Kathy and Peter Braun have won what they believe is a partial victory for parents with young children in Charlotte’s public schools. Still, they shake their heads in astonishment at the hoops they were forced to jump through to convince officials of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that the book Maniac Magee isn’t appropriate for third-graders.
For months, system administrators rejected the couple’s pleas for a meeting with the committees reviewing their official challenge to the use of the book, based on concerns about its language and themes. In the spring of 2004, a third-grade class at Myers Park Traditional School, where the Braun’s daughter, Jessica, is a student, read the book. The parents feared that Jessica’s teacher might also assign the book.
At issue for the Brauns and their partners in the appeal, Rick and Julie Guebert, is the age appropriateness of content in Jerry Spinelli’s book, which is the 1991 winner of the Newberry Medal from the American Library Association.
The novel tells the story of a homeless boy’s search for a family and love, and how he unites a racially divided town by showing each group their prejudices and preconceived notions are unfounded. Spinelli’s book occasionally uses strong and racially tinged language (“pisshole,” “turds,” “damn stupid white potata” and “honky donkey” for example) and delves into child-parent relationships, gangs, death, and loneliness.
“It’s a fabulous book, a great book,” said Kathy Braun of Maniac Magee’s overall value. “It’s just that when you have Jeffrey homeless, Grayson dying, and all this racial intensity, and all this language, it’s just too much in combination” for younger kids, she said. Julie Guebert agrees. Her daughter, Allison, was part of the class that read the book last year.
Instead of including the parents in meetings, CMS sent the Brauns and Gueberts on a bureaucratic odyssey governed by policies and regulations that, the Brauns contend, don’t give parents equal standing with school officials.
Dr. Frances Haithcock, associate superintendent for Education Services at CMS, said she’s sorry the parents believe that school officials weren’t receptive to their pleas, but that those involved told her the parents had been consulted, although not in person.
After about five months of back-and-forth letters, CMS notified the parents they would have 10 minutes on March 24 to make their case before a three-member panel of the school board. After hearing from both sides, and reviewing the one-inch thick file, the board panel, chaired by Dr. Lee Kindberg, agreed with the parents on a key point: The book is inappropriate for K-3 students. However, the panel ruled that fourth- and fifth-grade teachers may assign the book, but that they must send letters to parents beforehand, alerting them to its themes and language.
The ruling will allow parents to opt out. But if parents don’t respond, the system will equate silence with permission. The opt-out vehicle is consistent with the system’s approach to other curriculum-based items such as sex education and movies, Haithcock said. CMS field trips require parents to opt in with a permission slip.
What is age appropriate?
Kindberg, who also is a John Locke Foundation board member, views the decision as a win for the Brauns and Gueberts. She thinks the book’s themes could be disturbing to younger children, especially gifted kids, whom she thinks are sometimes more sensitive.
“They raised the issue, and they were right,” she said of the appeal.
However, Kindberg defends the panel’s decision to allow the book’s use in fourth-grade classes, even though about 75 percent of the reviews her panel considered recommended Maniac Magee for fifth grade or higher. The remaining 25 percent endorsed its use as early as third grade. The Brauns think the reviews support their argument, and Kindberg acknowledged it’s not clear-cut.
“Professional educators don’t even fully agree,” she said.
The book will remain in CMS libraries, where any student of any age can read it. That’s an appropriate decision, said Cynthia Richey, immediate past president of the Association for Library Service to Children, the ALA division that awards the Newberry Medal.
“Kids should have access to wonderful books,” she said. “Having it in the library doesn’t mean every one will read it.”
Richey said schools typically defend book challenges based on their commitment to building a collection that represents all points of view and that supports their curriculum. She’s not aware of Maniac Magee ever being removed from a library, but ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom has recorded seven challenges to the book between 1992 and 2001, mostly for offensive language. One was in North Carolina in 1997. Details about who made the challenge and how it was resolved are confidential, ALA Media Relations Manager Larra Clark said.
Regardless of the decision, the Brauns and Julie Guebert say CMS’s rules and method of dealing with parents should be scrutinized. Peter Braun believes he and his wife were patronized and treated as secondary to their child’s education.
“Their approach is ‘go away’ — parents are never involved,” he said of CMS. “That only exists in a place where there are no market forces.”
Kindberg thinks it’s “ridiculous” that parents weren’t granted a meeting with school officials sooner and wonders why the principal and others didn’t sit down with the Brauns and Gueberts to talk about it.
“Sometimes you have to stop typing and start talking,” she said. To that end, she has recommended that teachers discuss reading lists with parents at the open house held at the start of each school year. A study commission is being formed within CMS to review issues brought to light in the Maniac Magee appeal, Haithcock said. Whether or not a parent will be included has not yet been discussed, she said.
For Julie Guebert, the lesson of Mania Magee is clear: “It’s important to be proactive in what’s being assigned. We have to step up when we don’t agree.”
Donna Martinez is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.