An 11-member district-wide appeals committee this evening voted to uphold two school-based committees’ decisions to keep Sold, the fictional story of a 13-year-old girl trafficked into sexual slavery, on the library shelves at high and middle schools.
The decision was as uncontentious as it was unanimous. The committee extended the book’s availability to middle school libraries, but with parental consent for middle school students. Consent would be unnecessary in high school.
The committee met for over an hour. But it became clear within moments that the 2006 book by American journalist Patricia McCormick would survive. It drew only praise as the facilitator, Assistant Superintendent Lashakia Moore, posed the questions the appeals committee was required to answer (in writing). Moore is a non-voting member of the committee.
The decision is not final. It’s only a recommendation to the superintendent, who will either ratify it or reject it in the next 10 days. If Superintendent Cathy Mittlestadt upholds the decision, the two individuals who are challenging the book–Shannon Rambow and Terri McDonald, both of whom were in the audience this evening–may still appeal the decision to the school board. If Mittlestadt decides to ban the book, the decision is not appealable.
It was the first time that a district-wide committee convened to take up an appeal. A somewhat different appeals panel is meeting next week to take up yet another challenge–to Amy Reed’s The Nowhere Girls, a novel on American high schools’ rape culture. The appeals committee includes many faculty members, but also a larger number of parents with children in school or community members without children currently enrolled.
The committee’s discussion was slightly more tentative, more reserved, especially at the beginning, than school-level committees, which are made up almost entirely of faculty members familiar with each other. But it appeared that every member had read and analyzed the book ahead of time, some of them more than once: some of the members of the panel served on the school-level committees.
The panel followed a district questionnaire to reach its conclusions, in parts and in whole, to determine whether Sold belongs in schools.
The tone was set at the very beginning of the discussion. As the state law defining the terms of the discussion and what could lead to a book ban were flashed on an oversize screen, one of the members of the committee noted that Florida was the first state, in 2019, to require that explanations of human trafficking be incorporated into the curriculum. “The required instruction on human trafficking does start in middle school,” another member noted.
Sold, however, is not taught in the classroom. “It’s important to just underscore again that this is for self selection,” a member of the committee who teaches English in high school said, meaning that only students who seek the book out will borrow it from a library. It’s not required reading. “I’m not sure if I was a middle school teacher, and I’m not, that I would teach this to a class. I do know as a 10th grade teacher that some of my students wouldn’t be able to handle this, but because of their maturity, not because of the content of the book.” Self-selection is key, he said.
Many committee members put value on the book bringing awareness to human trafficking, to other cultures–but not to conflate the sexual issues of the book with Indian culture–to giving “a voice to the voiceless.” Moore asked whether the book’s purpose was achieved. She heard an absolute yes from panelists. For all its grim themes, the book manages to maintain a sense of hope. “In the depths of her enslavement, she still found positive things in her life,” one member said. Another called it a “very humanizing book for the victims of child trafficking.”
The committee agreed that the book was appropriate for high school students, but some said “it could be appropriate for some middle schoolers.”
And that it could play a role beyond opening eyes. “Our students may be part of the solution,” a committee members said: by reading the book, discovering what trafficking entail, a student could in the near future become inspired to do something about it (much as the author did when she discovered the world of human trafficking: she decided to write Sold).
As for Sold‘s ostensibly explicit passages (it has two) the panelists found it was not trying to arouse readers: “that is not the intent,” one member said. “This is a very factual book.” There are no “prurient” or “shameful” elements in the book, no vulgar language–or mention of the word “sex”–the committee members agreed, even in its most explicit passages, which are rendered in the innocent language of a 13 year old, as opposed to the knowing language of an adult.
“The prose is sparse and what is left off the page rings as powerful as what is on the page,” a media specialist said. “And I would argue, a reader without enough background knowledge, it would be over their head what is happening to Lakshmi, because it really is not specifically stated. It’s implied.”
The discussion only occasionally reached the analytical depths of school-level discussions. In matters of authenticity, for example, while a committee member found the book very affecting, it might have been more affecting had it not been fiction. And while McCormick is a “wonderful writer,” the member said, she is not of the culture to which she is writing: there was a hint of criticism for cultural appropriation in the statement, though the panelists acknowledged that human trafficking is a global problem.
A committee member also noted the book’s value in other regards: “Intersectionality is a very important part of the human condition because we’re not a monolith,” he said. ” We have different demographics and those different demographics affects the way that we exist in society and how society sees us, and who’s taken advantage of by society and those that we think we can trust within society.”