An award-winning book about an overweight girl who doesn't fit in at school or with her family apparently doesn't fit in at Carroll County school libraries: The district's superintendent ordered the novel stripped from the shelves.
Students at Winters Mill High in Westminster have begun a petition drive to get the book, The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, returned to the libraries.
Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he found the language and sexual references in Carolyn Mackler's book, a top choice nationally among teenage readers, inapproriate.
The New York-based author said yesterday that she knows of one other instance of the book being banned. On Monday, a Brooklyn, N.Y., principal removed the book after objecting to its romantic scenes, she said.
"I write realistic novels for teenagers, and I do my best to portray their realities by being true to the characters and narratives," Mackler said. "I can't write a realistic teen novel without including a character who is contemplating or acting upon their sexuality."
Mackler said she wrote the book to help teenagers - who she said are struggling to "make sense of their changing world" - and that the profanity and sexual references are instruments that help readers see themselves in her stories.
"It's a much bigger story. ... It's about the very basic issue of self-esteem," she said. "As an adult writing for young people, I am aware of my responsibility. I don't just throw in sexuality casually or irresponsibly."
After complaints of censorship from students and librarians, Ecker is reconsidering his decision, but he said he is leaning toward keeping the book off school shelves.
"I didn't think it was the type of thing middle school or high school students should be reading. If a student would use that language in school or wrote it in a paper, he would be disciplined or probably suspended," Ecker said. "I don't think those types of books should be available in a public school."
Students who began the petition drive said their freedoms and rights are being infringed upon.
"We're going to be adults soon, and we're mature enough to read that book," said Crystal Gardner, an 11th-grader at Winters Mill High School who spearheaded the drive with two schoolmates. "I feel like we're not getting a say [about what to read], and we should have a say. If they're going to ban a book about an overweight girl, what's next?"
The book chronicles the life of an overweight teenage girl, Virginia Shreves, whose father is rarely around and whose mother is an adolescent psychologist obsessed with her daughter's weight. The book explores teen romance, self-mutilation, date rape and eating disorders.
"Mackler writes with such insight and humor (sometimes using strong language to make her point) that many readers will immediately identify with Virginia's longings as well as her fear and loathing," the American Library Assocation wrote in its review of the book.
The book, published in 2003, was named the 2004 Michael L. Printz Honor Book by the Young Adult Library Services Association, the American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and the International Reading Association's 2005 Young Adults' Choice, among other accolades.
Ramona Kerby, an education professor at McDaniel College who teaches a course on literature for children -including selection criteria - said she is alarmed by the school system's decision to remove Mackler's book.
"For one, it's not sending a good message. It's saying that we don't honor a diverse opinion, an opinion different from ours or freedom of expression," she said.
Banning it also invites more interest in the book than educators might want.
"In a way, it's also saying that we don't trust the students" to read about ideas without acting upon them, Kerby said. "As a teacher, you want [students] to feel we respect all points of view."
The parents who complained about the book said it was not appropriate for middle school pupils, said Irene Hildebrandt, the school system's media supervisor.
"That's always the tough part, because you have very young sixth-grade students and very mature eighth-grade students," Hildebrandt said. "So when you build a book collection, you're going to have this discussion, especially at the middle school level.
In response to the parents' concerns, the school system's reconsideration committee - a group of 12 students, parents, administrators, media specialists and a teacher - met to discuss the parents' appeal.
After reading the book and discussing it, the committee decided in October that the book should continue to be available at middle and high schools, said Hildebrandt, who oversees the reconsideration committee but does not vote.
Parents were unhappy with the committee's decision and appealed to Ecker, Hildebrandt said.
After skimming passages of the book, Ecker ordered it removed from all of the county's school libraries in mid-October.