Correction: After NCAC spoke with the superintendent at Jay High, we learned the book was not, as previously believed, on a recommended reading list but was selected by teachers to be read aloud to students. In discussions of literature, critics use the term situational irony when there is a vast discrepancy between what readers expect to happen and what actually happens. A firehouse burning down is one such example; a man gaining weight from an all-kale diet is another.
A few weeks ago, officials at Jay High School in Santa Rosa County provided us with a textbook case of situational irony when they banned a book during the school’s Celebrate Literacy Week.
A Celebrate Literacy Week, one would presume, aims to encourage enthusiasm for reading at a time when teenagers are increasingly glued to smart phones, video games and their social media networks. And yet, Jay High School administrators seemed to forget this when they decided to remove a novel, “Gutless” by Carl Deuker, from the week’s recommended reading list after a group of parents complained. The Santa Rosa School District went on to issue an apology for the book’s inclusion.
“Gutless” is a young-adult novel about Brock Ripley, a soccer player who begins playing football after practicing with his school’s star quarterback, Hunter Gates. Ripley is thrown into a dilemma, however, when Hunter begins to ruthlessly bully Brock’s Chinese-American best friend, Richie Fang.
The book explores many themes that are important to high schoolers like sports, bullying, race and the value of friendship.
In short, “Gutless” is exactly the kind of novel that appeals to teenagers and fosters a love of reading.
The parents’ issue with the novel was that passages were “inappropriate.” Director of High Schools Jason Weeks agreed, noting how the book contains descriptions of “body parts and things like that that shouldn’t be being discussed.” Mr. Weeks also felt the need to clarify that neither Jay High School Principal Stephen Knowlton nor the Santa Rosa County School District “support the inappropriate pieces of that book.”
Beyond the surely ineffectual effort on behalf of the school to protect teenage high schoolers from exposure to “inappropriate” body parts, the removal of a book from a reading list sets a dangerous precedent that threatens the quality of education in Santa Rosa County.
First, the mere discussion of body parts and sexuality is no justification for removing a book, which is both suitable and relevant to a teen audience, from a reading list. Countless great works of literature — “Romeo and Juliet,” “Slaughterhouse Five” and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” to name a few — refer to all sorts of body parts.
Second, the district’s response to offended parents will incentivize future complaints. The removal of “Gutless” demonstrates to parents that if they complain vocally enough about books and teaching materials they personally want to see removed, they will get what they want.
It’s important to keep in mind that by heeding to the demands of a vocal minority of parents, the wishes of the majority of parents and their children are potentially ignored.
In these sorts of incidents, the biggest losers are always students, who have lost an opportunity to develop their literary skills, to think critically about important things and to enjoy the simple pleasure of reading a good story.
This is, after all, why literacy is worth celebrating.
Jas Chana is the communications director for the National Coalition Against Censorship. Josh Zuckerman is a Youth Free Expression program associate at the National Coalition Against Censorship.