Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett is asking principals to disregard an earlier order to pull the graphic novel "Persepolis" out of schools by the end of Friday, but she asked that schools stop teaching the book to seventh-graders.
In a letter sent to principals Friday, Byrd-Bennett said the book, which is included in the district's curriculum for seventh-graders, may not be appropriate for that age group. The district released images from the book, including a page that depicted a man being whipped, burned with an iron and urinated on. The book is an autobiographical account of author Marjane Satrapi's childhood in Iran.
"It was brought to our attention that it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh grade curriculum. If your seventh grade teachers have not yet taught this book, please ask them not to do so and to remove any copies of the book from their classrooms," Byrd-Bennett wrote.
She wrote that the district has determined that the book may be appropriate for junior and senior students. However, "due to the powerful images of torture in the book, I have asked our Office of Teaching & Learning to develop professional development guidelines, so that teachers can be trained to present this strong but important content. We are also considering whether the book should be included, after appropriate teacher training, in the curriculum of eighth through tenth grades."
She specifically directed that the book not be removed from school libraries.
Byrd-Bennett's instructions came after protests from teachers and high school students at Lane Tech High School.
Teachers reported Thursday that they received an email stating that district staff members were to physically go to each school and remove the book by Friday, including from the library.
Kristine Mayle, financial secretary with the Chicago Teachers Union, said she started hearing concern about the removal Thursday night.
"We've heard of two schools, but I assume it's systemwide," she said earlier Friday. "I'm shocked that the book would be banned. The only other place I've seen it banned is in Iran. I thought we were a democracy."
Mayle said she was alarmed by CPS' action. "I'm not sure what the process would be (to remove a book), but I'd hope they would engage educators in the process. I read the book. It's about a little girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution. She starts questioning and thinking. ... It's beautifully written. I think it's a great book for young girls, it teaches you to think for yourself.
"I'm just baffled by this, really."
A spokeswoman for the district said district staff sent an email directing the books to be removed after teachers in the Austin-North Lawndale area raised concerns about the book. But she said the directive was not vetted, and didn't reflect the district's intent to simply stop seventh-graders from reading the book.
"The message got lost in translation, but the bottom line is, we never sent out a directive to ban the book. We want to make sure there's an appropriate way to teach it to students given the graphic nature of the novel," said spokeswoman Becky Carroll.
"We're not saying remove these from buildings altogether," she said.
A student from Lane Tech reached out to Satrapi's literary agent to let her know the book was being removed.
In a phone interview Friday morning, Satrapi, who lives in Paris, said she didn't believe it. It seemed at odds with her image of Chicago. Then emails began pouring in from librarians and other teachers.
"It's shameful," she said. "I cannot believe something like this can happen in the United States of America."
Regarding the district's concerns about the depiction of torture, Satrapi said:
"These are not photos of torture. It's a drawing and it's one frame. I don't think American kids of seventh grade have not seen any signs of violence. Seventh-graders have brains, and they see all kinds of things on cinema and the Internet. It's a black-and-white drawing, and I'm not showing something extremely horrible. That's a false argument. They have to give a better explanation."
Satrapi said her goal in writing the book was to make average Iranians seem more human for the rest of the world, rather than be seen as "the axis of evil."
She said she has heard from 11- and 12-year-olds who have read her book.
"They've told me, 'You're a human being just like us.' My goal was to make peace."
The American Library Association, which tracks attempts to remove books from schools and libraries, said it had received no reports about "Persepolis" being challenged or scrutinized for possible banning.
The most recent reports it had of book challenges in Chicago Public Schools are "Brokeback Mountain" and "The Chocolate War," both challenged in 2007, officials said.
(Mick Swasko contributed to this report.)
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