April 2005

Chris Zammarelli

banned bookslut

That Book's Got a Lot of Bad, Bad Words In It

The work of Chris Crutcher has had a rough go with it so far this year. In February, Patricia Bouwhuis, a middle school teacher in Grand Rapids, MI, was suspended for teaching Crutcher's book Athletic Shorts. A parent asked the school to remove the short story collection from area schools because one of the pieces contained racist terms for blacks and Asians. The book was pulled pending a review.

"Telephone Man" is about a borderline autistic boy whose racist father teaches him the epithets. His use of the terms almost gets him beat up by a group of Chinese boys, until an African-American boy intervenes.

While the story is meant to teach about the ills of racism, the local NAACP president Hazel Lewis denounced Bouwhuis's use of Crutcher's story. "It's terrible. She should be more sensitive than to bring that into a seventh- and eighth-grade classroom. College students can handle stuff like that, but not our babies."

Lewis appears to be operating under a similar assumption as Christi Brooks, the parent of a student at Ardmore High School in Decatur, AL. She lobbied to have Crutcher's book Whale Talk removed from Limestone County schools because of its use of racial epithets. While she recognized the book is teaching readers "about teamwork and dealing with racism," Brooks wrote in a letter to the Limestone County Board of Education that she felt students reading the book "would be more likely to use the words every day."

The strong language in Whale Talk prompted parents of students at Grand Ledge High School in Eaton County, MI to challenge its use in classrooms just two weeks after the controversy over Athletic Shorts erupted in Grand Rapids. School officials had sent letters to parents, warning them that the language in Whale Talk was explicit. The letters also announced that if parents felt the book was too harsh, their children could read something else.

Parent Rev. Ken Himebaugh felt that this was not a sufficient solution, saying, "I would like for them to pull the book." He was surprised that teachers would select a book for high school students that contained language that the school bars the students themselves from using. "We all have an obligation to uphold the moral standards that we want to instill. So I'm looking at this from a moral standpoint," he said.

Crutcher, unfortunately, is used to such controversies. His website contains a section about attempts to ban his work, and he responds to any challenges with letters and with visits to the respective communities. (Planned visits to Michigan had been postponed as school officials said they want to have more time to address the controversies.) His next book, The Sledding Hill, will address the subject of book banning.

At this time, there have been no resolutions in the challenges to Crutcher's work in Michigan. Meanwhile, the Limestone County Board of Education voted 4-3 to ban Whale Talk, against the recommendation of a review committee and Superintendent Barry Carroll. Board member James Shannon said his decision to vote in favor of removing the book from schools had nothing to do with his niece being the person who brought forth the challenge.