Friday, October 6, 2023

Banned Books Week 2023 - Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits

As promised, I'm sharing the banned/challenged books we are reading this year for the 1000 Books Project at Gather Together and Read. Today the focus is on why Isabel Allende's The House of the Spirits has been banned or challenged.

House of the Spirits weaves intricate themes of family systems, gender roles, political extremism, and social inequality under the guise of absurdity. However, the intentional subversion and obscurity of historical events, reminiscent of many other magical realism novels, creates a certain discomfort and distrust that has likely set the stage for several challenges and contentions in schools.

Though the novel has never been officially banned, it has faced several challenges in schools since the time of its publication in 1982, often being characterized as “pornagraphic”, “immoral” and “defaming the Catholic faith”. The most recent, and perhaps most significant, challenge came about in 2013 when several parents at a North Carolina high school raised formal complaints to the school board regarding the book being a part of the English curriculum. The book was retained after three appeals and a defense letter from Isabel Allende herself. In the letter, the author writes:

“I find myself in the unusual and awkward position of having to “defend” my novel The House of the Spirits that risks being banned from a high school in Boone, North Carolina. Banning of books is a common practice in police states, like Cuba or North Korea, and by religious fundamentalist groups like the Taliban, but I did not expect it in our democracy…”Isabelle Allende

The novel has won several awards worldwide, including Best Novel of the Year (Chile, 1983), Author of the Year and Book of the Year (Germany, 1984), Grand Prix D’Evasion (France, 1984), Best Novel (Mexico, 1985), Point de Mire (Belgium, 1985), XV Premio Internazionale I Migliori Dell”Anno (Italy, 1987), Best Foreign Novel (Portugal, 1987), Books to Remember Award, American Library Association (USA, 1996), and The New York Public Library (2000).

Source: The Banned Books Project @Carnegie Mellon University

Community Divided Over The House of the Spirits as Final Banning Decision Draws Near
February 13, 2014

Back in November, CBLDF co-signed a letter defending Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits after an outraged parent filed complains against the book being taught in her son’s honors English class. After months of review, the Watauga county school board held a meeting Monday evening to debate the future of the book in the North Carolina high school.

The controversy began when Chastity Lesesne objected to the book being part of the curriculum based on what she called “pornographic” depictions of sexual situations. The House of the Spirits follows Allende and her family through the Chilean Revolution of the 1970s and does depict sex, violence, and rape as part of the story, but the book is used extensively in high school classrooms around the country. It was reviewed and recommended for the grade level by the North Carolina Department of Instruction, and any student who preferred not to read the material was allowed to complete an alternate assignment. In spite of a scant number of students ever objecting to the material, Lesesne chose to raise formal complaints and, after two votes to retain the book (both of which were unanimous), continued to fight back through the appeals process. Monday’s hearing was the result of her final appeal, which was made in December.

The Winston-Salem Journal provided an overview of the meeting, which was open to the public and included a prepared statement by Franklin Graham, son of Reverend Billy Graham, who obviously was unaware that alternate reading selections were available.

“As a parent and grandparent, I’m very concerned about what our children are asked to read and, in some cases, forced to read,” he said.

Fortunately, supporters of Mary Kent Whitaker, the teacher involved in the controversy, also spoke on behalf of keeping the book in the curriculum.

“Obviously I have a professional stake in books being banned, but I was really surprised,” said Fischer, an associate professor of English at Appalachian State University whose son was in Whitaker’s class last year. “I have taught in Mary Kent Whitaker’s class and she seems to be to be fair and intellectually honest with the kids. This is for an honors class, and that’s supposed to prepare you to think on your own and for college.”

Parents weren’t the only ones to send a message of support for free speech — the afternoon before the hearing, students as well as parents showed up in Whitaker’s classroom to deliver gifts and messages of encouragement. Whitaker commented:

“Students were in my room talking about the book and the idea of banning books from the curriculum. It was a mature and sophisticated and compassionate discussion.”

Source: CBLDF

Outcome of the above case:
Challenged in the Watauga County (NC) High School curriculum because of the book’s graphic nature. After a five-month process, the book was fully retained at a third and final appeal hearing.

Source: Marshall Libraries @Marshall University

A publicly documented case of a censorship attempt...

Urbandale, Iowa: Urbandale Community School District

In July 2023, the Des Moines Register obtained a list of 374 books that the district had flagged for removal without knowing if the district even owned the books. The justification for the list was to comply with a state law (SF 496) that went into effect in July and set to begin imposing penalties in January 2024. The law is focused on defining what books are deemed age-appropriate in Iowa schools with a focus on topics addressing sex, sex education, sexual orientation and gender identity. A school district spokesperson stated the district was “to provide guidance to K-12 teachers about books that might violate the state law.” In response to protests, the list was revised to 65 books. Among the books removed from school libraries were The Kite Runner, The Handmaid's Tale, Brave New World, Beloved, The Color Purple, Native Son, Gender Queer, All Boys Aren't Blue, and The Hate U Give.

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