This story is part of a larger project on book challenges in Missouri and the U.S. Find the full project here.
COLUMBIA — In 2009, Joan Mitchell received a letter from her son’s English teacher at Camdenton High School.
The letter from Nikki Hubbard warned of two “sexually suggestive scenarios” in a book that was required reading for the class and asked parents whether to issue an abridged copy of the book in question.
The book was “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini. The mention of the novel in the letter was the first time Mitchell had heard of the book. She was upset that her son was going to have to read a book with graphic scenes.
So, before deciding whether to allow him to read the book for class, she requested a copy for review.
She didn’t like what she read. “I didn’t even appreciate having read it, so I didn’t want my 15-year-old son reading it.”
And thus began a challenge not to a library book, but to a curricular offering. These disputes, often lost in the publicity that accompanies library book challenges, prove equally daunting for school administrators.
Mitchell said she was concerned that the administration was promoting a double standard by allowing the book to be taught in the classroom due to the graphic language in the novel — language that students would be punished for using in school hallways.
In a letter to then-Superintendent Maurice Overlander, Mitchell wrote: “I would think any students who were walking in the halls quoting such passages out loud would be reprimanded, and yet this is what our students are expected to be reading?”
Mitchell wasn’t the only parent to send a letter. At least seven other requests for reconsideration of materials were submitted to Camdenton High. The writers' names, however, were redacted from records provided by the school district.
Another woman wrote: “As a family we have done so much to protect our children in our home from such topics, and we do not appreciate having it put upon them in the school setting where her grade depends so much upon the study of this filth.”
Kishan Patel was a junior at Camdenton High when the book was removed. He said he had no issues with reading “The Kite Runner” and even went before the school board to express his regret that the book was removed from classrooms. He felt the students’ voices weren’t heard.
“When I went to the school board to talk about it, I learned that the reason it was being banned was because of the parents who spoke out against it,” Patel said. “I honestly felt like that parent was sheltering their child.”
Camdenton High School Principal Brett Thompson said he doesn’t remember much about the challenge in particular, as it happened three years ago. He said students had mixed emotions about the book’s removal.
“You’re going to hear both sides of that,” Thompson said. “I can remember students… obviously, that were very supportive of the book and those students had been through that particular class and read that book in the past. In their opinion, I don’t want to speak for them, they felt like there was merit in helping them learn the standards they need to learn.”
Thompson also served on a committee in 2009 that reviewed “The Kite Runner.” That committee recommended to Overlander that the book remain in the curriculum.
In an Oct. 2, 2009, letter, Thompson wrote: “The committee further determined the themes of ‘Good vs. Evil,’ ‘Man’s Inhumanity vs. Man,’ ‘Guilt,’ and ‘Atonement’ were extremely evident in the novel and are valuable for students to understand.” He also said that the scenes parents objected to were balanced well with those themes.
Thompson would not discuss his personal feelings about the book. As an educator, though, he said he sees its value.
“There was content that could be questionable, and there are a lot of classical books you could find the same thing in,” Thompson said.
On Oct. 14, 2009, Overlander wrote in a letter that the book was to be removed from required reading lists in the Camdenton R-III School District — despite the committee’s recommendation — and that a new selection process for required reading materials should be created.
On Nov. 11 of that year, Patel spoke before the Camdenton School Board.
“The reason I think the school board didn’t do anything about it was because they never truly banned the book,” Patel said. “It’s still in our library; they just took it out of the curriculum. I felt like that was a big misstep on their part. You can read a book, but in class you actually you get to learn about it, you get to interpret it.”
He read the book in the same class a year before. He said the teacher made the nature of the book clear to the students.
“She warned us of the scene,” Patel said, adding that the teacher allowed students to leave the room when the rape scenes were being discussed in class.
“The scene doesn’t come up again, but the fact that he didn’t stop it set up the character’s consciousness,” Patel said. He said it was necessary to talk about what happened, but even the book doesn’t go into detail. Even then, he said students weren’t forced to read it since they signed up to take the class.
“It was an honors English class. You didn’t even have to sign up for that class. Basically, I felt if you were signing up for that class, you were expected to be at a level of maturity that you should be able to read any book and not feel offended.”
Other books read in the class were “Frankenstein,” “Life of Pi” and “1984.” Patel said “The Kite Runner” was replaced with “Three Cups of Tea,” a memoir by Greg Mortenson that later was assailed for containing fabrications.
Some Books Never Make It
At Camdenton High, some books might never make it on a required reading list.
A group of teachers and administrators review “potentially offensive” material when building the curriculum for the school year. There is no public input, but according to Camdenton High School procedures, a review team consists of:
Current Camdenton R-III School District Superintendent Tim Hadfield said the process to select a book for instruction is collaborative.
“I think there’s a difference between what is a required reading and what students could read,” Hadfield said. “That would be, in my take now, there’s a difference between what we require kids to do and what kids would be allowed to go read if they chose to.”
Thompson said that the communication arts faculty was asked to create a process for selecting books that could potentially be offensive to students or parents. Very few books have gone through that process, which allows a teacher to submit a “Potentially Offensive Materials” form to the department chair and principal. If a review team is convened, all committee members are required to read the book.
Thompson said the process helps faculty make more informed decisions about what students are required to read in the classroom. It’s important that students be exposed to some reading materials despite the controversy that might surround them, he said.
“I think it lends itself to greater discussion,” Thompson said. “It causes our students to think, which is extremely important. We want to teach them how to think and how to respond and use various means to do that.”
Thompson said he feels that it is possible for a book like “The Kite Runner” to one day be reconsidered for use in the classroom but that “a lot of time and effort was spent in making the best decision possible” when removing the book.
He added that he’s never been approached about re-evaluating the book.
“I think it depends on the material. Each situation is unique,” Thompson said.
“When this challenge came up in particular, we did a little research to find out what other schools have done, but it’s also important to take into consideration what’s appropriate for our district and community as well.”
Patel believes Camdenton’s nature lends itself to protecting children rather than exposing them to situations in the world.
“Camdenton’s a very conservative town,” Patel said. “Eventually, your child is going to learn about the other things that are out in the world that you tried to protect them from, and at that point they won’t know what to understand. It’s better, in my opinion, to understand something early.”