Parent wants book out of library

Says too graphic for young teens

Email|Print| Text size + By Stephanie V. Siek
Globe Staff / March 9, 2008

A long-running bestseller, "The Lovely Bones," tells the story of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and killed by a neighbor. The book remains popular in local libraries and soon will be made into a movie.

But in Waltham, a local parent says the novel by Alice Sebold is too graphic. She wants it removed from the shelves of the library at the John W. McDevitt Middle School.

"I read it cover to cover. They say this book is about healing and hope, which it's not," said Diane Thompson, who has two daughters at the school. "The guy committing the crime doesn't get punished. The mom runs away from her family."

Thompson lodged a formal complaint about the book Jan. 9. A School Library Media Advisory Committee composed of librarians and faculty voted, 5 to 1, to keep the book in the McDevitt library but to move it to the faculty section and require students to get the permission of a school librarian before gaining access. Thompson said that's not enough and is rallying other parents to ask the Waltham School Committee to remove the book from the library.

Deborah Caldwell-Stone, who heads the American Library Association's Office of Intellectual Freedom, said she was aware of only one other challenge against "The Lovely Bones" - a complaint lodged by the parent of a middle school student in Westport, Conn., who also felt the content of the book was not age-appropriate.

Thompson said that her daughter, who is in the eighth grade, mentioned in January that she had been reading the initial chapter of the book but felt "creeped out" and didn't want to read it anymore. Thompson said that after reading the book herself, she judged the content "too mature" for middle school students. Specifically, she said, the depictions of the narrator's rape and murder are "very graphic," as is a scene in which the narrator's mother has an affair with a policeman investigating the case.

On Monday, Thompson brought it to the attention of other parents during a meeting of the McDevitt Parent Teacher Organization, of which she is copresident. Thompson said that even parents who initially scoffed at the idea of removing any book from a library came to agree with her once she described the book's content.

"I'm not banning anything; I'm just bringing up [the question], 'Don't you think we should wait on it?' " said Thompson. "It's just the kids that have no one at home to talk to - I think they're going to have issues."

Thompson said that she and other parents who support her want to address the School Committee as soon as they can be put on its agenda, perhaps at its March 19 meeting.

"Our point is that it's not consistent with the curriculum. This book is being made into a movie," said Roy Desrochers, copresident of McDevitt PTO who has joined Thompson in the effort to have the book removed. "If they actually film scenes of what the book described, it'd be rated R."

Desrochers said he hasn't finished reading the book but believes that parents should have a say in whether their children have access to it at school. He said the committee that reviewed Thompson's complaint should have included a parent.

Sandra Roby, the district's director of educational technology and library media, said the committee included school librarians from McDevitt, the Kennedy Middle School, and Waltham High School, the then-young-adult librarian from the Waltham Public Library, a McDevitt teacher, and Kennedy Middle School principal John Cawley. McDevitt principal Brad Morgan was also part of the committee, Roby said, but missed its meeting because of a scheduling conflict.

"In this case, it did not include any Waltham parents; however, two members are parents of middle school children," Roby said. "There was consideration of including such, but the timing was such that we did not identify a parent who could meet when the committee was meeting."

Roby said "The Lovely Bones" has been in both middle school libraries in the city for about five years, and was purchased at the request of a student. She added that she could recall only one other incident of a book being challenged since she was hired in 1986.

That book, "Give a Boy a Gun" by Todd Strasser, also had been the subject of a complaint from a parent at McDevitt. A committee voted unanimously to keep it on library shelves.

According to a search for the book on the Massachusetts library catalog database, MassCat, nine of the 18 middle school or combined middle and high school library members had the book in their collections.

The American Library Association's Caldwell-Stone said that middle school librarians have a job made more difficult because they select reading material for a group of children with widely varying ages, reading abilities, and levels of maturity.

"A book that is appropriate for an eighth- or ninth-grader might create concern for the parents of a fifth-grader who might have access to the work," Caldwell-Stone said.

"It's a situation that librarians deal with all the time, because they don't want to essentially dumb-down the content for eighth-graders to make it appropriate for the fifth-grade groups."

Sebold, the author, was out of the country promoting her newest book and was unavailable for comment.

Her literary agent, Henry Dunow, said that although Sebold hadn't written the book with any particular age group in mind, it has proven popular with middle and high school students.

"The protagonist is a young girl," he said, "and the first sign that it might be taken in passionately by this particular audience was that even before the book's publication, the magazine that stepped forward and was interested in serializing the novel was 'Seventeen.' "

Stephanie V. Siek can be reached at

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