contemporary books such as "Molly's Two Mommies" or otheres like that which glorify sex, drugs and homosexuality. So, I am just very glad to live where we do and that I have not had any major issues with what is being taught to my girls. Thank you for reminding me how lucky we are here.

    You have inspired me to write a post about what is right with our school district as we have not had to deal with these issues for the most part. I suppose living in Ohio does have its advantages!

  • At Sunday, April 30, 2006 8:12:00 PM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Hi, Anna, Thanks for the comment. I am very glad for you and your children if all is right in your school literature world. I had thought the same for my children until this year, as we live in a mostly conservative area in flyover country far from the more "sophisticated" coasts. I too had felt insulated to some extent by that.

    But even living in America's heartland offers no sure immunity, as the Blue Valley High School parents in Overland, Kansas have found:

    My point is to warn that parents should not be complacent (as I was) and assume without checking and continually monitoring that the teachers and librarians hold the same values as you do for your children, because many of them don't. I don't think it's a function of where you live. It seems to be a function of the faculty's idealogy and criteria in choosing literature (to teach literature or--something else?).

    Literature, the study of same, and libraries themselves are not what they once were. And I say this sadly, as a lifelong lover of books and a student of literature.

    All of these books assigned to my children which I fumigate against in my recent posts have of course been "approved" for educating our children by our county school board, along with the many other classic books of quality you cite. Indeed, many of the children's books and authors I don't care for have earned Newberry Awards and other librarian seals of approval. Many have been around for quite a while (some books by Katherine Paterson, Judy Blume, and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor), while some more recent ones are making their way into school libraries (books by Chris Crutcher) to entice and increase student readership requirments (so many books per student per year is how it's tracked--not how many QUALITY books are read and understood).

    Of course what is okay for one child at one age may be wildly inappropriate to another child of a different age or background. My point is that the parents not the teachers should decide when books are controversial, and my warning is that parents should not be complacent in thinking teachers are making appropriate choices for their own child. I think it behooves us to stand up and say so when we feel the choice is wrong.

    If you feel your school is doing an excellent and professional job of teaching your children to recognize and love good literature, by all means, tell them! Such educators deserve all the praise they can get.

  • At Wednesday, May 30, 2007 8:32:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I recall being a 5th grader many years ago and being very moved when my teacher read The Great Gilly Hopkins to us. I was even more excited when I became a 5th grade teacher years ago and learned that this wonderful novel was part of our curriculum.

    I can appreciate the concern about the profanity. Gilly does occasionally slip in "hell" and "dammit," but I think Katherine Paterson does this to make Gilly real. I discuss this with the children, and we even visit with a real foster mother who shares stories about why foster kids are often so angry and therefore use inappropriate language or act out hurtfully.

    The beauty of the story requires one to see past that. To watch this lost, confused, and angry child make connections and grow immensely--that is the heart of the story. I have to say over the years it is the favorite novel among my students. They hate Gilly at the beginning, grow to understand her in the middle, and love her in the end.

    The readers learn about empathy and come to understand that one's words and actions can't always be judged too harshly for underneath their likely stems a story that requires a greater understanding. We examine the theme of prejudice and of traditions, and the children, in my opinion, become more open-minded and empathetic people as a result of Katherine Paterson’s message. In order to hear that message though, you need to focus on the meaning and not the actual words.

  • At Thursday, May 31, 2007 7:11:00 AM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Thanks for your personal take. My point in writing is that not every child shares your reaction, and that not every parent would agree with you that the book is appropriate or desirable for THEIR child at a given age or grade level. It is on many levels controversial for the elements I've described, and the parents at least should be able to give INFORMED PRIOR CONSENT to the book being introduced to their children.

    My point was that teachers using this book are either being insensitive and unempathetic to some families' values in foisting this book onto children in the stealth manner in which they do, and that in fact, some teachers would not use this book if they knew they had to fully inform the parents about it first. That is wrong on both counts.

    Surely there must be other books that convey the moral values you say you want to teach without including the use of profanity. If not, then why do you feel this is SO important to get across to 5th graders? Is this your job as a teacher to teach other people's children to "ignore" profanity to learn moral values? My point was such teaching oversteps its bounds. Let the parents teach these lessons in the ways they know best for their own children, and let the teachers convey the core basics of math, grammar, science, etc. in the limited time each day they have to do so. That's what we send our children to school for, not for stealth moralizing.

    I disagree strongly with your point that Gilly is more "real" for using profanity. PLEASE! Not everyone agrees with you on that. Not everyone thinks this book is terrific. And your goal of teaching children to become more open-minded and empathetic is not your primary purpose as a teacher! To argue that this particular book is necessary to do that, anyway, is specious. Imagine how previous generations ever learned empathy and open-mindedness before studying Gilly Hopkins' foul mouth and racial prejudices!

    You and I can agree to disagree, but my point was, teachers do not have the right to foist this book onto children without the parents' full knowledge or what they are doing and what's in the book.

  • At Thursday, May 31, 2007 9:16:00 AM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Just can't resist saying it again: I think we did America's schoolchildren a better turn by teaching them to study the exemplary real lives of heroes to learn moral values than we do now in maintaining that we must spend time obsessing over the faults of fictional troubled people making mistakes in the name of "learning" empathy. That is NOT the only way to learn empathy, and I'd even argue it's the wrong way and a destructive way too.

  • At Tuesday, December 02, 2008 4:30:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    "But so what? Beyond all of that, is it up to the school to decide when, where, and how to actively instill these moral lessons, or is that the business of the parents in conjunction with their churches, synagogues, Scout lodges, and community organizations?"

    Are you kidding me with this question? Perhaps your child has the privilege of attending a decent school. I can name five students from my class who lack either a mother or a father. One slept on the porch last night (having no lunch today) because he hasn't seen mom in three days. Instill moral lessons is the responsibility of...? A book with a bit of this or that, not much of an issue - thank you to the many of us who have left the burden of being a parent and a teacher on the shoulders of teachers and then backhand them because they make a slip up from time to time. Well, at least you pay them enough to afford rent most months and occasionally, food. Must be hard in the suburbs where everything is peachy keen and our little one's get to grow up away from the harshness of the world so they can then in turn rub there noses at it from afar when they're grown. Hope they take care of us in the nursing home with those we instilled.

  • At Saturday, September 19, 2009 3:29:00 PM, Blogger Tahiti said…

    I understand your point, but when then would you consider a book like this appropriate? If ever? And what books would you then suggest to deal with such strong issues instead?

    The book is difficult to stomach, most especially for kids who have been sheltered like yours have been, and I can understand the concern you have about influencing them, but the point I feel, is not to block them forever from such things, to hide them from ugly racism issues or language, but to talk with them about them as they come up and discuss why those issues are important and why you feel they ARE negative. By not having her cuss or be somehow miraculously accepting of all people when she herself has had precious little love to grow on is false and neuters the message. You might think that kids are so dumb and young they won't understand the difference, but they do. If they see the words and her actions, unprettified, it brings the message home. Racism IS ugly. Children who are unloved and thrown about DO grow up with cuss words in their vocabulary and don't understand why racism is bad.

    It's nice that your daughter still reads books like Nancy Drew, but those books are repetitive and boring. They are brain comfort food and that's nice - but they don't teach and they don't challenge. Books like The Great Gilly Hopkins force you to think and ends in a very different way than what is expected of children's/young adult books.

    I don't agree with you that this is a weird book or book which is too harsh for many children because I read it when I was very young and LOVED the fact that Katherine Patterson didn't write down to me, but showed me a girl I felt was so believable I could meet her in my class. Again I ask you, what would you recommend in its place which would create the same realistic images of a foster child who grows up with all the negativity that life has bred in her?

  • At Saturday, September 19, 2009 6:09:00 PM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Glad you liked the book as a child and thought it contributed something to you that you needed at a young age--actually, the perfect age for you when you were receptive to it, evidently. I can't and don't argue with your personal experience, though you seem willing to argue with mine.

    My point (I seem to keep saying it over and over) is that my own fourth-grader, and I daresay most fourth-graders, do not need to spend precious instructional time being forced to cover this book in school to "learn" not to be racists or to learn empathy, through studying this story of one troubled little foster girl. (I have no problem with it being on a recommended reading list as an optional choice.) For one thing (I am repeating myself), it is not well-written, and is not good literature. Further, fourth-graders do not need to spend time on such "strong issues" (your words) when their instructional time should be devoted more to learning history, arithmetic, and reading, and writing. Who delegated the teachers to be moralists instead of effectively teaching the academics the kids need? Where do teachers get off assuming fourth-graders are racists and bigots anyway?

    You ask when would I think this book would be appropriate-- For my own daughter, certainly now, and probably when she was around 12. Not 10. Big deal, big difference, and why should I get uptight about two years? Because every year in a kid's development is a huge leap, and I am her mother and I know her best.

    In raising my two kids I have learned that some teachers push too much too soon when it comes to "strong issues" including profanity, sexuality and violence, and they know the parents would not approve. They count on the parents not knowing. This to me seems despicable, and worth pointing out to other parents.

    It is three years later and now my daughter and I watch "Supernanny" together and are appalled at the horrible behavior of the children and dreadful parenting displayed on this TV show, and we admire the way Supernanny can wield applied psychology to make people behave better and live more happily together. It is easy to grasp from this show the lesson that children need boundaries and need to be taught to show respect for others. We see how initially seemingly "evil" children are actually children running wild thanks to extremely inept parenting. This teaches my daughter empathy for others (including the very bad actors and the inept parents) much better than Katherine Paterson ever could. At her age now, my daughter is old enough to appreciate this psychological insight and not be confused as to why the bad actors get all the attention and empathy. I do not feel the three-year delay from not reading Gilly Hopkins in fourth grade has made her any less of an empathetic, kind, or non-racist person.

    She has to deal in school every day with profane, cussing, misbehaving kids taking up time and resources from learning and creating a hassling and chaotic environment, and yes, she attends one of the top public schools in academic achievement. My wish is that more teachers would choose to teach from positive role models and even actual heroes (remember when we studied them?) than trying to make everyone "understand" from the earliest ages why the bad actors are victimized. It just seems to give the misbehaving kids more justification, and demoralizes and confuses the quiet, well-behaved kids. Just speaking from my own experience.

    Books I'd recommend--I've posted lists of 'em here on my blog. Just don't feel any Katherine Paterson books are worth studying in class. Nor are Nancy Drew books, as you point out. Ideally teachers should be more discriminating than that. When they're not, I don't see anything wrong with speaking my mind about it. After all, we taxpayers pay their salaries. And we are constantly being told they welcome our feedback and involvement as parents.

  • At Sunday, September 20, 2009 9:19:00 PM, Blogger Zabrina said…

    Better books for children:

    See William J. Bennett's The Educated Child; Hirsch and Holdren's Books to Build On and Hillsdale Academy's Reference Guides.


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