District should take advantage of librarians’ experience, expertise

August 12, 2014

Recently, the Cape Henlopen Board of Education voted 6-1 to toss out the summer reading list compiled by the Delaware Library Association.

The action, of course, was the result of a controversy that developed when some parents objected to one of the books on the list, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” a book that included profanity and gay themes.

Board members said that it was the language and not the gay themes, a claim that looked weaker when it was shown other books on the list also contained profanity.

The claim looks weaker still when you consider that one of the district’s suggested summer readings is “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” a bestselling potboiler whose plot turns on serial killings and extreme sexual violence. (The district’s website does note the book’s violence and “mature subject matter.”)

So “Dragon Tattoo” is OK, but not “Cameron Post?” Are you sure the book’s gay theme wasn’t a factor?

But my main point is not to rehash that aspect of the controversy or criticize board members for their vote eliminating the whole list compiled by state librarians. It’s clear why they did it. Dispensing with the entire list was the easiest way to get out of a mess.

As one board member was quoted, “This is the only way we could make each side somewhat happy.”

Here’s what’s unfortunate about the matter. Formerly, Cape students were to read books during summer vacation picked from the list developed by the Delaware Library Association. Honor students were to read two books from the list; college prep students, one. Students were not required to read any one book from the list, including “Cameron Post.”

The list is compiled by a committee of librarians who read and then select what they consider the best of recent literature written for young people.

Perhaps I’m going out on a limb here, but it is my belief that librarians don’t choose their career out of a desire to destroy the minds and corrupt the values of our nation’s youth.

They become librarians because of a deep, passionate interest in reading and education, a desire to help students develop into intelligent adults who think for themselves.

So what does the action of the school board tell our children? That it values reading? Hardly.

The current policy is: Read a book. Any book. It could be anything from a graphic novel to the latest bodice-ripper romance.

As it happens, Cape’s suggested reading list includes a whole section of graphic novels and even a book of knock-knock jokes. There are so many vampire books you’d think Cape had three educational paths: honors, college prep and vampire prep.

Which I understand. It’s hard enough to get kids to put down their smartphones and Xboxes and read any book. The district deserves a lot of credit for trying so hard to encourage kids to read during the summer.

Students are required to not only read a book, but also to find a connection to a news event and write a “reader response” that is properly cited and completed by the due date. The summer reading assignment accounts for 10 percent of the student’s grade for the first marking period.

As a Cape student in the ‘70s, I don’t recall having to read anything.

By abandoning the librarians’ list, the board is missing an opportunity to challenge the district’s best students. It’s as if the district is saying it’s not in the business of teaching children the difference between pedestrian and superior literature.

Which to me is a way of saying it’s not in the business of teaching students to think. Students don’t get to pick what books they read for English lit classes during the school year. Shouldn’t the district at least provide some guidance for the students’ summer assignments?

Yes, the district could form a committee to make up its own list. But this would take time and I doubt the committee would do as good and thorough a job as the state librarians. Books are their business. That is what they do.

They are much more aware of what’s available, what’s good, and what’s likely to appeal to young people.

Sure, there will be parents who object to some of the books chosen by the librarians. For these people, the district should provide a disclaimer: “The Delaware Library Association strives to provide students with the best in contemporary literature for young people. Some books on the list may contain language and themes meant for mature readers. We recommend that parents review the books chosen by their children to make sure they are suitable.”

The state librarians are a valuable resource. Let’s take advantage of their experience and expertise.

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