When Henrico County library and school officials scheduled a talk by author Julia Alvarez at Deep Run High School, they figured many students there would read one of her most popular works.
"How the García Girls Lost Their Accents" was on the required summer reading lists for 11th-grade honors English at several county schools. It also was on the recommended reading lists for all county high school students.
But some parents read the book, too, and complained to the School
Board. As a result, the book was removed from required-reading lists.
Alvarez will speak Oct. 7 at Deep Run as part of the county's All Henrico Reads program. The program encourages residents to read and discuss works by one author.
"The whole idea of this presentation is to get folks to talk," said Gerald McKenna, director of the Henrico County Public Library.
This is the second year of the All Henrico Reads joint program between the schools and the library. This year's theme is Linking Libraries, Communities and Cultures. Last year's was Lost in Time.
This is not the first time Alvarez's books have been scrutinized by school systems. Several have been banned elsewhere. Alvarez, a teacher, said she sees books as a way teenagers can explore situations in a nonthreatening way.
"Teenagers face amazing challenges in the world today," she said in a phone interview. "They can see how characters confront these experiences.
"I hope this ruckus becomes the basis for conversations in the classroom about how literature can be an enlightening thing for young people."
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"How the García Girls Lost Their Accents" tells the story of four sisters who fled the Dominican Republic and their adjustment to life in the United States. Published in 1991, it was selected by the American Library Association as a most notable book. Henrico libraries classify it as an adult book.
It includes sultry language and occasionally graphic descriptions of sexual situations.
Susan Jones, a child psychiatrist and Deep Run parent, wanted to be able to discuss it with her son but said, "when I read it, I was shocked." She said she objected to its profanity and sexual situations.
"This gives children a mixed message," Jones said. "It's hard to sort out the shades of gray. Teenagers need clear messages."
Jones, whose son was offered an alternate book after she complained, found an ally in School Board member Lisa Marshall.
Marshall said language in some of the book's passages would violate the county's Code of Student Conduct. Were a student to send another student some excerpts, it would violate the policy on sexual harassment, she said.
"I was shocked and distressed regarding the content of this book on so many different levels," Marshall said in an e-mail to the board.
Jean Murray, assistant superintendent of instruction for the Henrico schools, said the choice didn't raise any red flags. "The author herself is highly recognized" and has written books for age groups from preschoolers to adults, she said.
While not unprecedented, it is rare for parents to question a school's choice of required and recommended reading materials, Murray said.
"Parents who complain don't understand how grown up and mature we are," said Michael Friend, an 11th-grade honors English student at Douglas Freeman High School. "Censoring this work doesn't do anything but expose the denial that the parents are in."
Friend said he wasn't offended by the book, nor had he heard of any classmates who were.
The work, he said, was appropriate for the theme of the quest for the American dream. "I think it was a good selection. It talks about pride and compromise in adjustment to a new culture," he said.
There have been no complaints about the book being removed from required-reading lists, a school spokesman said. He added that many parents probably don't know that the change has taken place.
. . .
Murray noted that the selection of "How the García Girls Lost Their Accents" has not been challenged formally in Henrico. It may remain on the shelves at school libraries.
But after hearing parents' concerns, Murray and Superintendent Fred Morton IV met and made several changes, including reclassifying the book as an adult title, encouraging students to read Alvarez's teen titles, and removing the banner at the bottom of an online reading list that encouraged students to read the book.
"How the García Girls Lost Their Accents" will not appear on future required-reading lists, Murray said.
And wording will be included on reading assignments, required and recommended, to notify parents that some titles may include mature or sensitive material.
Alvarez's appearance is not funded by school dollars. She waived her normal fee, and much of the cost of her appearance is being paid by the nonprofit Friends of the Library, McKenna said.
McKenna said there were no plans to include "How the García Girls Lost Their Accents" in the county's observation of Banned Book Week, which started Saturday.
Contact Lisa Crutchfield at (804) 649-6362 or firstname.lastname@example.org.