The superintendent of Carroll County schools, whose ban of an award-winning book from the system's libraries prompted a protest from students and an outcry from several national groups, said yesterday that he would return the book to high school libraries, but not middle schools.
Nearly three months after banning The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things, Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said he still objects to the book's use of profanity and its sexual references, but he decided that high school students are mature enough to read it.
He said he had considered several factors in his decision, including numerous e-mails and letters from supporters and opponents of the ban, as well as the publisher's recommendation of the book for students 14 and older.
"One thing I hope to come out of this is that parents will be concerned or inquire about what their children are reading," Ecker said. "A lot of people may assume that if [a book] comes from the school library, there's nothing bad in it. Whether [their children] get it at school, the public library, or buy it at a bookstore, parents ought to be more involved in what their children are reading."
The book's New York-based author, Carolyn Mackler - who defends her book's use of profanity and sexual references as instruments that help teen readers see themselves in her stories - said last night that she was "thrilled to hear" of Ecker's decision.
"I applaud the superintendent for being open-minded and listening to the arguments on both sides," she said. "He made a brave and intelligent decision. However, I'm disappointed that the superintendent has chosen to ban The Earth, My Butt and Other Big Round Things from middle school libraries. Based on the many letters I've received from 12- and 13-year-old girls who have told me [the book] has helped them feel better about themselves and their bodies, I believe this readership also needs access to honest books that encourage empowerment and healthy self-esteem."
High school students and librarians said they were pleased with Ecker's decision, agreeing that the book's language could be unsuitable for middle-schoolers.
"That's awesome," said Crystal Gardner, who spearheaded a petition drive in November at Winters Mill High in Westminster to protest Ecker's ban. "I see his point with not wanting middle school students to read it. But I thought it was irrational to take it away from high schools."
Gardner, who with two classmates collected nearly 350 signatures, said she had not submitted the petition to Ecker but felt their efforts had made a difference.
"We kind of accomplished what we wanted," she said.
Anna Harvey, a junior at Westminster High, said that while she understands Ecker's concern that middle-schoolers might not be mature enough for the book, it "has a good message" for high school students.
"It was probably the best decision," said Harvey, who read the 244-page book in two days last year.
Harvey's mother, Keri Harvey, said she hadn't read Mackler's book, but she trusts her daughter's judgment.
"She's on the National Honor Society and she's mature far beyond her years, so I trust her," Keri Harvey said. "She said she felt the book spoke to what she and a lot of teens are feeling and going through."
Irene Hildebrandt, the school system's media supervisor, "wholeheartedly" supports Ecker's decision.
"The real thing is that he gave thoughtful consideration," she said. "He took in all the input."
Mackler's book chronicles the experiences of Virginia Shreves, an overweight 15-year-old girl struggling to fit in at school and with her high-achieving family. The book explores teen romance, self-mutilation, date rape and eating disorders.
While Bonnie Kreamer, a librarian at Winters Mill High, said she was "ecstatic" about Ecker's decision, she is alarmed about another banned book.
"I think people have forgotten that there were two books banned [this school year] from our shelves," she said. "I'm still concerned that there has been no decision on [Born Too Short: The Confessions of an Eighth Grade Basket Case by Dan Elish]."
Kreamer said Born Too Short tells a story similar to Mackler's, but from a boy's perspective.
"It's a teen book about a boy's growing pains," she said. "I'm extremely glad [about Mackler's book]. But I'm one who prefers that books not be banned at all."
David Rocah, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said the organization is "heartened [Ecker] reconsidered his decision about this book," but he and others remain concerned about other banned books in Carroll.
"In our letter [to Ecker], we pointed out four other books that have been banned," Rocah said. "That's what's disturbing. There seems to be a pattern here of pulling books off the shelves."
Rocah was referring to Born Too Short, Leaving Disneyland by Alexander Parsons, Beet Fields by Gary Paulsen, and Whistle Me Home by Barbara Wersba, which have been completely or partially banned in the past three years.
After hearing complaints from a student and a parent, Ecker ordered school librarians in mid-October to remove Mackler's book.
Soon after the superintendent's action, school librarians met with Ecker, who agreed to reconsider the book
Ecker said he believes that the story has a valuable lesson for parents and students.
"I wish I could require parents to read it with their kids because the book relates to families and how individuals feel about themselves," he said. "As I've said all along, the book does have a good message. But I also think the use of vulgar words and statements that are sexual in nature could've been left out."