Think about Stephen King books with disturbing themes and the tale of the Overlook, a malevolent hotel, might come to mind, or Christine, a malevolent Plymouth. As a bestselling horror novelist, King made his bones and his fortune by frightening the wits out of readers. Yet it was his collection of non-horror novellas with themes more societal than scary that was briefly banned this month from a high school outside Sacramento, Calif.
"Different Seasons" isn't on the American Library Association's inventory of 100 most frequently challenged books (the Harry Potter series tops the most recent list), but a rape scene in one story led to a complaint from a parent at Rocklin High School. The book wasn't part of any course curriculum; instead, it was available in the school library for students to read or check out. Two of its stories have been made into movies: "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Stand by Me."
A school committee voted to pull the book from the library shelves, with only 17-year-old senior Amanda Wong dissenting. The other members of the committee, all adults, reportedly didn't even read the book through before voting.
Amanda complained to the school board and got results. The superintendent ordered the book placed back on the shelves while a district-wide committee considers the matter. That committee should recommend keeping the book.
Picking tomes for a school library is a sensitive business. Unlike the books at a public library, which must appeal to the broadest spectrum of the community, school librarians usually comply with policies set by individual school districts. Within that policy, as the designated experts on literature, they must choose books that are appropriate in content and difficulty for students at various grade levels. Collections generally include books that tie in with the curriculum, books that challenge and uplift as well as those that are simply engaging enough to entice students to read. Books that are part of course work are more tightly controlled because all students are required to read them. But in the library, students should have a choice.
There might be rare instances in which a school should override the librarian's decisions, when a book clearly violates any acceptable standard for youth - as, say, "The Story of O" would. But the overriding philosophy should be to keep books on the shelves in almost all circumstances, valuing access to ideas, even unpopular ideas, over the objections of one faction or another. Books for high schools do not need to be utterly devoid of disturbing material, which abounds in classic literature, to be worth reading. The murder-suicide committed by an impoverished little boy in Thomas Hardy's "Jude the Obscure" is arguably more horrifying than anything King ever dished up.
A single complaint about a single scene in a book is not valid grounds for taking it off the shelves. Fortunately, a student was there to teach the adults that banning books is a serious matter that calls for more careful consideration.