published Sunday, March 8th, 2009

Georgia: Book sparks debate

by Chloé Morrison
Audio clip

Kathi Vanderbilt

  • photo
    Staff Photo by Dan Henry
    A seventh-grade student reads "The Last of the High Kings" in Ringgold Middle School's library Thursday afternoon where a book titled "The Burn Journals" was recently taken off of the shelf for causing controversy with its content and language.

Parent complaints about sexually charged content, foul language and descriptions of ways to commit suicide in a teen memoir prompted Ringgold Middle School administrators to pull the book from library shelves.

Brent Runyon’s memoir, “The Burn Journals,” describes his struggles as a depressed 14-year-old who douses himself in gasoline and tries to burn himself to death. After suffering third-degree burns to 85 percent of his body, he spends the next year recovering and reflecting.

Lisa Martin, whose 11-year-old grandson brought the book home, was offended by the content. She said the material is inappropriate for a sixth-grader and compared portions to soft-core pornography.

“You cannot even imagine,” she said “I’m not a prudish person. ... I would have a hard time letting high school kids read it.”

Dr. Ingrid Jones, who coordinates media specialists in Catoosa County Schools, said the book was reviewed after a parent complained.

School system administrators decided to remove the book from all middle and high school libraries, and the issue prompted a move to develop a process to strengthen the criteria for selecting materials.

“No matter what you do, it is going to be difficult to please everyone,” Dr. Jones said. “If we put our hearts to the task, I think we will be OK.”

Not all area parents think the book is inappropriate for middle school students.

Patrick Hook has three children, one a middle-schooler who attends Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences. Mr. Hook said he has read “The Burn Journals” and wouldn’t mind if his 12-year-old read it.

“I’m not some depressed person that thinks the world is so awful,” he said. “I’m a realist. I have a strong stance on the banning of books. The Nazis banned books. Once you start doing that ... you are walking a real fine line.”

Selecting books for school libraries requires a delicate balance between finding age-appropriate material and books that will interest and inspire students.

“What is OK for one person is not OK for another,” said Kathi Vanderbilt, former president of the Georgia Media Library Association. “It’s really hard. There are no easy answers.”

Catoosa County is not the first school district to remove the book. According to thebook’s Web site, a school district in New Jersey banned the book. The Web site has a disclaimer stating the book is based on one person’s experience. The site has links to suicide help sites.

While some parents maintain that the book could influence young people to copy the behavior detailed in the book, Mrs. Vanderbilt said the message of the book is that children and teens should talk to someone about their problems.

Mr. Hook, who admitted he isn’t the most conventional parent, said the book is a good conversation starter for parents and children to talk about difficult issues.

“You can’t raise your children in a bubble,” he said.

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