116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Parents in three Corridor school districts have filed book challenges in the last year with complaints about a movie, books in verse and graphic novels, including a Caldecott Medal-winning book a Clear Creek Amana parent called "complete and utter garbage."
This is Banned Books Week — celebrated since 1982 to highlight the value of free and open access to information.
There’s more fanfare than usual, in part to counter increasing political pressure to remove books, especially about race and LGBTQ issues, said Betsy Gomez, Banned Books Week national coordinator.
“There are people who are motivated to remove entire topic areas from libraries,” she said in an interview with The Gazette. “What we’re forgetting is kids are actually pretty smart. We’re underestimating their ability to understand some material.”
Iowa lawmakers this year considered bills that would have allowed parents to sue schools over “obscene” books and would have levied criminal charges against librarians and teachers.
Book challenges in the Cedar Rapids, Linn-Mar and Clear Creek Amana school districts illustrate new ways parents are seeking to influence curriculum and shield students from materials they find objectionable.
Cedar Rapids reconsiders ‘Watchmen’
The “Watchmen” comics written by Alan Moore and illustrated by Dave Gibbons depict superheroes in 1985 facing ethical dilemmas, personal issues and failings.
Cedar Rapids Kennedy High School students taking the English class Perspectives in Literature and Composition have been reading "Watchmen“ since at least 2013, according to the Torch, the school newspaper.
But this year, a parent or parents challenged use of “Watchmen,” both as a book and movie, according to minutes from a Feb. 7 meeting of the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s Instructional Materials Reconsideration Committee.
“The complainant objected to the entire film, including scenes of sex and nudity, violence, gore, profanity, alcohol, drugs and smoking,” the minutes state.
The committee discussed how “Watchmen” fit with the English curriculum and Iowa Core Language Arts standards, which include “making strategic use of digital and visual media” and “determining and author’s/creator’s point of view.”
The group decided to let a 38-minute movie clip remain with a new parental permission slip that lets families opt in to the viewing.
“Students will not be encouraged to watch the remainder of the film,” the minutes state.
Kennedy teachers may continue to have students read “Watchmen,” but the school will add “potentially controversial” to the class description, the March 2 minutes state.
First book challenges
Linn-Mar Community School District charged The Gazette $162 to provide 140 pages of records, about 70 of which dealt with one book challenge last spring.
“On Friday, I had (2) books brought into my home from the Linn-Mar High School library,” parent Mindy Walderbach wrote in an April 4 email to the Linn-Mar school board. “The books are titled ‘Tricks’ and ‘Traffic’ (sic); I've attached images of the books for your review.”
“Tricks” and “Traffick” are companion novels in verse by Ellen Hopkins that portray five teens victimized by sex trafficking who try to find a way to a new life, according to Goodreads.
“Why are books discussing drugging people and discussion of how wonderful drugs are allowing (sic) inside our buildings?” Walderbach asked. “Why are books discussing prostitution allowed inside our buildings? Do we have Bibles at LMHS and ALL of our buildings for students to check out?”
She asked the board about the process to request books be removed from school libraries. Walderbach’s letter caused the district to form a reconsideration committee for the first time, emails show.
“As you know, we have had a parent file a request for reconsideration in regards to a couple of library books,” Superintendent Shannon Bisgard wrote to Linn-Mar High School librarian Brian Johnson April 18.
“Per Board policy, we need to activate a reconsideration committee to review these materials and make a determination on this request. Would you be willing to serve as the teacher-librarian that serves on this committee?
Bisgard told Walderbach in a July 5 email the committee decided to keep the books in the high school library.
“It is important to provide a range of literary topics in school libraries and, when read in their entirety, both books in question provide the reader with cautionary tales of drugs, human trafficking and the dangers of various lifestyle choices,” Bisgard included among six reasons for the decision.
He also highlighted the difference between books used as instructional materials and those available for free reading in the library.
The Gazette left two voicemails for Walderbach seeking comment for this story, but did not hear back.
A Clear Creek Amana parent in February challenged a graphic novel that refers to sex, teen pregnancy and alcohol use as well as includes swearing and mentions a miscarriage by the main character’s mother.
The book, “This One Summer” by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki, has won numerous awards, including the 2015 Caldecott Medal, which recognizes the most distinguished American picture book for children.
It also was on the American Library Association’s list of 10 most challenged books in 2016 and 2018.
The novel features two ‘tween girls, Rose and Windy, during a summer at the beach as they observe snippets of the lives of older teens and adults and try to make sense of what is happening around them.
“I am writing to express my disgust with a choice of reading material that my daughter brought home from the Middle School library,” Parent Kim Steines wrote CCA Middle School Principal Brad Fox Feb. 14.
“The book she brought home is complete and utter garbage!! Who does the ordering of the books and deems what is suitable for middle schoolers? I would hope there are more than one set of eyes making these decisions, and if so they had poor taste in this one!!”
Fox emailed then-interim Superintendent Joseph Brown and Matt Leeman, associate superintendent/secondary curriculum director, on Feb. 14.
“How would you like me to proceed with this? If what she sent is in our library, I must say I don't support it either. Look at the pages she shared with me,” Fox emailed.
It does not appear the administrators wrote back until late August.
An email from The Gazette to Steines on Wednesday has gone unanswered.
“Question, do you have any follow-up from the meeting with the parent? Was there any action taken to remove the book?” Lori Robertson, director of finance and school board secretary, asked Fox in an email Aug. 24.
“No. I still have the book in my office, I think, Fox responded. ”The kid had it in her possession and then gave it to me.“
The graphic novel has been missing from the library’s collection since at least April, said Kris Petersen, director of the Springmier Community Library, a public library in Tiffin that also serves the middle school library.
“As far as I know, that’s been the only book challenge we’ve had in my 15 years here,” Petersen told The Gazette.
"This One Summer“ was donated to the library, rather than purchased by the school or city, Petersen said. Amazon.com rates the book appropriate for ages 11 and up and library staff had labeled it as realistic fiction, she added.
“You know, I think Caldecott honor books are rated pretty well,” she said. “Life’s tough and it’s a realistic graphic novel.”
District Spokeswoman Laurie Haman said new Superintendent Corey Seymour was not aware of the book challenge that happened before he started and “the district will need to further investigate the book’s whereabouts.”
Why graphic novels?
Gomez, the Banned Books Week coordinator, said graphic novels face more book challenges because parents do a “flip test” and find one image that offends them without reading the whole book.
“Graphic novels get challenged for the same reasons as prose, but the images make them more vulnerable,” she said in an interview Thursday. “We see something offensive and we tend to have a strong reaction to it.”
Some people think graphic novels are not as valuable as literature, despite research comics engage multiple parts of the brain to help with understanding of complicated or sophisticated subjects, Gomez said.
The Gazette also filed requests with the Iowa City and College Community school districts for documents related to book challenges. Both districts reported they have not had any challenges since Jan. 1, 2020.
Ben Welsh, a Swisher native and a reporter at Stanford's Big Local News, contributed to this report.
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