Two books that highlight police violence and racial discrimination were removed from a required reading list for Signal Mountain Middle-High School students after parents raised concerns, officials say.
On Friday, the school's seventh-grade literature teacher emailed parents telling them to not purchase "All American Boys" and "Monster" - both of which have African American males as protagonists. The literature was previously part of the school's Finding Perspective book club list.
"In an effort to maintain our safe classroom community, I will be removing 'All American Boys' and 'Monster' from the book club list," the teacher said in the email. "If you have already purchased either book, I apologize for the hassle this has caused you. Both books contain mature content that not every student will be comfortable reading."
The email went on to suggest that books with such content might be suitable for students elsewhere in Hamilton County, but not in Signal Mountain.
"Generally, Hamilton County gives us texts that are blanket texts for all students in our schools. While the reading level of the book is accessible to seventh-grade students, the content in the books may be inappropriate for some of our students," the email said. "While a shock to us, the books may be relatable and important to other students in our county."
The teacher went on to say, "I want to keep the environment in our classroom safe and enjoyable for all students. Please have your student choose one of the other books from the list, or they can suggest a good book that is written from the perspectives of multiple characters. Again, I apologize and will be closely monitoring all books given to us by Hamilton County from here on out."
She further cautioned, "If you are still interested in having your child read either book, I would HIGHLY suggest you read reviews on goodreads.com and commonsensemedia.com beforehand."
One reviewer at Common Sense Media wrote this of "All American Boys": "SO MUCH SWEARING!!!! Has a lot of violence and many mentions of drinking." The same reviewer went on to say, "Has many examples of resilience so it is a good book to read for teens."
According to U.S. census data, Signal Mountain is 97.9% white and 0.4% Black. That compares to Hamilton County as a whole, which is 76% white and 19.3% Black.
The town of Signal Mountain has been undergoing a racial self-examination of sorts, as the town manager recently came upon property covenants banning the transfer or property to any "negro, mulatto or person of color." Town Manager Boyd Veal suggested removing a monument at the town's entrance to developer C.E. James, who founded the town in 1919. The town council last month delayed any action for months, planning to have discussions with descendants of James.
Shane Harwood, executive principal at Signal Mountain, told the Times Free Press that the teacher's book club decision was made due to the books' language and content.
"The teacher had received some parent concerns regarding the language in a couple of the books and some of the mature content," Harwood said by email. "The teacher was not completely familiar with the content of all of the books, and after reviewing them, the teacher herself was not comfortable with the language and mature content in a couple of the selections. As such, the teacher decided to not make those required selections, but instead gave parents the option of having their children continue reading them even with the language and mature content. One of the books - 'All American Boys' – was cautioned due to mature language, and 'Monster' was cautioned because of the mature content."
Harwood went on to say, "In communications with her parents, the teacher provided options for the students to read or not read the book(s) while providing caution of the language and mature content. The teacher shared about 'All American Boys' that 'the book has a message that is current and allows the reader to think deeper about how our lives influence our perspectives' and 'This is a great book based on very current conflicts.'"
At the Hamilton County Schools district office, officials said they were not part of the decision, as the book club is at the school level. School board member Marco Perez, who represents the area, said, "I don't want to make a comment until I do some research."
The 2015 fiction book "All American Boys" is about two teenage boys who experienced police violence - Rashad Butler and Quinn Collins. In the story, Butler is beaten by a police officer and Collins witnesses the beating. Butler is Black and Collins is white. Throughout the 320 pages, the duo's friendship is challenged following the incident, which causes the town to erupt with racial tension.
"I could stay here or I could move all the way to California and I would still be white. Cops and everyone would see me as an All American Boy," Collins said in the book after he realized that not all American boys are treated the same.
The teen novel by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely is a 2016 Coretta Scott King Author Honor Book and recipient of the Walter Dean Myers Award for Outstanding Children's Literature.
The 1999 movie script-format fiction "Monster" by Walter Dean Myers follows the story - in third-person screenplay and a first-person diary perspective - of Steve Harmon, an African American teenager who is on trial for felony murder in the state of New York. Throughout the story, prosecutors paint the 16-year-old as a "monster" along with his three other co-defendants.
"The movie is more real in so many ways than the life I am leading. No, that's not true. I just desperately wish this was only a movie," Harmon says while sitting in his cell. Harmon is later found not guilty.
The crime novel was nominated for the 1999 National Book Award for Young People's Literature, won the Michael L. Printz Award in 2000 and was named a Coretta Scott King Award Honor the same year. The book has been challenged in school districts across the country since the early 2000s. In late 2018, a Massachusetts superintendent banned the book from middle schools, saying the book's content "was inappropriate for eighth graders."
Contact Monique Brand at [email protected] or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook @MoBrandNews.