Remember the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover?”

Delaney Brenner and Emma Halman

Well, don’t judge it by one scene either.

About two weeks ago Victoria Manney and Laura Hughes of the VBCPS School Board requested review of four books for “pornographic material” and have succeeded in receiving agreement for the removal of Gender Queer: A Memoir. The other three books, whose fates will be discussed at the School Board meeting on Oct. 26, are Lawn Boy, The Bluest Eye, and A Lesson Before Dying. Two other works, Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out and Good Trouble: Lessons from the Civil Rights Playbook, are also being challenged. 

“I think there are certainly some things in the novel that are maybe not entirely appropriate. However, I do think that teenagers are a lot more mature and resilient than people give them credit for, and they can handle it,” said a PA teacher who has been granted anonymity by The Page. In reference to A Lesson Before Dying, their comment reflects the general opinion of English teachers towards the recent book banning controversy.

In response to Manning’s proposition, several teachers have expressed general disagreement, especially those familiar with using the books in question as a part of their curriculum.

“Members of the school board have issued challenges against multiple books at the same time, which creates an issue, because by allowing multiple challenges to happen simultaneously, you are speeding up the process by which you can remove books. Also, you are clustering them into similar categories…then it becomes a lot harder to specifically challenge individual content within those texts. If I say that two books are together and should be challenged together, and one book is worth challenging and the other is not, I could theoretically pull both books because I have lumped them together, and everybody accepts that, ” says a second anonymous teacher.

According to the Virginian-Pilot, “Some parents may be shocked when they find out their child is learning about certain topics. Several parents and community members referenced the books in the public comments, objecting to these books being available on shelves in Virginia Beach libraries. A few read passages from challenged texts and showed printouts of scenes depicting sexual acts from Kobabe’s Gender Queer.” 

Regarding the text, the same teacher “understand[s] the case for the book Gender Queer. There are some panels there that a parent might be uncomfortable with their child seeing. I think if we are realistic about it though, the panels are probably not anything that is drastically different than stuff that the child has seen elsewhere, or heard about elsewhere.”

They continued, “In the context of the book, it’s about finding your own identity and understanding your place in the world. The panels that have been picked by the school board members are decontextualized, and if you see those panels out of context, I think it looks worse than it is.”

 “I always think that the overall meaning of the book is so much more important than an individual scene,” says English teacher Kerry Kisa. “Anything can be taken out of context…you can take parts of The Constitution out of context. Do I call it then a bigoted document? No, I understand the context.”

On a similar note, the first anonymous teacher explained the importance of evaluating A Lesson For Dying as a whole, and not just judging its one instance of graphic content at face value. They noted that students often do not even notice or register the singular passage that contains sexual content, as it is not the point of the novel.

Instead, A Lesson Before Dying “exposes students to history that they were maybe not aware of. It reminds them that even though it is history, it is not ancient history, it’s recent history. It gives them an insight into the lives of other people, how other people that are not like them live. It reminds them that we’re all human regardless of the things that we’ve done, or where we grew up, or obviously, the color of our skin.”

“The book is about empathy and understanding and justice and humanity. To throw everything away for that one scene would be doing everyone a disservice.”

Kisa reiterates this opinion, stating that A Lesson Before Dying “is a beautiful story of finding human dignity even in the face of death. It is such a beautiful novel that most kids remember as their favorite.”

Also familiar with The Bluest Eye, Kisa recognizes its sexually explicit content and argues that it should be reserved for seniors. Still, she also believes “The value of [The Bluest Eye] is it gives a perspective of growing up in a world that describes what is beautiful and you’re not a part of it, and what that does to the psyche of a young girl, which then makes her susceptible to what happens to her.”

While she no longer teaches The Bluest Eye, Kisa still teaches Song of Solomon, also by Toni Morrison, which also includes some uncomfortable scenes. Despite this, Kisa believes that “high school seniors especially should be exposed to Toni Morrison. She was the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for literature. She needs to be taught.”  

In respect to the main characters of all four books being minorities Kisa says, “It’s mighty coincidental, isn’t it? You can’t help but see a trend there…When we look around our schools, and we look around the young people, you guys are so much more advanced than my generation, in terms of your acceptance and inclusion. If our literature doesn’t reflect that, then I feel like that adds to the disconnect between education and people your age.”

The second anonymous teacher shares Kisa’s opinion, stating, “[The authors of the books being questioned] are not the only people who are pushing the boundaries of what might be considered appropriate. It would be a lot easier to accept the argument that this is about defending a child from offensive content if the people who were targeted were not just black and gay people. To me, it seems like a pretty easy situation to figure out.”