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Novel too sexual for high school seniors, Coeur d’Alene school committee says

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 3, 2015

A novel that chronicles the difficult transition to American culture by a family from India contains descriptions of sexual conduct that are too explicit for high school seniors, a Coeur d’Alene School District book review committee says.

The district’s Ad Hoc Committee for Literature, which includes parents and other residents, declined to recommend adoption of “The Namesake,” a 2004 novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, an Indian-Bengali American author who has won the Pulitzer Prize and in September was awarded the National Medal of Arts and Humanities at a White House ceremony.

A high school English teacher sought to add the book to the district’s approved titles for whole-class instruction. But the review committee voted 4-2 against adopting the novel. The School Board will vote on whether to accept or overrule that recommendation after a 30-day public comment period.

Chuck Wilkes, a lawyer and pastor of True North Church in Hayden, told the School Board on Monday night that “The Namesake” is “a very interesting book” about an immigrant family from Calcutta assimilating in Massachusetts.

“The committee uniformly liked the general theme and the thrust of the book,” Wilkes said. “The concerns that were raised, however, had to do with some of the language used to track the journey of the son of this family.”

The story contains vivid and explicit explanations of the young man’s voyage through several failed relationships, he said.

“The members of the committee expressed reservations about the explicit language used to describe these relationships and the sexual conduct that he engaged in,” Wilkes said. “It wasn’t gratuitous; no one asserted that. It’s not pornographic. It fit the story just fine. The issue is whether the story fit the kids just fine. That’s what we’re focused on.”

Lake City High School teacher Kirsten Pomerantz submitted “The Namesake” for 12th grade English students, citing a need for current works from American authors. The novel is about the conflict between opposing cultures, religious beliefs and ideologies in the context of immigration to America, Pomerantz outlined in her proposal.

She said Tuesday she understands committee members’ reservations about the novel and wonders if it would be better for small-group discussion. “That would still allow for careful instruction with certain student groups and would give the range of 12th-grade teachers some flexibility if they would like to teach it,” Pomerantz said.

The committee only makes recommendations on books for classwide instruction, and teachers may use other titles for small-group discussion, with the approval of their principals. Wilkes did note Monday that “a good teacher might and probably could really make (“The Namesake”) work in the small group.”

Last spring a similar book review committee in the district tried to move John Steinbeck’s 1937 novella “Of Mice and Men” to small-group discussion rather than keep it for whole-class instruction for ninth-grade English students. That triggered an outcry of criticism, and in early June the School Board voted 4-1 to reject the committee’s recommendation and leave “Of Mice and Men” in place.

Community volunteers are reviewing 88 book titles for Coeur d’Alene schools, with more than half of those new additions to the classroom. They include classics such as “Catcher in the Rye” and “Lord of the Flies,” and newer works like “The Kite Runner,” “Life of Pi” and “The Hunger Games.”

The ad hoc committee Monday had no hesitation supporting “The Giver,” Lois Lowry’s dystopian novel from 1993 that ranks high on the list of books targeted for removal from American schools, due to its violence. The group voted 8-0 to recommend “The Giver” for seventh-graders to read.

The school board on Monday voted to approve seven other titles, including “The Outsiders,” “The Great Fire” and “Tuesdays with Morrie.”

The school district office has a few copies of each title under review for anyone who wants to read one.

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