Washington school district strikes contested book from reading list

By The Associated Press

FEDERAL WAY, Wash. — Parents upset about a novel with sexual content have spurred Federal Way’s school superintendent to remove the book from the ninth-grade reading list.

Superintendent Tom Murphy also decided all reading lists must be submitted to the school board for approval, and parents must be notified this summer about books to be read in secondary schools next fall.

The flap started when 15-year-old Brandon Jerome found sexual references in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, and showed them to his mother in March, The News Tribune of Tacoma reported May 10.

The 184-page novel by Dai Sijie, which includes a passage about a virgin having sex, is a story of two youths who find a suitcase full of banned books during China’s Cultural Revolution. The 2000 novel was a best seller in France.

Brandon told his mother, Lori Bridges, that a student drew an explicit picture of a boy and girl having sex as part of a class drawing exercise on the book. He attends Todd Beamer High School, one of 36 schools in the 22,000-student suburban district midway between Seattle and Tacoma.

English teacher Vince Halloran, whose class read the book, said it had been approved and none of the students’ drawings was explicit.

Bridges believes the novel isn’t a bad book but is inappropriate for high school students. “I think it’s too mature. I think it embarrasses kids,” she said.

She and five others presented petitions signed by 32 parents asking the Federal Way School Board to ban the book.

In an April 23 letter, Murphy removed the book from district ninth grade reading lists. He read the novel twice and said he found “many valuable literary elements.”

“However, I have reservations that many students at the ninth-grade level possess the maturity and life experiences to correctly interpret the few sensitive scenes depicted in the novel without resorting to behaviors that demean the intent of the novel,” he wrote.

Diane Turner, a spokeswoman for Federal Way Public Schools, said May 10 that the Balzac novel is being reconsidered by the curriculum committee. It may be found appropriate for older students, she said.

Turner said the book has not been banned from school libraries.

“The viewpoint that the book is inappropriate does not represent any kind of consensus,” said Halloran, the teacher.

A committee of educators and parents had commended the novel for its “unique depiction of history, artistic merit, sensitive treatment of sexual content, and accessibility to teen readers.”

The novel was written by a filmmaker and author who was born in China and now lives in France. Its back cover describes it as a tale about “the magic of reading and the wonder of romantic awakening.”