Burbank, California, once a sundown town, is in the midst of a particularly challenging book challenge in its sprawling school district. Five novels which had been classroom staples, including To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Cay by Theodore Taylor, and Newbery Award winner Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor, were challenged by parents in early September. All of the books, except for Huck Finn, were required classroom reading.
All of the parents raising the challenge, except one, are Black.
At the heart of the challenge is the reality that Burbank School District’s 400 Black students face potential harm by having these titles read and discussed in the classroom.
While this challenge has, like many, drawn the nationwide attention of anti-censorship organizations, including PEN America and the National Coalition Against Censorship, what makes this particular case stickier is that the parents are concerned about how reading these books in an era of anti-racism and urgent, necessary demands for racial equality, police reform, and justice—particularly for Black people—impacts Black and non-Black students.
The challenge arose from the experience of Destiny Helligar. During her time at one of the district’s middle schools, a white student approached her during class using a phrase including the N-word.
He’d learned the taunt from reading Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.
But that wasn’t an isolated incident. Another white student approached Destiny and other Black students, demanding they pay him because his family had once owned their families. This student, too, cited Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as where he’d learned this.
Helliger’s mother, one of the parents behind the challenge, said these comments traumatized her child and she can’t help but believe utilizing books like these in the classroom fueled such commentary. She, along with the others who brought the complaint, are less worried about the derogatory language used in the book than they are concerned about the portrayal of Black history and how that is read by today’s students and their teachers.
All five books were pulled from curriculum and, as is the procedure at Burbank School District, are in the process of undergoing a five-part review. These reviews begin with a formal or informal complaint, an ad-hoc committee review, as well as space for multiple appeals. Typically, books that receive a complaint will remain on shelves through the process, but in this instance, they were pulled.
District Superintendent Matt Hill will be reviewing all of the information, with a decision to be made within the next two weeks. But to him, as to others in the district from parents to students to teachers, this isn’t cut and dry. It’s why he elected to pull the books sooner, rather than later.
“Given the nature of the complaint, the fact that we would have to ask for Black children to opt out of their class and receive an alternative assignment—I did not think that was the most prudent approach,” said Hill in a comment to the LA Times. “I thought it would be better for us to work together and see if we can get to a resolution.”
The Burbank School District is comprised of roughly 15,200 students, of which 47% are white, 35% are Latinx, 10% are Asian, and 3% are Black. Not all students nor parents agree with the complaint, of course, and students within the district, including sophomore Sungjoo Yoon, launched a petition arguing the value of keeping these books in the curriculum. Yoon cited Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry as one of the first books that helped him really understand critical race theory.
Books by and about marginalized communities are the most likely to be challenged, as has been documented by the American Library Association annually. But what happens when the communities represented in those books are directly harmed by them?
The school district’s reading list hasn’t been updated in 30 years, and it’s here that parents challenging the books point out the biggest issue: the books frame racism and racial injustice as relics of the past, rather than a look at current reality.
“For over 30 years,” said Helligar to the LA Times, “these books have been on this list. The true ban is that there aren’t other books of other voices that could ever be on there.”
Nadra Ostrom, a Black parent who is also part of the group challenging the books, notes that because the bulk of these books are from the white perspective, the Black experience continues to be overlooked and discussed as a thing of the past.
“Unless teachers have been specifically trained to teach these texts through an antiracist lens, they are probably reinforcing racism rather than dismantling it,” said Ostrom to the Los Angeles Times.
Many Black parents not involved in the complaint see both sides of the challenge, believing that their children are exposed to these ideas daily and having them discussed in the environment of the classroom can be a safe space for their students, as well as for white students who haven’t yet been involved in these conversations.
What makes this complaint complicated is that there are not clear answers or divisions, and the books are simply the tools being used to foster classroom discussion. The teaching methodologies and practices aren’t as easy to dig into, and the district finds itself needing to make a choice: utilize materials that could potentially harm the most marginalized among them for the sake of the majority students, or rethink the tools being used that would help embolden their most vulnerable learners?
While these five books and the antiracism literature curriculum make their way through the district’s review process, Superintendent Hill emphasizes that the books will not be removed entirely from classrooms or schools. Students will have access to them.
“What we are doing is looking at our reading list and our core novels to identify: Are there concerns with these books? Are these the best books?” Hill said to the LA Times.