Amid book banning battles, Seattle school drops 'To Kill a Mockingbird' over racism concerns

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is pictured in The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Friday. A Seattle-area school district voted to remove the book from required reading lists.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is pictured in The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City on Friday. A Seattle-area school district voted to remove the book from required reading lists. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — A Seattle-area school board voted to remove "To Kill a Mockingbird" from student reading lists this week, just days before news surfaced that a Tennessee district had, earlier this month, banned the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, "Maus," from its curriculum.

The actions are part of a rising wave of efforts across the country to remove books from libraries and student reading lists in response to complaints and criticisms from parent groups and other organizations.

That includes the recent decision by Utah's Canyons School District to remove at least nine book titles from libraries at four high schools in the district — all in response to an email from a parent who expressed concerns about the titles she said she learned about through social media videos.

When that mockingbird don't sing

According to the Seattle Times, the Mukilteo School Board voted unanimously Monday night to remove Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" from the required reading list for ninth graders while still allowing for teachers to choose to teach the classic novel to students.

The board acted after months of discussion among teachers, parents and students, and in reaction to concerns over racism in the classic novel, first published in 1960.

In the Times report, John Gahagan, a board member since 2011, stressed that members were not banning the book, just removing it from the list of required reading. He said a 20-member instructional committee of teachers, parents and community members had voted by a nearly two-thirds margin to no longer have the book be required reading.

Gahagan told the Times he reread the novel, about a white lawyer's efforts to defend a Black man wrongly accused of rape, last week for the first time in 50 years.

"It's a very difficult book and a lot of thorny subjects are raised, and we felt that some teachers may not feel comfortable guiding their students through it," Gahagan said. "It deals not only with racism, but it reflects a time when racism was tolerated.

"Atticus Finch, of course, is in everyone's memory the great hero of the book, but in fact he was kind of tolerant of the racism around him. He described one of the members of the lynch mob as a good man."

A jaw-dropping decision

On Jan. 10, the McMinn County (Tennessee) School Board decided to remove Art Spiegelman's "Maus" from its curriculum, citing "inappropriate language" and an illustration of a nude woman as the reason for banning the book, according to the board's meeting minutes. The nude woman is drawn as a mouse in the graphic novel in which Jews are drawn as mice and the Nazis are drawn as cats.

Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for the work that tells the story of his Jewish parents living in 1940s Poland and depicts him interviewing his father about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

In an interview, Spiegelman told CNBC he was "baffled" by the school board's decision and called the action "Orwellian."

"It's leaving me with my jaw open. Like, 'What?'" he said.

Instructional supervisor Julie Goodin, a former history teacher, told The Associated Press she thought the graphic novel was a good way to depict a horrific event.

"It's hard for this generation, these kids don't even know 9/11, they were not even born," Goodin said. "Are the words objectionable? Yes, there is no one that thinks they aren't. But by taking away the first part, it's not changing the meaning of what he is trying to portray."

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which does not play a role in McMinn County, noted the timing of the news on Twitter. Weingarten, who is Jewish, pointed out that Thursday was International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

"Yes it is uncomfortable to talk about genocide, but it is our history and educating about it helps us not repeat this horror," Weingarten said.

The U.S. Holocaust Museum tweeted that "Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors.

"Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today."

Stop, look and listen

Calvin Crosby, co-owner of Salt Lake independent bookseller The King's English Bookshop said he is concerned that the current rash of book banning efforts is tantamount to "erasing our history."

"It's a travesty that we're taking out these important works of fiction," Crosby said. "The Spiegelman book is so impactful and the way it tells the story is stunning.

"'To Kill a Mockingbird' is required reading in some states and now it's being banned? I find it all confusing."

Crosby said he has not heard customer complaints about content in either "To Kill a Mockingbird" or "Maus" but is frequently asked by parents for guidance when it comes to matching particular works of literature with the emotional maturity of young readers. He noted it's a decision he believes is best left to parents and not governing bodies like school boards or state legislatures.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also shared his own concerns about book banning on the heels of the Canyons decision and a similar effort in Washington County late last year.

"Any student of history knows that banning books never ends up well," Cox said during his November monthly PBS Utah news conference. "Now it's one thing again to say, 'This isn't age-appropriate,' and it's another thing to say, 'Hey we're making your kids read this book,' right? ... But just having a book available for kids who maybe see things differently or who are interested in that, let's just be cautious out there.

"I'm not saying every book should be in every classroom," the governor said. "There are probably some books that shouldn't be in our schools. But let's be thoughtful about it. Let's take a step back, take a deep breath and make sure that we're not doing something we'll regret."

Censorship on the rise

A statement released in December by the National Coalition Against Censorship, signed by over 600 authors, booksellers and organizations, cited worries that book banning was being politicized, and weaponized, amid national debate over First Amendment issues and how to best educate students about race, social justice and history.

"In communities across the country, an organized political attack on books in schools threatens the education of America's children," the statement reads. "These ongoing attempts to purge schools of books represent a partisan political battle fought in school board meetings and state legislatures.

"The undersigned organizations and individuals are deeply concerned about this sudden rise in censorship and its impact on education, the rights of students, and freedom of expression."

The American Library Association reports book banning efforts continue to be on the rise nationally and cited as an example that in September last year alone, the volume of book challenges in the U.S. were up 60% over the same month in 2020.

Rebekah Cummings is the co-chairwoman of the Utah Library Association Advocacy board and digital matters librarian of the University of Utah's Marriott Library. Cummings also has experience working in public library systems and noted that every library has protocols in place to hear and review challenges and address concerns from patrons and parents about what books are on the shelves.

"Challenges are nothing new," Cummings said. "Parents bring a book and say 'I don't think this is appropriate' or 'it isn't filed in the right section.' Librarians take these challenges seriously and all libraries have processes in place to answer questions about content. There are times when a book might be moved, for example, from the children's section to young adults.

"But, it's important that we follow these procedures and don't pull books off shelves until they go through the processes and are fairly evaluated."

Cummings said that in her experience, and generally speaking, censorship efforts focused on works of literature haven't necessarily had a partisan element but she sees much of the recent drive to challenge books as a reflection of current political polarization. That includes, she noted, social media-driven campaigns to seek out and limit access to certain books.

Cummings encourages parents to engage their librarians as both sources of information and problem-solvers when it comes to questions about content for younger readers. But she also noted that when it comes to evaluating what is, or is not, the right book for any particular reader, the decision should come from individuals and families and not end up as a decree that eliminates access to that work for all.

"It's about making sure children have the freedom to read and be exposed to a diversity of books and opinions and historical perspectives," Cummings said. "Our collections need to be diverse and show a variety of viewpoints."

Contributing: Associated Press

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