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“And When I Issued the Books, the Students Applauded”

MaryKent'sstudentsTwo years ago in Watauga County, North Carolina, Isabel Allende’s House of Spirits was challenged for “sexual excerpts” and pulled from MaryKent Whitaker’s sophomore honors English classes—three days before she’d planned to start teaching the novel. And so began a six-month battle to restore the book to the classroom.

There were board meetings through three appeals, accusations (“It’s filth,” said Commissioner David Blust, quoted in the Wautauga Democrat. “For a 14-, 15- and 16-year-old to read this, to be forced to read this, I think is a joke.”), radio interviews, news articles, a teach-in at the local college.  Isabel Allende weighed in.  And finally in April, the school board voted to retain the book.

I was able to meet MaryKent and her daughter Hannah, who teaches in Colorado, in person for the first time at the NCTE Annual Convention. They took a few moments to chat about why books like Allende’s House of the Spirits and Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian—most challenged book in the nation right now that Hannah has just finished reading with her students—are so important to our students.