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Book banned in Nebo middle schools

Parental complaints about the civil rights story prompt action

PAYSON — An award-winning novel about a black family's visit to Alabama at the outset of the U.S. civil-rights movement has been banned in Nebo School District middle school classes.

District officials pulled the book from the approved-reading list for students younger than 13 years old after two parents complained about the use of the book in a seventh-grade English class at Payson Middle School.

Teacher Wanda Jones was told by district officials to stop reading "The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963" while the class was reading the book in October. Jones had read more than half the book in class when the order to stop reading was issued.

Nebo Superintendent Carl Nielson said the decision to stop the use of the book in Nebo middle schools — which are made up of sixth- and seventh-graders — came after the book was reviewed by a committee of parents at Payson Middle School and staff at district headquarters that supervise curriculum.

The groups reviewed Christopher Paul Davis' book after parents complained to Jones and school administrators about the book's content.

Jones, who had informed parents at the start of the school year that she planned to read the book in class, said the parents told her they thought Davis' book was violent and objected to some of the language.

She also said the parents didn't like the book because it depicted a teenager who misbehaved and was not punished.

After a review of the book, which also won the prestigious Newbery Honor, an award that recognizes excellence in young adult literature, the parent committee could not reach a consensus on whether teachers should be allowed to use it.

The group then asked for guidance from Nedra Call, Nebo's curriculum director. Call said her staff then read the book — and decided it was not appropriate for children in elementary and middle schools.

Nielson said district leaders worried that some parents would object to language in the book, which weaves the lives of the fictional Watson family into incidents surrounding the 1963 bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls.

Both district staff and members of the parent committee were mostly concerned about the book's use of "the Lord's name in vain," Nielson said.

Jones, who included the book for the first time in her lesson plans for this year, said she did not consider Davis' use of the words "Lord" and "God" to be profane or excessive. Also, the words were skipped when the class was reading aloud, she said.

Random House, which published Davis' book, recommends the book to teachers in fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Call said the book can still be used by teachers in junior high schools and high schools.

And if parents who have children in middle and elementary schools believe the book's message is important, then the book can be read at home, Nielson said.

"We've also had some people who have said we should show 'Schindler's List' in schools, but we aren't going to do that in Nebo schools," Nielson said.

Jones, who has taught for 12 years, said Davis' novel wasn't the only book to which the parents objected. They also complained about her plans to use "The Devil's Arithmetic" because of the title's satanic inference, she said.

The book by Jane Yolen is about a young woman who is swept back in time to 1942, where she is captured with her Jewish relatives and sent to a Nazi concentration camp.

Jones, who spent $160 of her own money to buy 40 copies of "The Watsons Go To Birmingham 1963" to use in class, donated the books to another school.

"I believe the story was good," she said. "and I didn't want them rotting in my basement."


E-mail: jeffh@desnews.com