Official ponders dropping book ban

Critics urge novel's return to schools

December 09, 2005|By GINA DAVIS | GINA DAVIS,SUN REPORTER

Amid a flurry of protests of censorship from across the country, Carroll County's school superintendent said yesterday that he is struggling with whether to keep a popular book for teens out of the district's libraries or to return it to the bookshelves.

Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said yesterday that he will decide next week the fate of Carolyn Mackler's The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things.

"I'm agonizing over the decision. You always question yourself," Ecker said. "I'm not leaning in any direction. I'm looking at the ins and outs of the consequences" of potential appeals.

The New York-based National Coalition Against Censorship, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, the Association of American Publishers, PEN American Center, the First Amendment Project and the American Booksellers' Foundation for Free Expression all weighed in, urging the book's return to the schools' libraries.

Referring to the book's sexual references and the use of profanity, Ecker ordered it removed from the schools after receiving complaints from some parents.

Students at Winters Mill High in Westminster, who mounted a petition drive to get the book returned, said yesterday they have gathered 220 signatures.

Meanwhile, the National Coalition Against Censorship was joined by four other groups in appealing to Ecker.

"Students have a constitutional right to obtain access to a broad range of materials and ideas, including material that some may find controversial or objectionable," wrote Joan E. Bertin, executive director of the coalition.

"It is hard to imagine that concerns about exposing students to sexual references and certain language (profanity, presumably) would be adequate [to ban the book]; on that basis, you would have to remove at least half the books in the library," Bertin's letter stated. "We urge you to reconsider your decision and uphold the principle that is so essential to education: the right to read, inquire, question, and think for ourselves."

The ACLU registered its opposition to Ecker's decision in a letter yesterday, urging him to restore other banned books.

"The decision to ban these books ... is a clear violation of the First Amendment," said David Rocah, staff attorney for the ACLU of Maryland. "We are greatly heartened by the campaign launched by students to defend their right to read quality fiction, chosen by library professionals for its merit, free from misguided censorship by school administrators."

Liz Bicknell, editorial director and associate publisher of Candlewick Press, the novel's Massachusetts-based children's book publisher, also pressed Ecker.

"The teen girls who write to Carolyn Mackler don't even mention the aspects of the book (occasional strong language or mild sexuality) that have some grownups worked up," Bicknell wrote in an op-ed piece submitted yesterday to The Sun's editorial board.

"In context, those words and scenes provide a realistic, credible backdrop to the central issues of the novel - weight, pressure from family and peers, learning to be yourself," she wrote. The book "connects with readers. Its power lies in its authenticity."

Mackler's award-winning book - recommended for readers 14 years old and older - chronicles the experiences of an overweight 15-year-old girl struggling to fit in at school and with her high-achieving family.

"What saddens me most about The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things being banned from the Carroll County school system is the teens who will miss out," Mackler wrote to Ecker this week through a letter to The Sun.

Mackler said last night that she has been encouraged by students who have defended the book.

The book, a top choice nationally among teen readers, "gives voice to teen girls, especially the ones struggling with self-esteem issues," she said. "It reinforces to them that there's not just one way to be beautiful. You can have a curvy body and you don't have to crash diet to have a happy ending."

Ecker said that if he returns the books to school libraries, he expects an appeal. Likewise, he said, if he maintains the ban, he expects an appeal.

"I'm concerned about having to use county dollars to defend a case before the Board of Education and possibly in the courts," he said.

Ecker - who said he has no plans to read the book in its entirety but has read enough "to get the gist of it" - is weighing three options. He can leave it out of schools altogether, return it to middle and high schools or return it only to high schools.

"If I put it back [on the shelves] and it gets appealed, can I defend keeping it in the schools?" Ecker said. "I don't know if I could defend putting the books back because I would then be in the position of defending the book, and I have to decide if I want to do that."

Ecker has met with a school attorney, staff and parents this week as he has struggled with making a decision.

"The book has a tremendous story and has a lot of good things in there," Ecker said. "But the way things are explained, described and illustrated with words, in my opinion, is inappropriate."

gina.davis@baltsun.com

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