How Do We Determine What Books Are and Are Not Appropriate For Kids?

Highland Park ISD announced at the end of last week that it would be suspending seven books from the high school reading list: Herman Hesse's Siddhartha, Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain, John Green's An Abundance of Katherines, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, David K. Shipler's The Working Poor: Invisible in America and Jeannette Walls' The Glass Castle.

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The books were removed after parents decried the books over the last several months. Many object to the books on the grounds that they are not age-appropriate for high school kids. In a letter sent out to parents in May, HPHS Principal Walter Kelly defended the selections, saying the school works to "meet the developmentally appropriate balance of challenging our students' thinking while upholding community values and standards." Now, it seems the district is more anxious to brush the controversial selections under the rug, rather than defend them to angry parents.

Still, the books' inclusion in school curriculum raises the question: How do teachers, parents, publishers, writers, and students determine whether or not a book is "developmentally appropriate?"

After all, there's a difference between reading Hamlet at age 10 and at age 20. . "In general, I believe that most books have an ideal age in which they should read," Dr. Martha Satz, an SMU English professor who researches children's literature, says. "If you read Little Women at 18, you've lost out on something that is meant for children. But there are adult books that will be read by young people. One looks at a book in its entirety, and things in their entirety, and what they're about, rather than fixing on one scene and throwing the whole thing out."

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Satz adds that educators should be determining what is age-appropriate, rather than parents. "I don't think parents necessarily have the training, the education, or have read the books in their entirety. So I think educators should make the call in terms of readings and their curriculum," she says. "Young people are not shielded from society. Then when we offer them well-written, intelligent literature, then we want to take that out of their hands -- I think this is negative."

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And for Highland Park kids, exposure to poverty is especially important, Satz says. "If we look at the particular books that have been suspended, I do think they are developmentally appropriate," Satz says. "They're dealing with questions of identity, the meaning of life, all kinds of issues. Two deal with poverty in a very compelling way, which I think especially privileged kids need to learn about not in an abstract, 'Bring your canned food to the poor' way, but in a way that builds empathy and identification with people who are superficially unlike them."

But what makes a book bad for a high schooler, and perfect for a college student? "There's no formula for that," Satz says. "It's a judgment call, of course, but most of the books seem to have been banned for superficial reasons. ... I think students and young people assimilate what they're prepared to assimilate." Satz laughs, and adds that students will probably go out their way to read the books now. "When a book is suspended or banned, it makes it all that more attractive."

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Emily Mathis