A proposal to place a novel whose teen protagonist is raped and considers suicide on a reading list for high school students is raising concerns among Temecula school district trustees. The school board is expected to decide Tuesday whether to allow the book, "Speak," by Laurie Halse Anderson, to be taught in sophomore English classes.
The book first came before the board in August, but trustees delayed action after they heard a summary of the plot, which involves a teenage girl dealing with the aftermath of getting drunk at a party the summer before her freshman year and being sexually assaulted by a senior.
"None of us had read it," said board member Kristi Rutz-Robbins, who expressed concerns about the book at the August meeting, saying she would not be comfortable with her daughter reading it.
Rutz-Robbins declined to say how she planned to vote Tuesday. But the plot "by nature of the topic makes it something we need to pause and carefully review," she said.
"Speak" is an award- winning, young adult bestseller that has faced challenges in schools elsewhere in California, as well as in Florida, Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Ohio and Washington. In Temecula, a high school English department chairwoman proposed adding the book to the core literature list. It was reviewed by two committees comprised of teachers and administrators, as well as the English departments at all Temecula Valley Unified School District high schools, said Dianne Viaez, the district's director of curriculum, instruction and assessment.
Aside from one parent who e-mailed the district and called the book "smutty" and "pornography" after the controversy broke out, no one has raised concerns, Viaez said. "I read it twice," she said. "I love it." Viaez said students will be able to relate to the plot and language of the book in a way they do not with many older works, such as Homer's "Odyssey" or Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter."
She said students will connect with the protagonist of "Speak," not only because of how the teen comes to terms with what happens to her, but also because of plot lines about cliques, difficult relationships with parents and the transition from middle school to high school. "I still think they need to read some seminal works of literature, but our curriculum has to include other pieces that have literary value but are still things they can relate to," Viaez said. "I would like them to like to read. I don't want to kill the love of reading."
Dr. Allen Pulsipher, another board member who voiced concerns, said the students who would be reading the book will be 14 and 15 years old, and parents need to decide if their children are mature enough to handle the content.
"It's a very dark book. I understand how it will promote a lot of discussion and things of that nature," he said. "Some 14-year-olds are mature enough to handle the topic; others aren't. The best person to decide that would be the parent."
Pulsipher said he plans to support the book if the district includes a detailed description of its themes in the syllabus for the English courses, including instructions for parents who want to opt their children out of the assignment.