News

Did Chicago Public Schools Ban a Classic Graphic Novel?

by Jillian Steinhauer on March 25, 2013

A spread from "Persepolis" (image via American Book Center)

A spread from “Persepolis” (image via American Book Center)

The directive came without warning last Thursday, in a letter sent to principals across the system from CPS. The order originally mandated the removal of the book from all schools citywide, according to Salon. Word first got out about it via a blog post by former public school teacher Fred Klonsky. Klonsky published a photo of an email sent by the principal of Lane Tech High School, Christopher Dignam, to his staff. Dignam wrote:

Yesterday afternoon, one of the Network Instructional Support Leaders stopped by my office and informed me (per a directive given during the Chief of Schools meeting on March 11) that all ISLs were directed to physically go to each school in the Network by Friday (3/15) to:

*Confirm that Persepolis is not in the library,
*Confirm that it has not been checked out by a student or teacher,
*Confirm with the school principal that it is not being used in any classrooms,
*And to collect the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi from all classrooms and the Library.

I was not provided a reason for the collection of Persepolis. If I learn more I will inform all staff.

Persepolis-coverIn a strange and troubling move that looks suspiciously like censorship, Chicago Public Schools have removed Persepolis, a classic graphic novel that tells the story of author Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age in Iran, from all seventh-grade classrooms.

A huge backlash ensued, in which students protested; the author of the book, Marjane Satrapi, issued the statement, “I am ashamed of people who make these kind of decisions”; and the Office for Intellectual Freedom of the American Library Association wrote a letter to Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of CPS, David Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, stating, “The CPS directive to remove this book from the hands of students represents a heavy-handed denial of students’ rights to access information, and smacks of censorship.” The OIF has also filed a Freedom of Information Act request for all documents related to the action.

CPS then backtracked, saying it was only removing the book from the seventh-grade classrooms — for which it had previously recommended the novel as part of the Common Core curriculum. Byrd-Bennett issued another statement, explaining, “It was brought to our attention that it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use in the seventh grade curriculum.” The letter goes on to say:

We have determined Persepolis may be appropriate for junior and senior students and those in Advance Placement classes. Due to the powerful images of torture in the book, I have asked our Office of Teaching & Learning to develop professional development guidelines, so that teachers can be trained to present this strong, but important content. We are also considering whether the book should be included, after appropriate teacher training, in the curriculum of eight through tenth grades.

Byrd-Bennett added that CPS was no longer requesting school libraries to remove the book — which it turns out they can’t do anyway, because it’s a violation of free speech.

Revising a recommended curriculum because of the content of one of the books therein is perfectly fine, but doing so in the middle of a school year, in addition to originally calling for the forcible, physical removal of every copy of the book from every school, is highly suspect. But Chicago Teachers Union spokesperson Stephanie Gadlin rightly called the situation “Orwellian,” telling the Guardian, “unfortunately 160 elementary schools don’t have libraries — and they know that.” It seems like an incredible statistic, but a fact that is well known to observers of the sad state of Chicagoland schools. In 2010, The Chicago Tribune reported that, “Citywide, 164 public schools — nearly 1 in 4 elementary schools and 51 high schools — do not have standalone libraries staffed by a trained librarian.”

What’s more, as anyone who’s read it knows, the book (and its sequel, Persepolis 2) is particularly apt for middle- and high-schoolers, as those years in Satrapi’s life are a huge chunk of the story — a time when she finds herself, works out her own beliefs, struggles with the changing politics and (ironically) increasing censorship around her, and just does regular things like talking to boys and listen to Michael Jackson (though she has to buy the cassette tapes on the black market). Part of what makes the book, which made Time’s “Best Comics of 2003” list and was turned into an Oscar-nominated film in 2007, so wonderful is the way it intertwines the everyday life of a teenager with the tumultuous politics around her. It’s also an honest and and intimate depiction of life in Iran, something rare and much-needed in our country, where Muslims and anyone from North Africa and West Asia face increasing vilification.

The directors of the National Coalition Against Censorship, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, Association of American Publishers, the PEN America Center, and the National Council of Teachers of English pointed to some of this in a letter they sent to CPS:

The title character of Satrapi’s book is herself the age of junior high school students, and her description of her real-life experiences might well have special relevance to them. The explanation that the book is “inappropriate” for this age group is unpersuasive. The vast majority of Chicago middle school students are surely aware of the reality of violence and its devastating effects on people of all ages. Most have witnessed it on the news, if not in their own neighborhoods.

Satrapi also dismissed CPS’s rationalization based on “powerful images of torture,” telling the Chicago Tribune:

These are not photos of torture. It’s a drawing and it’s one frame. I don’t think American kids of seventh grade have not seen any signs of violence. Seventh graders have brains and they see all kinds of things on cinema and the internet. It’s a black and white drawing and I’m not showing something extremely horrible. That’s a false argument. They have to give a better explanation.

At least if anything good has come out of this, it’s that the book has received renewed and well-deserved attention. There’s even been a run on bookstores in Chicago. As one junior at Lane Tech told DNAinfo: “I haven’t read it, but this makes me want to read it.” We can’t encourage her to do so enough.

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  • http://davidhdennis.com/ David H Dennis

    I saw the film. It’s beautifully done with fantastic humor, and from a quick glance through the book it looked essentially the same. This kind of censorship of a charming coming of age story is reprehensible.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Yeah, Satrapi and whoever else worked with her did a really wonderful job of translating the books for the screen. Her line is a little lighter and more fluid in the film, but the essence of the art, as well as the fantastic storytelling and humor, are definitely constant.

  • Julie Takacs

    A classic case of over zealous censorship!! And actually it’s a disguised bigotry.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeff.horwat Jeff Horwat

    I got severely reprimanded for using this book in a lesson I taught for a high school art class in Massachusetts. My principal saw the three panels depicting illegal drug use a ‘violation’ of the school zero tolerance policy on drugs and refused to hear by arguments to support its educative purposes. I’m sad to hear this type of administrative censorship and ignorance is becoming more wide spread. Its a shame minor scenes of violence and drugs, comparable to any thing kids can see on Comedy Central or late night Cartoon Network, is preventing a healthy dialogue with an important book in what’s supposed to be a safe environment–idealistically the best environment to have these kinds of conversations with students. Very disheartening.

    • Jillian Steinhauer

      Absolutely. So much of what students/teens/adolescents can see everywhere else (hello, the internet?!) is so much more graphic than anything in Persepolis.

  • Joy Corcoran

    I just watched the pixar movie The Incredibles which has a much worse torture scene of Mr. Incredible than what was presented in Persepolis. Most of what’s on tv and in the movies is more graphically disturbing the Persepolis.

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