A book review committee jointly made up of Flagler Palm Coast High School and Matanzas High School representatives on Tuesday voted unanimously to keep The Truth About Alice in circulation at both schools’ libraries. The book was challenged on claims that it contained “pornography.”
The Jennifer Mathieu novel is–spoiler alert–about the ruinous consequences of false rumors. Alice Franklin, a high school girl, is said to have slept with two boys at the same party, then to have caused the death of one of them because she was supposedly texting with him when he died in a car crash. Cue the slut-shaming.
It is the fifth book to have survived a challenge, out of 22 challenged since last fall. Ten have been removed, five are still under review, and two were not in circulation.
The 12-0 vote to keep the book was the result of the latest, 90-minute review session by the two committees meeting jointly at Matanzas since the book was challenged at both schools. The committees are made up of English teachers, media specialists, administrators, and members of the public.
The votes aren’t final. The school-based committees’ decisions may be appealed to a district-level committee, and that committee’s decision then becomes Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt’s to ratify or reject. Her decision may be appealed to the School Board. With a signal, still-rankling exception involving a challenge by a school board member, Mittelstadt has respected the findings of school committees.
Two school-committee decisions–to retain The Nowhere Girls and Sold–have been appealed to the district committee. The district committee has yet to be formed. (An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that the school-based committee’s decisions went straight to the superintendent, and that no decisions had been appealed.)
Tuesday’s votes–each school committee voted separately, for a pair of 6-0 votes–followed a systematic review of the book.
Led in this case by Matanzas High School Media Specialist Catherine Brandner, committee members first discussed the book’s themes generally, its tone and intent and, to some extent, its literary merits. They agreed the sometimes pedestrian book was nowhere near a masterpiece–“decent” was the most they could muster–but also that it was not without enough redeeming value, either: “This encourages questioning of what you read/hear,” the committee agreed in one sum-up. “Our students now have no way for rumors to stop (texting, social media etc.). This is real for our students because it happens 24/7 for them.”
Since the challenge included a list of objectionable passages, the committee then addressed those page by page. It then provided its own written review in question-and-answer format, based on a district-issued template, thus documenting its reasoning, and doing so with far more thoughtfulness and rigor than the challenge that prompted the review.
Students would have learned a great deal about the book or about the method of literary engagement from the review session had they been in the audience. In the event, the session was attended by only two people, reporter included.
The session was remarkable for the committee’s focus, enthusiasm and direct, critical engagement with the book, maintaining a high level of analytical discussion throughout and displaying a variety of insights about the book, some of them quite original, all of them presented with respectful deference not only to the author’s intentions, but toward other committee members. Had the session not been framed by the presumptive hostility of a book challenge, the scene could just as easily have been a book club meeting (minus wine and gossip) or a panel discussion on C-Span’s Book TV.
In that sense, the session contrasted sharply with the bitter, de-contextualized and intellectually dishonest attacks on books by moms-for-liberty types calling for bans at school board meetings, and that overheated television screens across the country starting in 2021.
The challenges to The Truth About Alice at Matanzas and FPC were filed by Palm Coast resident Teresa McDonald, 59, a member of the vigilante group that goes by the name “moms for liberty” and that has been challenging library and school materials in several states for the past two years. The group has a small but shrill local chapter, three of whose members–McDonald, Shannon Rambow, and Cheryl Lackey–are responsible for the more than 40 challenges filed locally since last summer.
The local group has been supported by former School Board member Jill Woolbright–who paired book challenges of her own with a criminal complaint against the superintendent before she lost the last election–and current School Board member Christy Chong.
Many of the challenges, like About Alice, are duplicates, so in essence 22 titles were under challenge when the year began. The group’s assault has succeeded to a degree: All Boys Aren’t Blue aside (which a district committee had voted in favor of retaining), three additional titles have been banned from school library shelves outright after review: L8R G8R, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and The Haters, the latter two by Jesse Andrews. Six titles were removed by librarians before the year began in what librarians call an ongoing “weeding” process, when certain books are removed for a variety of reasons that may have nothing to do with challenges.
In these cases, the challenges appear to have played a role in the removal, as many of the “weeded” titles were controversial. While school librarians’ self-censorship is nothing new, the challenges, hazed in a politically toxic climate at times vilifying librarians or calling them criminals, has encouraged more self-censorship. (See: “Soft and Quiet: Self-Censorship in an Era of Book Challenges” and “Flagler Schools Have Been Quietly Banning or ‘Removing’ Many Books Since Summer in Bow to ‘Moms for Liberty’.”)
A half dozen books remain under review. Book review committees are scheduled every few weeks, to give their members time to read the books. Some members, as was the case with The Truth About Alice, read the book twice.
Those challenging the books file a formal document listing their objections, with examples and page number. That suggests that the challengers may have read the book. In fact, every challenge filed in Flagler appears to have been plagiarized, word for word, page for page, down to its objectionable page numbers, from a national website affiliated with the book-banning movement.
The site issues its own guides to challenging books, with summary talking points and allegedly objectionable page numbers for each book. All the books challenged in Flagler are books listed by the site. All the books copy the site’s objections, as is the case with The Truth About Alice. The site claims: “This book contains references to sexual nudity, sexual activities, underage alcohol use, and profanity.” McDonald’s summary objection reads” :This book has sexually explicit excerpts including rape involving minors. There is also underage drinking and excessive profanity.” She also added the line that was appended to every single challenge in Flagler: “Materials contain pornography, Materials are not appropriate for the age of student.” Pornography is not defined in the challenge.
In sum, while it took the challenger a matter of minutes to cut and paste pat phrases and page numbers from the book-banning site onto a formal challenge in Flagler, it triggered the investment of untold hours of work–much of it in the faculty members’ own time–school resources and efforts, culminating in those lengthy book-review sessions, which may et not be the end of it.
In the current case, the objections were to such lines as “I mean, it was one thing to be a girl who’d had sex. But it was something else entirely to be a girl who’d had sex with two guys in one night,” or “‘Mark my words, man,’ Brandon said, ‘that dude is never going to get any pussy. Ever.’,” or “Brandon was saying something else about Alice Franklin’s tits,” or “I gave him a blow job,” and so on, with similarly juvenile language middle and high school students hear and speak more frequently in a day than there are puns in the entirety of Finnegans Wake. The book, according to the moms’ talking-points website, also includes occurrences of the word ass (three times), bitch (three), dick (two), fuck (four), piss (five), pussy (one) and shit (eight).
“It’s just mimicking the way teenagers talk,” a committee member said of the language.
The committee read the relevant state law and local board policy controlling whether books or library materials qualify as holdings. A central principal of the law is that the materials have to have “literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
That raised a salient question from a committee member early in the discussion.”Is every book that’s written not some sort of literary value? Like this would be a moot point for every book that anybody reads, because anybody can see literary value. So when does it become where it’s not that?”
“It’s not just literary value,” another member said, “its literary, artistic, political or scientific value for minors. So if we were to read say, Fifty Shades of Grey right now, I would not say that that had any literary artistic value from minors. So that I would be able to say no, that has no value for minors, that one should not be on our shelves.” It is not. (Fifty Shades is the sadomasochist-porn novel by E. L. James that has sold more than 100 million copies, five of which were in circulation at the Flagler County Public Library 10 years ago, with 103 “holds” or reserves).
The passage about a blow job administered had also been flagged. Committee members aid the act was referred to–not described–and in the book, it had a seemingly redemptive purpose, at least as committee members saw it: “The whole purpose of reading books is to live vicariously through characters so that you don’t have to experience these things,” one member said. “For our students to understand that a character did this and feels terrible about it afterwards is a moment that I think that if somebody were reading this they could be like, ‘I don’t want to do that because the character felt this way. I would feel this way. That’s not something I want to feel.'”
“I agree it’s an unsafe choice made by this character, but the the purpose of this is to discourage,” another member said.
Then it was onto another instance of the use of the word “slut,” and on it went.
If the ostensibly salacious passages drew much of the committee’s attention, it was only because of the obsession to that end in the challenge: that’s what they were there to discuss. But an even greater part of the discussion branched into the various points of view of the book, its projected messages (it is written from the perspective of four or five different characters, including Alice), the distinctions between fictional characters and reality and the aims of fiction itself.
At times the book’s narrative intersected with committee members’ memories. “Back when I was in high school, however many decades ago, we won’t go into that,” one said, “I had a girl who told me about almost this exact same experience, and my heart broke for her. And my heart broke for this character with that happening for her.”
So the committee’s vote was foretold early on in the discussion, and was confirmed as the session wore on, with committee members as if enjoying the discussion for its own sake.
On Monday (Feb. 6), Lashakia Moore, the deputy superintendent, hosts a book-review committee training session, including for members of the public who have been selected to serve on the district-level committee. “Right now, we are also seeking adults to serve on our book review committees,” Moore said in an email to interested parties on Jan. 25.) The session is at 6 p.m. in board chambers on the first floor of the Government Services Building, 1769 East Moody Boulevard, Bunnell.
The next school-level review committee meeting is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Feb. 16 at Matanzas to take up the challenge to The Black Flamingo, the 2020 novel by Dean Atta that Kirkus Review called “Gripping, unflinching, and unforgettable” for its coming of age account of a boy caught between different worlds and identities, that Time Magazine named one of the 100 Best Young Adult Books of All Time, that won a Stonewall Book Award, and that McDonald–or the website site that uses the same language–says contains references to sexuality and to “alternate genders, racism and racist commentary.”