Parent to appeal WHS book decision
by Kellen Short
Chastity Lesesne of Boone raised concerns earlier this month about "The House of the Spirits," a 1982 novel taught as part of Mary Kent Whitaker's honors English 205 class.
The book, a fictional work by Isabel Allende that draws from personal and Chilean history, tells the story of three generations of the Trueba family and their interactions with family, politics and tragedy.
Lesesne described the book as "graphic," "immoral" and "pornographic" due to its frequent descriptions of sex, rape, violence and death.
"It is too graphic to escape from. It is too consistent," she said Wednesday. "It's not a few cuss words here and there. It's not a reference to a sexual act. It's not even one sexual encounter. It is continuously throughout the book and graphically painted."
Lesesne clarified Wednesday that she felt everyone should have the choice to read the book -- it shouldn't be banned -- but that it should not be required reading for students.
Following her Oct. 14 challenge based on those concerns, a committee met Friday and voted unanimously to uphold the use of the book.
She now has 15 days to appeal to a Review Committee, a group of specific members appointed by the Board of Education. Lesesne said Wednesday she plans to make this appeal.
If a complainant is still dissatisfied with the Review Committee's decision, the Board of Education can serve as a final level of appeal, according to school system policy.
While they refrained from sharing their thoughts while the school-level appeal was ongoing, Whitaker and English Department Chairwoman Kelly Stollings talked in an interview Thursday about the literary value of "The House of the Spirits."
Whitaker said the book was selected in spring 2012 by a committee seeking a text by a renowned Latin American author that would fit within the curriculum's study of world literature.
She said they also sought a book recognized by the international community as one with literary merit and one that would challenge students, as the sophomore honors English students are on track to take college-level Advanced Placement classes next school year.
Allende's work also was chosen for its high Lexile score, a rating system that defines how challenging a book is based on its word choice and sentence structure, she said. The book is also a recommended reading for 10th graders in the state's Common Core curriculum.
Whitaker said she used the book last year as well and found it valuable not only to teach theme and character development but also about the political, social and artistic context.
She said reflections written by former students offered high praise for the book and what it taught.
"In terms of the works I've taught, this one has produced more growth in reading and critical thinking skills," Whitaker said. "They come away from the month unit just feeling like they have learned so much and pushed themselves."
Stollings said the English department as a whole doesn't allow students to repeat foul language in classes and does not glorify or focus on titillating examples from their books.
"To find another book of that Lexile that we're looking for to challenge those honors kids -- very few to choose from, and all fairly comparable in their treatment," Stollings said. "I understand that the book deals with adult themes, but they all do."
The class does offer Herman Melville's "Moby Dick" as an alternate, and Whitaker said five students out of about 70 have asked to read that book instead.
Students who read the alternate book typically remain in the class during portions unrelated to the book, then go to the hallway or library during discussions of the novel, she said. They also are expected to contribute to an online blog discussion page about the book, which Whitaker said she monitors and responds to afterward.
Whitaker said she provides a reading schedule for those students to follow, and they are given similar assignments, quizzes and tests. She called the setup "as equitable as it can be."
But Lesesne said the system is inherently unfair to those who choose the alternate, adding that it feels like a punishment and students cannot benefit as well without the in-depth classroom discussions.
"There are plenty of other books that we can choose from that don't have this kind of content and can do the job of this book," she said.
While the appeal process continues, Whitaker has been instructed not to begin teaching the book and has instead skipped ahead to teach "Cry, the Beloved Country."
The schools policy, last updated in 2006, states that "resources will remain in the circulating collection until the appeal procedure is completed."
But it does not address how the school should proceed if the book is part of classroom education, rather than simply a library item. ("The House of the Spirits" is not in the Watauga High School library, Whitaker said.)
The challenge is relatively uncharted territory for Watauga High School. Stollings said it's not unusual for a few students to choose alternate options in any given year but that, to her knowledge, a book challenge has never before progressed this far.