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Pastor's complaint prompts district to pull book from classroom

By The Associated Press
02.26.07

MISSOURI VALLEY, Iowa — A western Iowa school district has temporarily barred a book from being taught in classrooms after receiving complaints that the book uses racial slurs and profanity.

Whale Talk, which has already been either banned or taken off reading lists in districts in Alabama and South Carolina, was being taught to sophomore English students at Missouri Valley High School.

Tom Micek, the district's superintendent, said a committee would review the book and decide if it should be permanently removed from district classrooms.

"I understand there is profane language in the book," he said, "but in the absence of reading the text and understanding the language in the context of the story it is premature of me to comment."

Whale Talk, written by Chris Crutcher and published in 2001, is about a 17-year-old boy confronting his multicultural heritage while creating a swim team at a high school that has no pool.

The Missouri Valley district removed the book from the English class after a local pastor complained about its explicit language.

"The book seems innocuous enough when you look on the cover jacket," said the Rev. Nathan Slaughter. "It's about teaching tolerance. But it's filled with obscenities and tries to use negative things to teach the lesson."

Whale Talk is at least the second book removed from an Iowa classroom this school year. In November, the Carroll school district temporarily banned Peter Hedges' What's Eating Gilbert Grape before the school board overturned the superintendent's decision.

Crutcher's writings are not new to Iowans' scrutiny. In 2004, parents in Solon leveled complaints against two of his stories, arguing that they used racist terms, promoted homosexuality and perpetuated gay stereotypes. The school board voted to keep the two books.

More recently, Whale Talk has been removed from South Carolina's high school suggested reading list, and it was banned by the Limestone County school board in northern Alabama in March 2005.

Crutcher has defended his writing style on his Web site, saying he based Whale Talk on real-life situations.

"Probably the most offensive scene, taken out of context, would be on page 68 and 69 where a 4 1/2-year-old mixed-race girl is working in a play therapy session, mirroring what her life is like living with a racist stepfather and a mother who won't protect her," he said on his Web site. "In the course of her therapy she is taking the role of the offender, yelling out all the names that she herself endures on a daily basis."

The committee assigned to review Whale Talk will include Micek and other school officials and community members. Members are to read the book and recommend to the school board whether to ban it.

Libby Riley, whose daughter has been reading the book in her English class, wants Whale Talk taken out.

"I especially object to the racial verbiage," she said. "I can hardly say those words, and I am not a minority person. I know they are trying to teach diversity, but that is not the way to do it."

Board members have also expressed concern that the book may not be appropriate for sophomores.

"We don't condone that kind of language, but we have a process in place to address the issue," said Mark Warner, a board member. "We have to have a chance to read it."


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