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Book limits unwise

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Once again, Long Island's school districts have become battlegrounds in some of the nation’s hottest culture wars.

In this era, that includes fights over masks, virtual pandemic learning, and student curricula. And, among some parents and administrators, there has been concern about the graphic novel "Persepolis" by Marjane Satrapi.

The award-winning two-part book published in English beginning in 2003 is Satrapi’s visual memoir about her childhood and adolescence during a tumultuous period in Iran that included the Islamic Revolution, plus her coming of age and self-imposed exile in Europe.

LOCAL COMPLAINTS

The debate over "Persepolis" reached a threshold recently in Commack where, due to the pandemic, 11th-graders were consolidated into International Baccalaureate-level literature. The book was required reading at that level. But with classes consolidated, Jordan Cox, the district's executive director of instructional services, said that district curriculum specialists flagged one book — "Persepolis" — due to its "graphic nature." Going forward it will no longer be "required reading," said Cox, but it would still be available on reading lists and for electives, and the district would look for a replacement from a similar perspective.

Strong reactions ensued at Commack school district meetings in June, with some parents pointing to passages that include frank sexual content and some harrowing depictions of torture by Iranian authorities. These are among the difficult subjects Satrapi covers in her work, along with suicide and violence.

Commack has drawn the bulk of the "Persepolis" attention but parents in the Three Village school system have expressed concern about its "inappropriate language and graphic thoughts," according to the school district. The book’s complete version is used in the district’s high school Advanced Placement English program, and the novel "will be reviewed by a Curriculum Committee," according to a Three Village district spokeswoman.

IDEAS INTERSECT

Sometimes, the complaints appear to be mixed up with the wider controversy over so-called critical race theory, a years-old academic term that until recently was used mostly on law school and college campuses. The original theory examines structural racism in America. But the "critical race theory" that appears on TV has been largely discussed over the last year by right-leaning commentators and activists eager to harness outrage about diversity efforts, particularly in the wake of mass protests after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The reaction to these months of turmoil has been, in some school districts, a renewed attention to curricula taught and changed by school administrators.

Commack school officials say the decision to limit "Persepolis" was over its graphic nature. But at a June school board meeting and forum on the district's multiracial curriculum, some parents criticized the book and theory alike. One parent at a Three Village school board meeting in June flagged her concern about critical race theory and said she and other parents "demand to know what is in their curriculum. Taxpayers want to know where their money is going to. Just like this book right here, ‘Persepolis,’ " she said, describing the book’s explicit moments.

MANY VALUABLE LESSONS

This is not the first time "Persepolis," which has won young reader awards, has been challenged in schools. It made a top 10 list from the American Library Association in 2014 for most-challenged books and Chicago schools tried a ban in 2013.

Over the years, the complaints leveled against it have included the sometimes-difficult subject matter, but the book’s defenders have often perceived a bias against a writer who is not from the white male canon. One student in a Commack school board meeting this month noted that there’s graphic material in "The Catcher in the Rye," an undisputed classic. The same student added that "Persepolis" provides a missing voice about the Muslim experience.

There is an unexamined irony in those who tie fears about this book to curricula being revamped by the very American and mostly Black-and-white critical race theory. Satrapi is Iranian-born and located in France.

A further irony: The book is a clear warning of the dangers of censorious authoritarianism. The graphic sections are no more explicit — and often less so — than what students see on social media and in movies, not to mention their history textbooks. Most importantly, those explicit moments are crucial elements of this tender and often heartbreaking account of a young woman facing tragic events. See Satrapi’s depiction of her parents urging her out of the country for safety at age 14, despite heartache all around.

"I turned around to see them one last time," she writes, depicting her emotion-filled face.

CHALLENGE IS NECESSARY

Parents have a right to make their voices heard about their children's curricula but the value of an education lies in challenging students, coaxing them to new horizons and preparing them for the staggering realities that exist in adulthood, and the wider world. A real engagement with the literature, culture, and thought of our time and times past is deeply necessary. That’s true for "Persepolis." And beyond.

We invite you to share your insights. Email letters@newsday.com with the subject line "Books" or send a tweet to @Newsday.Opinion.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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