On Parenting Other People’s Children (& Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere)

That is how I feel about youI’m glad my children don’t attend the Alamogordo Public School District in New Mexico, where school officials have temporarily withdrawn Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere from the 10th grade curriculum and, according to some reports, from its library shelves. They are considering whether to impose a permanent ban on the book, which they’ve used in the curriculum since 2004. Apparently, to at least the parent who complained about it, 15 and 16-year-olds are too young to read a fictional sex scene and see the F-word fully spelled out on paper — never mind the fact that one-third of 16-year-olds are sexually active already, regardless of whether they’ve read Neverwhere.

Last month, I wrote in a previous post, Please Stop Parenting My Children:

[There is] a certain attitude that is unfortunately common: What’s best for my family is what’s best for all families.

It’s partly because of this attitude — more pernicious examples of it — that we have so many challenged or banned books to celebrate this week (for those who don’t know, it’s Banned Books Week from September 22nd through September 28th).    …

For people with the audacity to challenge a book [often to “protect” children from what some consider offensive material, including profanity, sexual themes, or certain political or religious views], it isn’t enough to tell their own children to refrain from checking out that book. They feel a need to make sure that my children can’t check out that book, too. They attempt to impose their views on me, my children, and everyone else without delineating why the book presents a clear harm to anyone.

The parent who complained to the Alamogordo Public School District about Gaiman’s novel is the type of person I was talking about in that post. It seems that she decided that the novel wasn’t appropriate for her child and so then it must not be appropriate for anyone’s child. Did she seek an exemption from the required reading for her child before she decided to restrict everyone’s access to the book? Did she consider expanding her view of what is “age appropriate” in light of the fact that the district has required 10th graders to read that book for nearly a decade? It sounds like she’s the outlier.

Superintendent George Straface has said to the Alamogordo Daily News that “The F-word is used [in Neverwhere]… There is a description of a sexual encounter that is pretty descriptive, and it’s between a married man and a single woman. Although kids can probably see that on TV anytime they want, we are a public school using taxpayer dollars.”

Yes, Superintendent Straface represents a public school using taxpayer dollars, which means he must be careful about trampling on students’ First Amendment rights. To me, the ban from the school curriculum is different from the removal from the library shelves. A curriculum forces students to read certain material, whether they or their parents want such exposure, while the library merely provides students with access to materials they could choose to borrow. Thus, it makes sense that there would be wider latitude given to districts to remove books from school curricula than to remove books from library shelves.

The United States Supreme Court has generally seen the issue the same way. First Amendment law is notoriously vague and internally inconsistent, but we can draw a few principles from it. In Board of Education v. Pico, 457 U.S. 853 (1982), a plurality of the Justices held that a school board could not remove books from a library for the purpose of denying students access to unpopular ideas — but those same Justices noted the board “might well defend their claim of absolute discretion in matters of curriculum by reliance upon their duty to inculcate community values.” (Emphasis in original.) Six years later, in Hazelwood Sch. Dist. v. Kuhlmeier, 484 U.S. 260 (1988), the Supreme Court affirmed the power of schools to determine the content of their own speech, and held that a public high school was permitted to delete two stories from the school newspaper (one about teenage pregnancy, another about divorce) because the paper “bear[s] the imprimatur of the school” and the school’s actions were “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

The “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns” test from Hazelwood has generally been the rule since then when it comes to decisions about a school’s curriculum. As the Sixth Circuit described last year in Ward v. Polite, 667 F. 3d 727 (6th Cir. 2012), “The neutral enforcement of a legitimate school curriculum generally will satisfy [the Hazelwood test].” Some courts still recognize the strength of the Pico opinion, while others don’t. See, e.g., Griswold v. Driscoll, 616 F. 3d 53 (1st Cir. 2010)(holding the situation presented was more like Hazelwood than Pico, but noting that decisions by a school board to remove a book from a library would still be subject to Pico); But see ACLU, Inc. v. Miami-Dade County Sch. Bd., 557 F.3d 1177, 1200 (11th Cir. 2009) (Pico “establishes no standard.”). For an excellent discussion of the competing lines of court cases on student free speech, start reading the Ward opinion at Section II(A).

While school districts have broad latitude over curricula and some latitude (though probably not quite as much) over book removals from school libraries, it’s a shame when they appease the most sensitive members of the community to the detriment of everyone else. Considering that, as the superintendent admits, 15 and 16-year-olds watch TV with more “risqué” themes than the content of Gaiman’s novel, and that, as I mentioned earlier, a large percentage of 16-year-olds are already sexually active, it’s hard to believe that an award-winning author’s book with a sex scene and a smattering of F-words is inappropriate for students of that age.

UPDATE (10/19/13)– Salon has posted the passage that is the basis for the suspension at the Alamogordo School District (it’s pretty tame for 15 and 16-year-olds, quite frankly).

UPDATE (11/14/13)–See Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” is Restored to New Mexico High School, Christian Science Monitor.


  1. This sort of thing drives me NUTS! Introducing high school kids to a book like Neverwhere is a FANTASTIC opportunity to encourage reading! But no. Stick to forcing 10th graders to read classics they aren’t interested in and can’t relate to, because at least they don’t have naughty words and sex scenes. That’s a great strategy. (I mean, I love me some classics, but your odds of engaging the typical 16 year old are infinitely higher with Neil Gaiman than Herman Melville.)

    1. I couldn’t even get through Moby Dick as an adult! I completely agree with you, Katie. If the school district makes the ban a permanent one, kids will lose out on reading a very good book in school. It’s a shame.

  2. I’m struck by the reaction of a school board and/or administrators to fail to make a strong defense of this book, much less to remove it from curriculum and/or shelves. I suspect that administrators do not see much personal upside, and much downside, risk to defending this. Public schools tend to be extremely conservative (small-c), risk-averse institutions. While this reluctance to follow trends (including popular culture) can be seen as upholding what is valuable about our traditions (such as the classic “Great Books”), schools that are too conservative risk making themselves anachronistic and even less relatable to current students’ lives.

    1. You raise a very interesting point about public schools being risk-averse. It’s hard to know which is the riskier path, though. Removing the book has generated a lot of bad publicity for that school district. Plus, an alternative to removing Neverwhere from the curriculum would have been to permit an exemption for children of parents who want to shelter their children. While schools have a lot of discretion over curricula, the decision to remove a book with sexual themes might look arbitrary if the students at that age also receive comprehensive sexuality education (and I don’t know if they do). There’s a bigger risk of a lawsuit on First Amendment grounds if the district has also removed the book from the library. As weak as Pico might be, there is a good argument that schools don’t have as much discretion in that arena.

      1. Well said. Plus I’m sure there are libraries that would never consider procuring these books to begin with. Our son (almost 3 years old) attends a Montessori school and we researched a bunch of schools and considered many factors: the diversity of the student bogy. teaching and learning philosophy, diversity of the parent body (didn’t want our son to be the only child with two moms), and the kinds of books they had in their library (which can reveal so much).

  3. I think parents like these severely underestimate their children’s capacity for understanding. Yes, a 16-year-old is an adolescent with raging hormonal shifts and limited life experience. But 16-year-olds are also capable of being (taking a global perspective) inventors, Olympians, survivors, small business owners, Nobel Peace Prize Nominees, and even (yes) parents.

    They are able to handle life, and so can handle reading about life. Sex and obscenity are part of life. Parents who feel a need to shelter their children from meaningful representations of these aspects of humanity are doing their kids a disservice, in my opinion – it’s almost like asking them not to mature.

    1. Well said! I agree: “They are able to handle life, and so can handle reading about life. Sex and obscenity are part of life.” The main result of this parent’s mission, if she’s successful, will be to deny teenagers access to a good book. Her success may also teach these kids that sex is wrong and something they can’t talk about, which are very unhealthy messages. Sheltering kids in this way will probably backfire in the end.

  4. Such a shame – Neverwhere is one of my absolute favorite books, and I think it’s well within the boundaries of age appropriateness for 15 and 16 year olds. I remember reading much more scandalous scenes much younger, and I like to think I turned out just fine. 😉 I definitely agree with you that parents should stop trying to parent everyone else’s kid. It’s unfortunate if they feel their own children can’t handle the subject matter, but that should be a personal choice, and not inflicted on everyone else’s children.

    1. Yes, it’s a shame! We’ll see what the school district decides to do in the end, but it bothers me that they would take this complaint so seriously. Neverwhere had been good enough for the curriculum for almost a decade–nothing is different now. The result of this parent’s mission, if she succeeds, will be to deny teenagers access to a good book. Their sexual activity and use of profanity will remain unchanged. Thanks for stopping by! I hope you’re having a nice week!

  5. I think Amelia said it, “I honestly feel bad for these kids, growing up with parents who would rather fight for curriculum changes than have a simple conversation with them.” Parents and kids rarely talk anymore. It is like parenting from afar.

    1. Yes, it’s very sad that this parent prefers to avoid the conversation with a child of 15 or 16. That’s an appropriate age for a discussion about these sorts of topics. The only result of this parent’s activism will be to deny teenagers access to a good book.

  6. When I read things like this I become so bewildered and angry. I’ll never understand the parent that thinks he/she should decide what’s best for EVERY child. Who do you think you are??

    If that parent thinks by banning a book she’ll rid the world of sex and offensive language she is SORELY mistaken…and more than a little ignorant.

    1. “If that parent thinks by banning a book she’ll rid the world of sex and offensive language she is SORELY mistaken.” So true! The only result of this parent’s mission will be to deny teenagers access to a very good book. They’ll still have sex, and they’ll still curse.

  7. An acquaintance of mine who has worked with teens and their families for many years once observed that it’s often the parents who made bad choices as teenagers who insist on the strictest restrictions for their own–and sometimes others’–children. Anecdotal, to be sure, but it suggests that yes, these parents remember being teens, but still aren’t taking responsibility for their own actions, at least not with respect to bringing up their own children.

    1. Your acquaintance might be right about that. I imagine some parents are hoping their children will make better choices than they did, but sheltering them so much is likely to backfire. Thanks for the comment!

  8. Once I get over my intial anger at these things I am amused by them. Where do these parents live? Have they never been next to a 16 year old that is speaking? I hear the F word from kids much younger than 16 and that has always been the case. Does seeing it written on a page increase the impact in some way?
    To assume that a kid that age isn’t aware of the kids around them that are having sex and what that entails just amazes me. I often wonder what happens to some people when they get to a certain age or have children, it seems that all memories of what their teen years were like disappear.
    Of course none of that addresses the fact that somewhere along the line it was decided that if one parent or person doesn’t like something then no one should have access to it. I suppose that isn’t a new problem as all the attempts to ban books throughout the years show. It does seem to be getting worse however. When I was in school if a parent didn’t want their child to be part of something then that child was excused, the rest of us were allowed to participate. I’m sure that still happens today but that isn’t going to get press.

    1. Yeah, I often wonder whether these parents have forgotten what it was like to be 16! Or, as Marianne said in the comments (above), maybe they’re this strict with their kids because they don’t want their kids to behave the way they did. Who knows. Either way, they’re making sure their children won’t be prepared for real life. It’s a shame.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  9. You made your points beautifully, as always. I’ll just say this: denying reality, as far as kids go, especially those at this age, is a sure-fire way to assure they will be ill-equipped for real life. I’m a huge proponent of seeing things as they are, and yes, kids this age know and use the F word, and a lot of them are engaging in unprotected sex because their parents and the other adults in their lives have their heads in the sand. We, as a society, continue to let the small noisy voices makes decisions for the majority; witness the government shutdown currently going on. Also this week, One very noisy disgruntled author caused self-published books at Kobo and its affiliates to be pulled from the shelves.

    I’m getting very very tired of these squeaky wheels and the power people give them.

    1. “I’ll just say this: denying reality, as far as kids go, especially those at this age, is a sure-fire way to assure they will be ill-equipped for real life.” Well said! Most 15 and 16-year-olds know more about sex than it seems some of their parents think they do. I’d rather have children get a healthy framework at home and at school for how to deal with those messages before they hear it from somewhere else.

  10. I don’t understand what the logic is behind this. Protecting children is great, but preventing them access to books and media that they are old enough to seek out (couldn’t they, if they wanted, go into any library or bookstore and buy the book themselves at that age?) is a horrible message to send.
    I honestly feel bad for these kids, growing up with parents who would rather fight for curriculum changes than have a simple conversation with them. A 15 or 16 year old is certainly old enough to read a light sex scene or some profanity, but you know what? Even if my 7 or 9 year old read it, I’d know how to handle that. How are these parents unable to explain things to their children? What little trust they must have in their family and their own parenting skills, if they believe their kids would be so easily corrupted. Very sad.

    1. You make an excellent point. It’s very sad that this is a parent who would rather keep her 15 or 16-year-old in the dark than have a conversation with her. Children are exposed to much more than what they get in their homes and in the school curriculum. It’s better for them to get the framework for how to deal with these messages from home or from school before they learn it from somewhere else. I think I’m prepared for discussions with my children about sex (we’ve already had some discussions about human anatomy and where babies come from, etc.), but there are other topics I’ve realized I am less prepared for. For example, the book my five-year-old daughter brought home from the library this week was about the Holocaust, and I was at a loss for words when she asked me about it. I’ve found that it’s much harder to explain the existence of hatred, genocide, and war to my children (there isn’t a good explanation for why people have behaved that way!) than it is to explain sex and human reproduction. I probably would’ve done a better job explaining it if I’d read the book beforehand, but I just jumped right in without thinking.

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