Petition a matter of principle

Three Carroll County students take action to counter a book banning


Crystal Gardner hadn't read The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things when she and two schoolmates launched a petition drive to protest its removal from Carroll County's schools.

For her, it was a matter of principle.

"We were worried about them taking away books," said Gardner, an 11th-grader at Winters Mill High in Westminster. "We thought it was ridiculous."

Gardner and her friends said they felt students' rights were being ignored and they wanted to voice their objections.

They had no idea how much attention their effort would ultimately attract.

Amid protests from such groups as the Los Angeles-based Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Carroll County Superintendent Charles I. Ecker is reconsidering his decision to ban the book and could announce his decision soon.

Ecker said librarians from several schools had appealed to him during Thanksgiving week to reconsider the book ban before he heard about the students' petition. He said he is willing to meet with the students, but they haven't asked for a meeting and neither has he.

Ecker, after hearing complaints from some parents and students, ordered school librarians in mid-October to remove all copies of Carolyn Mackler's book about an overweight 15-year-old girl struggling to fit in at school and with her high-achieving family.

He said he found the book's use of profanity and sexual references inappropriate.

Gardner said she would like to read Mackler's book, a top choice nationally among teenage readers.

The book is available at the county's public libraries and area bookstores. But, she said, "school should be a place of resources. I should be able to get that book at my school library."

When she heard about Ecker's ban, she said, she was incensed. To make sure it wasn't a rumor, she spoke with a member of the school system's reconsideration committee - 12 people who review books that are challenged - and with the school librarian at Winters Mill.

When she realized that the ban was real, she went to a friend, 11th-grader Courtney Linton, "to vent about it," she said. Together, they decided they had to do something.

"Originally, I didn't know what to do," Gardner said. "I was going to go to the next Board of Education meeting and read passages from the Bible. There's violence and other bad stuff in there, too."

Then she, Linton, and another friend, 11th-grader Zac Slone, decided to start a petition. Gardner and Linton wrote it during Thanksgiving week.

"To take away our books is like taking away a chemistry set from a scientist," a portion of the petition reads. "Banning these books is an act that is inconsiderate to the professionals at this school and insulting and degrading to the students who are being pushed to become successful adults, and the gallant authors who bravely tell their experiences."

They have gathered 253 signatures. Gardner said she would like to have 300 to 400 signatures before submitting the petition to Ecker.

"We're hoping that all this attention will make him change his mind," Gardner said.

Linton, who has read Mackler's book, said the story is a realistic depiction of teen life.

The book chronicles the life of 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.

"We see this stuff and hear this stuff every day," Linton said. "It's ridiculous that they want to shelter us from things we're going to encounter anyway."

She said adults need to trust her and other students to read about certain ideas without acting on them.

Mackler said she has been moved by the students' efforts to restore the book.

"The students of Carroll County have made a brave stand, and for that I am tremendously grateful," Mackler said this week.

"The students are not only asking for access to my novel, they're also supporting the notion that young people have both a right and a need to read as widely as possible," she said.

Irene Hildebrandt, Carroll's school system media supervisor, said she has heard from her counterparts in neighboring districts that the students have sparked discussions at other schools about the petition and the book ban.

"Everyone wants to bash the school system, and this is showing that our students are becoming citizens," said Hildebrandt, who also oversees the reconsideration committee.

"We try to teach them to read, to write and have those critical-thinking skills," she said. "Whether you agree or disagree, you sit back with a smile of delight that these students are to this point of development."

Steven Johnson, acting assistant superintendent of instruction, said the students' efforts to change Ecker's mind have been informative.

"The students are getting to talk about issues like censorship and freedom of speech," he said.

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