Don’t panic, Duluth isn’t banning books

Linda Grover

Duluth Public Schools recently made the decision to remove two novels as required reading for high school students: “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (first published in 1884) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee (1960). This does not mean the books will no longer be accessible to students. They will still be available in the school libraries and, of course, at the public libraries, bookstores and online. I have found access to both for free.

Changes in curriculum happen from time to time in K-12 education. Although “To Kill a Mockingbird” was not yet required reading when I was at Denfeld in the 1960s, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” was. (I will confess here that I found the abridged version that my dad brought home for me more fun to read.) This American classic is a wonderful story. The relationship between the resilient, raggy young Huck and the resourceful, intrepid adult Jim certainly provided a powerful background to their journey along the Mississippi. But there have been many fine novels about life in America published since then that deserve a place within high school reading selections.

I do not know how many times I have read “To Kill a Mockingbird” or how many times I have watched the movie. Set in the deep South during the 1930s, Harper Lee’s novel is intricately layered and at the same time clearly organized and beautifully written. “Mockingbird” is one of my favorite books. And yet, like “Huckleberry Finn,” this lovely book does not bring us into contemporary times. As required reading, these books by themselves provide a literary experience that is not as complete or timely as it could and should be.

This was the case when I was in high school. Our English teacher, Mr. Strand, supplemented our required reading of “Huckleberry Finn” with his own collection of paperbacks, which he lined up along the chalkboards and allowed us to borrow and bring back at our own pace. How I enjoyed exploring books recommended by Mr. Strand! We both liked a good story and great writing.

In both “Huckleberry Finn” and “Mockingbird” there are racial terms that are offensive. Harper Lee is more clear about the offensiveness than Mark Twain, probably because her book addresses racism more specifically. Should books be removed from the required reading list for this reason alone? I can’t answer that, but in my view, our required reading list could be freshened with selections that reflect the contemporary world. Might Twain’s work, important though it is in American literature, have become too dated and limited, especially in its portrayals of some characters, to be one of the required books in today’s curriculum?

As a 10-year-old reading Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” (again, an abridged version) I encountered Injun Joe, one of the most important characters in the book, who is described in Cliff’s Notes as “evil in its most drastic form.” Why did the bad guy, the frightening villain of the story have to be Indian, I wondered, hoping for that reason that we would not have to read “Tom Sawyer” in school. I did, however, wish we could read something that included American Indians sometime. How many children today wish something similar?

I am not a believer in banning books. “Huckleberry Finn” and “Mockingbird” are not being banned. They will not be required reading in the ISD 709 curriculum but they will certainly be available to students, along with many other wonderful books. Like life, teaching and learning are beautifully fluid. It will be so interesting to see what replaces them and how the ISD 709 curriculum adapts to the 21st Century, as surely it must have done to the 20th.