Darn, My Dog is Dead

At the end of the 2014-15 school year, my son told me that his assigned summer reading was The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. This book was the summer reading selection for all grades. I ordered it on May 29, and it has been in our home since we received it. I wish my teenager were one of those go-getters who had his summer reading done before the July 4 fireworks, but he doesn’t roll that way.

When “Mandatory” Became “Optional”

On August 4, all families of students received this email from the principal:

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My son was jubilant that the mandatory reading had been made optional. I, on the other hand, was not.

Trying to Understand

The day after the email explaining the new status of the summer reading assignment, I sent the principal an email inquiring about the decision. He called me the next morning, August 6 (and I very much appreciate the return call). To paraphrase, he said that upon further reflection, a decision had been made that the book, which contains multiple incidences of the “F-word,” “set the wrong tone, especially for incoming freshmen.” He said approximately 20 parents of incoming freshmen had called or emailed to register their displeasure, and that summer reading should be “fun.” He also said that apparently high schoolers often don’t start their summer reading until the last minute (I guess this was related to the fact that this decision was made once some students started discussing the book with their parents).

In response, I suggested the school could have done a disclaimer at the beginning of the summer and explained from the very beginning “this book has language which some students may find offensive. If they prefer an alternative they can request this through an instructor.”

The Public Discussion

Every Friday, I share what I am reading (paper and audio) on Facebook and Twitter for Friday Reads. This week, I abandoned the audiobook I had been reading (for now) in order to re-read “Incident” and announced that as my Friday Reads selection. It has been so long since I read the book, I felt like I needed to familiarize myself with it again, especially if I am going to be championing it publicly. In that post, I explained that it HAD been a mandatory assignment but had now been made optional.

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Today, the Tallahassee Democrat published an article about this issue (read it here).

This Parent’s Opinion

My concerns center mostly around the process surrounding the decision to lift the mandatory requirement for the book. An email from the principal 13 days before school begins, stating “I am lifting the mandatory requirement for this novel” is not the ideal solution. Ideally, back when the decision was initially made about summer reading, the faculty or administration would have familiarized themselves with the book sufficiently to acknowledge that some parents and/or students may be uncomfortable with the language. They could have then developed an alternative book choice with accompanying assignments.

I read in the Tallahassee Democrat article that one parent was alarmed by the “foul language and the religious skepticism. She went on to say “I am not interested in having books banned … But to have that language and to take the name of Christ in vain – I don’t go for that. As a Christian, and as a female, I was offended. Kids don’t have to be reading that type of thing and that’s why I was asking for an alternative assignment. I know it’s not realistic to pretend bad words don’t exist, but it is my responsibility as a parent to make sure that my daughter knows what is right or wrong.” While I respect this parent’s opinion, and the choices she makes on behalf of her student, these factors would not cause me to seek an alternate assignment.  

I think it is realistic for a school to consider the frequency of obscenity in a book when making that book its single choice for summer reading for all grades (although I think it is highly likely that the majority of students entering high school are aware that people use this language). From the very beginning, when I started re-reading the book and realized that the first f-words were uttered by a woman who has just discovered that her dog has been murdered and has a garden fork sticking out of its carcass, I thought to myself, “well, I wouldn’t likely say “darn, my dog is dead.” I would be more likely to be overcome with shock and grief and say something relatively out of character. But I will concede there are probably other books that are just as worthy from a literary standpoint which have milder language.

On the issue of religious skepticism, however, the role of literature is to expose us to varying viewpoints. I want my children, who have been raised in a Christian household, to read books about people from all walks of faith, including NO walks of faith.

Since beginning to re-read the book, I have been reminded of its ASSETS in addition to the components which appear to have caused concerns: a reinforcement of prime numbers, explanations of the literary mechanisms of simile and metaphor, and a detailed insight into one person’s experience of the world from the viewpoint of someone with an Aspergers-like condition. These are all things I want my rising junior to learn.

To quote my friend Yolanda, “Literature is meant to make you think.” Thinking is most comprehensively fertilized when seeded with a VARIETY of thoughts, ideas, and viewpoints, not just those with which we concur.

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Ultimately, I want my child to be able to analyze literature, learn from it, and discuss it respectfully with those who agree AND those who disagree. As parents, this situation gives us an ideal opportunity to role model HOW to interact with people of diverse opinions. Let’s not blow it.

15 thoughts on “Darn, My Dog is Dead

  1. I had never heard of the book but have added it to my reading list as well. I agree that a disclaimer would’ve been appropriate and this would’ve been a great opportunity for parents to read it WITH their children. Two questions 1) Did you ever find out why the Tallahassee Democrat took their article that discussed this down? 2) Did you convince your son to read it?

    • Moe. I will be interested in your thoughts too, because I respect your opinion. I did not find out why the article was taken down, but I think this IS that article, republished today (?). And 2) hope springs eternal but not yet re: my son.

    • Let me know what you think. I am glad I am re-reading it. It has been so long since the first time. When I originally read the book, I did not have as much awareness of or personal exposure to people with Asperger’s and similar conditions. It does an excellent job (in my opinion) of demonstrating how they see the world (or at least one individual). That said, this book isn’t necessarily on my favorites list but I feel STRONGLY that it should not be vilified and that it should remain present at the school as a reading option for students.

    • Thanks. Hopefully this whole situation will lead to a more rigorous process in choosing the summer reading for next year.

  2. My 14 year old daughter is a gifted reader so I’ve had to read many books over the years to make sure the material was appropriate for her. Since she has always read way above her grade level, my main concern has been more about sexual content than use of the F- word or s-word. I’m pretty sure Lincoln High School students are exposed to this language in the hallways at school and in movies. My daughter has always come to me and told me when she was reading a book and came across something she felt was inappropriate. I totally agree the principal could have handled the situation differently.

    • Yes. As it was explained to me, the issue was with incoming freshmen and “the book setting the wrong tone for their first experience with Lincoln.” In addition to the F-word, there is reference to marital infidelity. I can see where the argument could be made that this is a challenging book for a child who just completed 8th grade. (Hence the logic of having an alternate choice, but I realize that opportunity has come and gone.) As I mentioned, though, the book has MANY redeeming qualities as well, ESPECIALLY the viewpoint of the world from an individual on the spectrum. All kids need to know that in order to understand their peers on the spectrum (in my opinion). I hope they will use this situation as a catalyst for a different and more thorough vetting process next year.

  3. It sounds like it was banned for some very odd reasons. Just because of curse words and taking God’s name in vain if I am correct. That’s just absurd for high school students. There is supposed to be a separation of church and state to begin with although many would like to forget about that.

    • Well, to make sure I clarify the current issue, it isn’t banned from the school. The summer reading assignment of which this book was the assigned reading was changed from “mandatory” to “optional.” I don’t remember the language but somewhere someone said the book will remain on school grounds. I certainly hope so; removal of the book from the school would be a “ban” in my book (pun intended) and would warrant a different level of advocacy on my part, I think. Specifically what the principal told me had to do with the language (and the f word). I do not know how many other parents share the opinion of the parent who expressed concerns about the religion part. According to the article, though, the school board representative who represents my neighborhood, ” is now recommending the removal of “Curious Incident” from the district’s approved reading list. “We are simply listening to parents’ concerns,” Striplin said. “We’ve got a million books to choose from and this one should not be on the district approval list.” It is probably obvious that I don’t share her opinion nor am I one of the concerned parents she is referring to. Thank you for commenting.

  4. Pingback: A "PTBH" at the Epicentre of a Curious Incident - PerspicacityPerspicacity

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