By Jennifer Eisenbart
What should children be reading, and who should make that decision?
That question was recently asked by an Elkhorn Area School District parent, who followed a district policy that resulted in 444 books being removed – at least temporarily – from the library shelves at Elkhorn Area Middle School and Elkhorn Area High School.
According to EASD Superintendent Jason Tadlock, the original challenge to the books was received in August. An open records request shows a pair of emails sent by Melissa Bollinger on Nov. 29, to EAMS Principal Ryan McBurney and EAHS Principal Dan Kiel.
The emails are virtually identical, and read as follows:
“I would like to make you aware of some books that are located in the Elkhorn Area High School library that are objectionable. The concerns are based on content that is harmful to minors, including excessive profanity, graphic violence and explicit sex.
“Attached you will find a detailed report for each book that lists my objections and concerns.
“I am requesting these books be reviewed according to Elkhorn Area School District Board Policy 361 – Instructional Material Selection/Evaluation Procedures. I understand per board policy 361 that “Upon receipt of a completed, written objection, the principal shall temporarily withdraw from circulation the materials being challenged.
“I understand that as part of the selection process that reputable, unbiased, professionally prepared election aids are used. I am also requesting that you provide me with information regarding the selection aids utilized by the committee to make their determinations.
“I am sending these to you as the building principal.
“My recommendation is for these books to be removed from (Elkhorn Area High School or Middle School).
“Please acknowledge that you have received this email with the attached book objections. As time is of the essence when our children could possibly be exposed to harmful material, I believe 40 days is a reasonable amount of time to review these books. That would bring us to January 8, 2024. Please respond to let me know if this works for you.
“I am sure we are in agreement that our goal is to provide age appropriate resources for our students to enhance their learning.
“I thank you in advance for your review and reconsideration in this matter.
“Respectfully Submitted, Melissa Bollinger.”
Bollinger went on to cite Wisconsin State Statute 948.11 – Exposing a child to harmful material or harmful descriptions or narration. It says, in part, that “harmful” includes descriptions or narratives of sexual excitement, physical torture, nudity and sexual explicit conduct. The full statute can be viewed at docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/statutes/statutes/948/11.
Late last week, Tadlock went on to say that most of the books submitted for review had already been returned to school shelves following said review, and it was likely some books would be placed on a list that requires parental or guardian permission to check out a particular book.
He stressed that no books had been “banned” and that he did not anticipate banning any books.
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin filed an open record request with six school districts that “recently banned books” Dec. 13. Those districts include: Menomonee Falls, Howard-Suamico, Waukesha, Elmbrook, Elkhorn and Kenosha Unified.
An extensive list
Bollinger’s list included 163 books at the middle school level and 281 books at the high school level.
Some books appeared on both lists, and included both fiction and non-fiction. In addition, Bollinger submitted more than 1,800 pages of documentation showing why particular books should be removed.
In an email to parents sent Dec. 5, Tadlock explained that the two principals were reviewing the books, with the full list attached. Per the 361 rule, the books were temporarily removed until the review for grade level appropriateness could be completed.
Principals are using Common Sense Media, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com for age-level ratings.
Tadlock also reminded parents that they can review materials their students have checked out from the school library using the district’s Destiny program via login and password.
The list of books at the middle school level included, among others:
- “A Tree Grows In Brooklyn,” by Betty Smith, a coming-of-age story about a young girl growing up in poverty in Brooklyn in the early 1900s. (Also included on the high school list.)
- “The Color Purple,” by Alice Walker, a book that follows an African-American teenager being raised in rural Georgia during the early 1900s.
- “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” by Sherman Alexie, which tells the story of Junior – a Native American boy growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation.
- “Tiger Eyes,” by Judy Blume, the story of a high-school freshman who loses her father in a robbery-related shooting and must work to process her grief.
- “Sold,” by Patricia McCormick, which tells the story of Lakshmi, a girl from Nepal who is sold into sexual slavery in India by her relatives, who are trying to escape poverty.
- “The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives,” by Dashka Slater, a book documenting the real-life story of two California teenagers on opposing sides of a crime. (Also on the high school list.)
- “Bomb: The Race to Build and Steal the World’s Most Dangerous Weapon,” by Steve Sheinkin, which tells the story of the creation of the atom bomb and the resulting arms race and Cold War.
Some of the books included on the high school list are:
- “The Fault In Our Stars,” by John Green, which tells the story of two teenage cancer patients who fall in love through a support group. (Also included on the middle school list.)
- “A Child Called It,” by Dave Pelzer, documenting Pelzer’s story of child abuse at the hands of his alcoholic mother. (Also included on the middle school list.)
- “The Hunger Games,” “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay,” all by Suzanne Collins, which tell of a dystopian future United States where children fight to the death for entertainment of the country’s Capitol. (Also included on the middle school list.)
- “Life of Pi,” by Yann Martel, the story of Pi Patel, a teenage boy who survives a ship sinking when his parents decide to immigrate to Canada from India – perhaps in the company of a Bengal tiger. (Also on the middle school list.)
There are also numerous books on both lists that deal with LGBTQ+ topics, gender identity/transition and teenage sexual exploration.
In addition, classics like “Anna Karenina,” “Lord of the Flies,” “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Brave New World,” were flagged, as was a single book by horror novelist Stephen King, “Cujo.”
The documentation Bollinger submitted for each book included a checklist form – one that Tadlock confirmed did not originate in the district but included the district logo – that gave reasons for reconsideration, excerpts from books and summaries and reviews.
Bollinger did not respond to a request for an interview regarding the book review.
Tadlock said that in his 11 years in the district, he had seen only two books challenged previously: “Everybody Sees the Ants” and “Burn Baby Burn.” Both books were reviewed and allowed to remain on the shelves but were moved from the middle school shelves to the high school shelves.
For the full story, please see the print editions of papers like the Elkhorn Independent.