Montana is no stranger to book challenges. Patrons of libraries and schools have cited sexual content, violence, witchcraft, seditious German influence and even an unflattering portrayal of the city of Butte in their objections to books.
A staple of many school reading programs, Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was pulled from the curriculum by a Mississippi school district earlier in October because its use of a racial slur “makes people uncomfortable.” The move has made waves among educators across the nation.
The book hasn’t had a documented challenge in Montana, and Billings teachers who teach the book vociferously defended the text’s classroom value.
“If we ever take it off the curriculum, that’s when I retire,” said West High English teacher Cheryl Schamp.
That’s not on the table in Billings, but the district has had several book challenges, most recently in 2013 to Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” The book was retained.
"To Kill a Mockingbird," a fictional story that's loosely based on the childhood experiences of author Harper Lee while growing up in a small Alabama town in 1936, is a structural masterpiece, teachers said, but that’s hardly the extent of its use in a curriculum. The themes of the book — which is ultimately critical of institutional racism — discuss social issues students grapple with as they get older.
“I have a discussion with them before we ever start reading about the n-word,” Schamp said. “We don’t teach it in a vacuum … you get a safe environment for kids to think about those things.”
That includes teaching historical background — several teachers said they thought the time between the Civil War and the civil rights era was a gap in students' knowledge.
“The majority of the students have no idea what Jim Crow is,” Schamp said, referring to a series of laws that limited the rights of black citizens and promoted segregation.
Lori Hypes, who previously taught in Virginia, is in her first year teaching English at West. As part of teaching the text in Virginia, she'd had students look out the window at a building that once housed exclusively students of color as part of a segregated school system.
“We can see the building… but to the kids, what they think, that’s the community center now,” she said. “It’s just as relevant for me in Montana as it is for me in Virginia.”
A curriculum challenge is the most common type of challenge Montana schools see, said Bobbi Otte, a librarian at Rocky Mountain College who sits on the Montana Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Committee.
“They’re required to read them, versus, well, if it’s in the library no one forces you to read them,” she said. Many Montana districts, including Billings, have a policy that allows students to read an alternate text if a there’s an objection to a book in the curriculum.
Schools carefully evaluate texts for inclusion into curriculum options using academic standards and guidelines, teachers said.
“It’s not just 'Oh, I like this book, I think we’ll teach it,'” Schamp said.
Perhaps the earliest documented challenges in Montana were in 1918, under the Sedition Act, which aimed to suppress German-friendly materials during World War I. Books were removed from libraries around the state, including “West’s Ancient Worlds,” a history book, and “Deutsche Lieder,” a German song book. In at least some cases, the books were burned.
Challenges continued through the years, including a 1999 challenge in Laurel of James Welch's "Fools Crow," a historical fiction novel about the Blackfeet tribe. The book was removed from the curriculum.
“When I look at the challenges in Montana, 2000 on … there’s just as many happening as there were in the 1990s or 1980s,” Otte said.
The Billings Public Library sees regular challenges, including current ones against “Daddy’s Little Girl,” a film, and “Kundalini,” a yoga book.
Library director Gavin Woltjer processes challenges, adding relevant context like check-out information, and the library board evaluates options like relabeling or removing the item, or keeping it as is.
“You just never know what material is going to be challenged,” he said.
In the library association’s compilation of challenges, not all resolutions are reported. But a common remedy for school is to adjust an age-appropriateness recommendation, or require some type of permission to check out the book. But that can be problematic, Woltjer said.
“Not every 8-year-old is created equally,” he said.
Teachers and librarians roundly rejected the idea that “comfort” should play into reading choice.
“We’re not a gatekeeper,” Woltjer said. “If anything, we’re a locksmith. We unlock a whole bunch of resources for all of these topics, whether it’s race, whether it's poverty.”
Woltjer specifically cited challenges to Sherman Alexie, whose works often involve poverty among minorities and sexual situations.
“I think he hits close to home,” he said. “It’s not a pretty picture. But in order for us to move forward as a society, we have to understand that picture.”