Parents wring hands over controversial book

The Malibu High School student committee selected the book “Lovely Bones” for a reading project for grades 9-12; some parents balk at themes of rape, murder and teen sex in the book.

By Hans Laetz / Special to The Malibu Times

English teachers at Malibu High School are supporting a student committee’s selection of a controversial novel about adult-oriented subjects for a campuswide reading event for grades 9-12.

The book, “Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold, rocketed to bestseller lists in 2003. It is written as a narrative in the voice of a 14-year-old girl who had been raped, murdered and dismembered by a neighbor. The girl watches from heaven as survivors grapple with her death, and as her family falls apart.

“This is adult material, and I am trying to grasp why you would pick a book that is so controversial?” asked parent Barry Schoenbrun at a Parent Teacher Student Association meeting at the school last week. The hour-long exchange in the school library was described by participants as calm, respectful and deliberate.

School principal Mark Kelly said he would take the messages he heard to a meeting with the school’s English teachers this week. A decision on whether to continue with the planned assignment will come after that, Kelly said.

“I would like to point out that the book was selected by the students, and we would like to respect that,” said English teacher Bonnie Thoreson. “The book was approved by the California Department of Education, with the notation that the content was for an adult readership with mature content, and that teachers should be sure to know the child given the book.”

At the meeting, parent after parent, who described themselves as liberal and realistic in outlook, raised problems with the book.

“This book is a very touchy subject,” said Laurel Thorne, a Juan Cabrillo Elementary School teacher, who spoke as the parent of a Malibu High student. “I see this book as a very dangerous book for some children, who are just about to become adults.

“There is a murder victim talking about sex and affairs,” she said. “It’s important to learn about the human condition but children also need to be uplifted.”

Parent Cathy Egner predicted, “There will be kids who will be haunted for the rest of their lives by the things they will be exposed to for the first time in this book. Why do we have to think that we are so politically correct that we have to deal with these issues now, at this stage in their lives?”

Roberta Bogle wondered why students were given the responsibility of selecting a campuswide book instead of parents, and said “Lovely Bones” is a disturbing book for many adults.

“I could not get through the first chapter,” she said.

“Kids always do what they think makes them look mature, and that may be why they picked this book” said parent Cindy Dorn. “I don’t want my son to read about a rape and a murder.”

Some parents defended the book.

“There is a real advantage to having books like this read in a classroom setting,” said Gina Burrell. “They provide great discussion points and provide a real enriching experience; and it’s not like they’re reading these books and not talking about it.”

Laura Rosenthal said this community’s children “are exposed to so many things in this world, like rape and murder, that they don’t get to discuss with adults.”

Rosenthal said a group discussion about such adult topics, moderated by teachers, would be positive for students old enough to handle it.

The principal said the school plans to send parents a letter describing the book and the assignment, and give parents an option to have their children read a different book at the parents’ option. Although that book hasn’t been selected, teachers said another student preference was George Orwell’s “1984.”

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The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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