by Mychal R. Ludwig, Head Editor, INALJ New Mexico
previously published 10/24/13
The North Remembers: A Recent Example of Book Censorship in New Mexico
The recitation of phrases such as “the North remembers” or similarly, “the North never forgets” by the North-men in George R. R. Martin’s fictional realm of Westeros, while originating as a direct reference to their bitterness over the recent wrongs done to House Stark, take on the more historiographical function of prompting current and future generations to carefully recall and then assert their past in order to circumvent similarly unfavorable situations.
In addition to simply providing me a reason for including New Mexico’s very own George R. R. Martin in this discussion, the severely resilient memory of those hardy Westerosi North-men provides a direct segue into a discussion concerning an ongoing example of book challenging, and mayhap, banning, and in Alamogordo, New Mexico, regarding author Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere.
Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere
So first and foremost, what’s the story with the banning/removal of Neil Gaiman’s wonderful novel, Neverwhere, which the author himself is following closely on Twitter?
According to local news-sources, Nancy Wilmott, the mom of a local Alamogordo, NM high school sophomore was, and presumably still is, shocked over what she claims is the novel’s sexual content and adult language. Upset over her daughter being “forced” to read this work, on the required reading list since 2004, Wilmott contacted the school administration to impart her opinion, which has led, on top of several other complaints concerning the novel, as of Thursday, October 10th, to the temporary removal of Neverwhere from the school’s required reading list, and book shelves. The school district is in the process of creating a panel to review the book’s content.
Several issues surrounding these events remain unclear and concerning, not from a censorship or first amendment standpoint, but from a school curriculum management and protocol perspective.
Firstly, the school Superintendent, Dr. George Straface, states that there is currently a process used where parents are informed of potentially undesirable book content through a letter sent home with students. Our concerned parent, Nancy Wilmott, claims to not have received a letter until the students had read a considerable amount of the book. The AHS principal even sent an email on Thursday afternoon of October 10, reminding teachers to send these letters home with students. This all seems to suggest that the use of a potentially controversial or challenging work hasn’t been seen as a problem in and of itself, or why else would the school knowingly use such content and ask for permission from parents? Clearly they thought the content had merit regarding their students’ educations. On top of this, why aren’t all teachers consistently sending out the notary letters to parents? This should be more about effective communication with parents than banning individual books.
Secondly, Straface seems to blame the inclusion of the book on the schools reading list on his not being superintendent at the time of its adoption, as well as a reliance on their textbook’s suggested list. The district should have a methodology for selecting and reaffirming curriculum for students, which meet state standards for content and usefulness. Simply redirecting the blame of parents, who might be rightly upset at school notification procedures, misses the point entirely.
Finally, at least for this blog, the parent never included her daughter’s English teacher in the complaint process, instead going straight for the administration. The teacher, after hearing about the complaint, then assigned the student an alternative book. This again brings up several issues with the schools’ process for handling these situations. Why doesn’t the school have parents contact teachers first? Is there are procedure for regularly assigning alternative texts to students whose parents object to originally assigned book?
Sorting through all of my above thoughts, the situation becomes very clear: the district’s processes for dealing with the assigning and reassigning of books, as well as their protocols for communicating with concerned parents is either poorly enforced or severely inadequate. The district needs to review or create a process for reviewing or confirming materials on their required reading list, which needs to include alternatives to potentially controversial materials. In addition, the use of notifications letters to parents needs to be clear and certain. In the case of a parent complaining despite these measures, there needs to be a protocol for allowing the parents to contact the teachers of their students, and if the issues hasn’t been resolved, a clear process for administrative review. In short, the district needs to get its act together, and stop focusing on the content of the book, that’s certainly an issue here, but it’s basically going after a symptom, not the cause.
As referenced at the start, the memory of an event, as an individual occurrence isn’t as important as the historical truth that occurrence represents. Whatever may happen in the current situation with Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere in Alamogordo, I plead with all of you reading; when you next encounter a similar situation involving a book challenge, please remember what’s occurred in the past, for good or ill, and mayhap you’ll be able to either avoid or strive for a similar outcome.
Some resources concerning book censorship and intellectual freedom: