'Thirteen Reasons Why' and 'Real Live Boyfriends' OK'd by panels for Polk County schools

"Thirteen Reasons Why" and "Real Live Boyfriends" were voted by two panels to return to Polk County Public Schools libraries.  The School Board must now vote on the issue.
"Thirteen Reasons Why" and "Real Live Boyfriends" were voted by two panels to return to Polk County Public Schools libraries. The School Board must now vote on the issue.

LAKELAND — Nearly all the book reviewers on two panels voted again this week to keep in middle and high school libraries two books that some deem controversial.

Sixteen of 18 panelists said “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher should remain on the 23 Polk County Public Schools’ shelves from which they were removed in late January, while fourteen people on a second panel voted to keep “Real Live Boyfriends” by E. Lockhart in middle and high school media centers.

They are the ninth and 10th books reviewed by the two panels, comprised of parents, teachers, counselors, librarians and members of the group that filed the complaint, County Citizens Defending Freedom.

The issue in Polk schools began late last year when CCDF found that 16 books the group deems objectionable were available in PCPS media centers. CCDF said the books are “harmful to children” or meet the definition of pornography under Florida State Statutes 847.001 and 847.012. Distributing pornography to minors a third-degree felony.

They used complaint forms filled out by people outside of Polk County who belong to another conservative group called Florida Citizens Alliance, based in Naples. The group issued a Porn in Schools Report last year, listing detailed issues with 58 books, 16 of which were found in PCPS media centers.

PCPS Superintendent Frederick Heid placed the 16 books in “quarantine” at the end of January until they could be reviewed and it could be determined whether they were pornographic, harmful or age-inappropriate.

Two committees were formed to read and review eight books each. The committees consist of 17 adults each. In addition, more than a dozen students are rotating participation for each review.

So far, the committees have approved leaving in schools at appropriate age levels: “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “Drama” by Raina Telgemeier, “Extemely Loud & Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer, “George” by Alex Gino, “It’s Perfectly Normal” by Robie Harrison, “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, “Nineteen Minutes” by Jodi Picoult, and “The Vincent Boys” by Abbi Glines.

Read more on the effort to ban books in Polk County:

'Thirteen Reasons Why'

“Thirteen Reasons Why” details the events leading up to the suicide of a high school student. Hannah Baker records seven tapes and sends them to her classmates to explain to them her reasons for ending her life and the roles they each played in her decision. The reasons include bullying, witnessing a rape, sex and spreading false rumors about her.

The book was checked out 70 times in the past two years at Polk County schools.

A person named Burkhardt from Collier County reviewed the book for Florida Citizens Alliance.

“The topic of this book is Suicide, glamorized by a teenage girl,” Burkhardt wrote. “Not knowing how each different child will interpret or be affected by this story, I believe this attitude portrayed by an immature, self-centered high school girl could serve as encouragement to act on suicidal thought by young readers. Certainly inappropriate for elementary & middle school kids. Rated ‘R’”

The book was reviewed by the Polk County panel the same week as a Roosevelt Academy student had to be airlifted from the school for “self-inflicted knife wounds.” In addition, a McKeel Academy student committed suicide in recent weeks, with her father posting a heartbreaking notice about it on social media.

One member of the panel, Chels Davis, a school psychologist at Boone Middle School, said she had to write a suicide assessment several days before the panel met. She said it is a “horrible subject that haunts me personally as a professional.”

Richard Marshall, a child psychologist on the panel, said children contemplating suicide have increased at his practice at an alarming rate in recent years, with 10-year-olds increasing at the fastest rate.

And CCDF member Kathy Bucklew said several foster children for whom she has cared have also dealt with contemplating suicide. But Bucklew said the topic and the main character recording herself before she died was “too morbid” for children.

“I don't think there's anything in the book that would prevent it from being accessible to high schoolers, I just, I think this theme itself is morbid, and I I don't like how it seems to more glorify what Hannah chose to do,” Bucklew said. “I agree that this has some good themes to the book, but I wish it would have had a more positive outcome of some kind, either with the sex scenes, the rape scene or the actual suicide itself, or the response of some of the students that were involved. And I just — I wouldn't want my child to read the book just because I just think it's very morbid. I don't think my my teenagers would have been able to get much out of it. I think there's better options to help us understand suicide than this book.”

Nicole Iatarola, the media specialist at George Jenkins High School, said she felt the book was important for both students and adults to read to help the student be more empathetic and to alert them and adults to the signs that someone is not doing well mentally.

“The author was careful to kind of point out how many of Hannah's actions prior to her decision to die by suicide really gave people warning signs that they didn't realize until afterward,” Iatarola said. “Like this sudden change in appearance, the drastic cut of her hair, giving away possessions, the note that she left for the teacher in that class. So it just kind of also brought awareness to maybe some things that we should look out for in one another, if somebody is considering that choice.”

She added that a scene in which Hannah confides in a teacher/guidance counselor hit home for her.

"I was a little disappointed in the way that he was depicted because my knowledge of guidance counselors and what they do know and how they speak to children would not be this simple,” Iatarola said. “I did a a very brief, one-day mental health training and they said you need to ask. ‘Are you considering suicide?’ and this teacher never said that and it was very clear that she was kind of saying like, ‘I'm thinking I'm ready for life to be done’ and he did not directly ask her.”

Terry Coney, president of the Lakeland branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said the book highlighted the Golden Rule for him.

"It kind of broke down to the basic, you know, treat others like you want to want to be treated yourself,” Coney said. “And then it kind of pointed out the immaturity of young boys as they grow up and things they do and say to impress their buddies. I've counseled young boys on how they speak to girls, young women, and remind them that they have mothers and sisters. You know, treat young women the way they would want people to treat their mothers and sisters.”

Coney added that he found it odd that Hannah’s parents did not notice that she was struggling, but Marshall pointed out that often the parents are the last to know.

“And that's, I think, a compelling reason for us to talk about these things,” Marshall said. “Add (the book) to as many children, as many grade levels as we can because the parents might be the only ones who don't know, and we should be talking about this and reading about it at every level.”

Holly Barnett, who is the parent of students at Lakeland High School and Winston Academy, said the book helped her see that people should not minimize the emotions and experiences of children, who might be suffering from something an adult would view as minor. She also felt the sex and the underage drinking in the book were vital to the plot.

“I just didn't feel like it was portraying that in a way where somebody would pick up the book and think, oh, this is an awesome experience to have — I mean every one of them ended up like in a car accident or somebody had to walk home or the girl was raped in the bedroom,” Barnett said. "It gave it enough of a negative connotation where, although underage drinking is obviously questionable, it didn't make me feel like somebody was glorifying it.”

Tessa Mullis, 17, an Auburndale High School junior, supported the book being returned to library shelves.

"I actually read part of this book when I was in middle school and it really had opened my eyes to the people around me and it really started those conversations,” Mullis said. “It makes you look at the, for me as a peer, look at my peers, look at my friends. And you hear things in the halls. You hear things with your friends, and it makes you ask those questions. It makes you more aware, and I think that's because it's such a hard topic. I think that's what this book accomplishes — It makes you take on a personal awareness for the people around you and for what you say, your actions, and how you can hold yourself accountable and still be a source of support. So things like this, you can help prevent it.”

'Thirteen Reasons Why' votes

  • Zero to remove from all libraries.

  • One to retain at all levels.*

  • 16 to retain in middle and high only.

  • One to retain in high only.

*Three votes were to retain for 4th grade and above. These votes were tallied as middle and high school only to better align with school library collections.

Read coverage of the other book reviews:

'Real Live Boyfriends'

“Real Live Boyfriends” is a novel about Ruby, a high school senior, and is a poignant, but humorous, look at her angst-filled days and how she copes with anxiety, boyfriends, college applications and her parents squabbling.

The book was checked out one time from one school — Lake Gibson High School — in the past two years. It was also available at Auburndale High, Haines City High, Jewett Middle Acdemy, Lake Region High, Lakeland High, Mulberry High, Traviss Technical College and Winter Haven High.

The book contains mentions of sex, “nether regions,” and teenagers “making out.”

The reviewer for Florida Citizens Alliance, someone named Sims from an unknown county, wondered if the book were required reading for a sexual education class.

“I wonder what age group this book will be thrust upon? If this book is required reading (for sex ed.?) for high school seniors, then it may be considered rather tame compared to the decadent current culture, but I don’t like the idea of my tax dollars going to require students to read a book like this, especially when basic skills have been consistently dropping,” Sims wrote. “I feel this is why the homeschool movement is continuing to gain strength.”

At this week’s meeting, CCDF member Mattie Friedt was the only person who thought the book should be removed from all public schools libraries. She is the retired director of PCPS Pre-Kindergarten Program, a mother and grandmother.

“The closing chapters seemed to promote sex as a positive way of dealing with the young lady’s problems,” Friedt said. There was one mention on page 27, I believe, about being prepared for that kind of thing ... or that kind of activity. But there were no other references to the potential consequences of that kind of involvement.”

Other panelists thought the mentions of sex were important.

"I thought it was important that, even in the scene where it might be perceived that she is promoting sex and teenage sex, that consent is a very important part of that, as well as some birth control,” said Erica Bernheim, who teaches creative writing at Florida Southern College. “And that's something that I don't remember reading about when I was a teenager. And, you know, whether or not I agree with what they might be doing, I appreciated that it was here and articulated in a way that readers might use in their own lives."

Bernheim added that the book also allows students to see what it is like to go to counseling.

"Ruby's experiences, maybe with her therapist, could be useful for other young people who might be considering therapy or experiencing panic attacks,” Bernheim said. “They want to know what therapy might look like, what it might be like from the point of view of someone around their age, so I thought it also might be appropriate for that audience in that regard.”

And some said the book lovingly portrayed a teenaged girl struggling with mental health issues.

"It allows the reader to walk through the shoes of someone with mental health struggles who's also doing the work to heal,” said Dionne Facey-Poitier, a member of CCDF and also a Harrison School of the Arts counselor. “It provided insight into the high school experience of the high functioning dysfunctional.”

Lakeland High School English teacher Leila Maurer said she identified with Ruby when she was in school and even at a much older age, including having outbursts in public, crying and self-loathing, with which so many females struggle.

"And I thought to myself, what if I had had the advantage of having therapy like she did, and which has become very acceptable today,” Maurer said. “I just thought, listen, if I'm at my age, I'm laughing at this, how much this could have really helped me as a young adult struggling with my own issues.”

And Maurer compared the work to those of famed Southern writer Flannery O’Connor.

"Flannery O'Connor was one who attacked extraordinarily serious issues in our society, most particularly racism in the South, with absolutely outrageous humor, and her point with that was to shock people into really reading and looking and getting the point. She said, ‘Without this, they don't get it,’” Maurer said. "And I felt the elements — writing with humor, acting with humor, is so difficult — and I thought she had such a nice blend of the funny and the poignant ... I just think she really did a good job in really letting us see the seriousness of the issues of the of the adolescent.”

Nazette Mercado, 17, a senior at Ridge Community High School, felt that the book was appropriate for high school students.

"It is targeted for the 9th- to 10th-grade group, but it does bring, like, awareness to things that most kids face nowadays, or even forever, that isn't really talked about or like made notice of,” Mercado said. “And this does bring it and it talks about it in a good way, in a positive way and not in a negative way, and not trying to hide it and cover it up. But in, like, bringing awareness to it.”

'Real Live Boyfriends' votes

  • One to remove from all libraries.

  • Zero to retain at all levels.

  • Fourteen votes to retain in middle and high only.

  • Three votes to retain in high only.

The Polk County School Board must vote on all the books reviewed so far at its April 26 meeting.

Ledger reporter Kimberly C. Moore can be reached at kmoore@theledger.com or 863-802-7514. Follow her on Twitter at @KMooreTheLedger.

This article originally appeared on The Ledger: Polk review panels OK 'Thirteen Reasons Why' and 'Real Live Boyfriends'