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Ban book from class, panel says

Wartime memoir called too explicit for 6th grade

The Dover-Sherborn Regional School Committee is grappling with whether to ban an award-winning book from sixth-grade classes after complaints from some parents that the book is racist and sexually explicit.

A review committee that included the middle school librarian and two English teachers unanimously voted to recommend removing "So Far from the Bamboo Grove" from the curriculum after 13 parents complained. Superintendent of Schools Perry Davis backed the recommendation.

The School Committee has the final say. Members took no action after a hearing on the proposed book ban last week , instead referring the matter to a subcommittee for review.

The book, by Massachusetts author Yoko Kawashima Watkins, is the story of an 11-year-old Japanese girl whose family has to flee Korea in the aftermath of World War II. The journey is fraught with danger and persecution because of the Koreans' animosity toward the Japanese, who had occupied their country for more than three decades. The book is based on the real-life experiences of Watkins, whose father was a Japanese government official.

Dover-Sherborn middle school students have read the book as part of a unit on stories of survival and have me t with the author. The book is used by numerous other school districts in the state.

During a School Committee meeting last week, several parents and teachers defended the book as well as the two-day annual visit made by the author, who is an anti war activist, to talk about it.

Karen Masterson told the committee that her children read the book in school years ago and that they recall it as "one of their best educational experiences." She said it "ignited a love of reading " in her daughter.

Her voice shaking with emotion, she added, "A single book is not supposed to be all things."

Scott Walker, who has been teaching sixth-grade English for five years, told the School Committee that both the book -- which he said has been taught "effectively and tastefully" for 13 years -- and the author are prized by students.

"She is a gift our youngsters hold onto far beyond their time in our classroom," he said, adding that older students come back to the middle school to see her during her visits.

Frederick Randall, the middle school headmaster who was also on the book review committee, said the panel had struggled with its recommendation.

"I won't represent it as being an easy process on any of us," he said. "As a committee, we did the best we could with it, to remain objective."

But he said there simply wasn't enough time in school to explore the issues raised by the book.

Thousands of Koreans were killed or wounded and others were drafted to fight for Japan or perform forced labor during the occupation, which lasted from 1910 to 1945.

Henry Jaung, the father of a sixth-grader, told the committee that he didn't think rape and other war atrocities were appropriate subject matter for such young children.

"In my humble opinion, sixth-graders aren't equipped," he said.

He also said he didn't understand why the school district sought parental permission before teaching a class on personal hygiene to fifth-graders but had offered no similar input for issues of rape and the complexities of war .

In one scene in the book noted by Jaung, the sister of the main character says: "We must get out of Seoul. I saw several Korean men dragging girls to the thicket and I saw one man raping a young girl. . . . The girls were screaming for help in Japanese."

Reached by phone after the meeting, Jaung said the book gives a distorted view of what happened, all the more troubling because it will be the students' first exposure to Asian history.

"You'll notice throughout the book these acts are committed by Korean men -- it is a pretty disturbing connotation of a group of people," he said. "The first impression you imprint in a child's mind is typically very hard to erase."

Agnes Ahn, the other parent who spoke at the meeting, said her Korean-American son was made fun of at school because of the book and got the cold shoulder from a teacher because of the controversy over it.

"What if your favorite teacher no longer says hi to you?" she asked the committee.

Sam Yoon, a member of the Boston City Council and a leader in the state's Korean-American community, was contacted by the parents who are concerned about the book.

He said the book is one-sided, representing Koreans as the wrongdoers when it was the Japanese who occupied Korea.

"For me, the issue is about a child's self-image with respect to their ethnicity," Yoon said. "This book doesn't put that story in that context. It's confusing. . . . One ethnic minority is portrayed as . . . the bad guys."

Watkins, the author, was traveling last week and couldn't be reached for comment.

Kathy Glick-Weil, president of the Massachusetts Library Association and director of the Newton Free Library, said she's heard of other challenges against the book. But she argued that a controversial book should be used to spark discussion, and a school could bring in someone to express the opposite side.

"It certainly sounds like an important issue for young people to discuss and understand: Is this an opinion we agree with or we don't agree with? Is it even handed or not? I don't think you'd want to remove a book that encourages that kind of discussion and intellectual pursuit."

The American Library Association, based in Chicago, tracks book challenges around the country.

"So Far from the Bamboo Grove" has been the subject of four challenges since 2000, according to Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director of the association's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

There is no record of it being successfully banned in any of those instances, she said, but the association doesn't always track the end result. The book has won multiple awards, including selection as an ALA Notable Book, and has been used extensively in middle schools, she said.

"Our hope is that books are retained rather than removed," Caldwell-Stone said.

"Ultimately, every challenge is an attempt to remove ideas from the discourse. We really encourage books [be allowed] to stay in the curriculum and to work with the difficult material. Every community, of course, comes to its own conclusion."

Both the School Committee members and the parents said they had no objection to the book remaining in the school library.

Lisa Kocian can be reached at 508-820-4231 or by e-mail at

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