Author responds to Tuscola pulling ‘Dear Martin’
After Haywood County Schools administration pulled “Dear Martin” from a 10th grade English II class , The Smoky Mountain News caught up with author Nic Stone to get her thoughts on the issue.
“I don’t fault the parents at all,” said Stone. “We’re all just trying to do our best when it comes to raising our kids. I would just hope that they would be willing to read beyond the first chapter just to see what’s actually in there.”
Stone was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, the same city where “Dear Martin” takes place. After graduating from Spelman College, she worked extensively in teen mentoring and lived in Israel for a few years before returning to the United States to write full-time.
Stone has two young boys of her own, whom she says were a big inspiration for writing “Dear Martin.”
“I wrote [Dear Martin] with my own children in mind,” said Stone. “I was really jarred by some of the things happening in the news media around the deaths of unarmed Black boys, especially as the mother of one. So I wanted to explore and get a better handle on why things work the way that they do, what’s the history behind it, and what would a kid do if he found himself in some of the situations that we were seeing on the news?”
“Dear Martin” is a young adult novel written in 2017. The book follows Justyce, a Black high-schooler attending a predominantly white preparatory school. After an incident with a police officer turns violent, Justyce begins writing a journal of letters to Martin Luther King, Jr. Near the end of his first entry to MLK, Justyce writes, “I wanna try to live like you. Do what you would do. See where it gets me.”
The story that unfolds is one that grapples with coming of age and the intricacies of racism in today’s United States. The book was written for ages 14 and older.
One parent complained about the book, leading to its removal from an English class at Tuscola High School. Tim Reeves said he found “a lot of language, a lot of sexual innuendos, a lot of things that are concerning to me as a parent that’s being presented to my child as a text.”
After the removal of the novel was announced, countless parents and members of the public expressed negative reactions to the administration’s decision.
The book contains no sexual content and there are only a few instances in which intimacy is mentioned by the characters in the story. Among the more mature content in the book is teen drinking, racial slurs and police brutality.
Stone says she believes that the language she used throughout the novel is authentic to high schoolers in today’s society.
“I spend a lot of time in both middle and high schools, and I think if parents were to spend some time in a high school, they would either be appalled or they would be reminded of their own youth,” said Stone. “The innuendo piece is interesting to me because there’s actually not a single mention of sex in the book at all.”
If the language used in the novel is the very same language teenagers are using or hearing on a regular basis, and there is almost no sexual innuendo or content, why is “Dear Martin” getting challenged and banned in Haywood County and elsewhere?
Stone believes it has to do with unfamiliar subject matter that feels threatening to parents.
“It has a lot to do with it just being different than what they were exposed to when they were young,” she said. “I’m 37. I have kids of my own. I do understand the instinct to try and keep your children safe and to shield them from things in the world that you don’t feel like they’re ready for. But that can be detrimental. And I think it’s that gray space between recognizing that we are supposed to be preparing our children for a world that they’re going to enter and have to live in and have to work in, have to love in, and also trying to keep them as innocent and safe and sheltered as we possibly can.”
Author Nic Stone tweeted her response to administration pulling 'Dear Martin' from a 10th grade English class.
James Tager is director of research at PEN America , an international organization founded in 1922 with the mission of uniting writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Tager’s work centers on freedom of expression and books bans, both in the United States and abroad. He weighed in on some of the dangers of challenging, banning or removing books from the classroom.
“A long-standing truism in book banning is that books featuring characters of color or written by authors of color are disproportionately likely to be banned,” he said.
According to Tager, the American Library Association ’s list of Top Ten Banned Books regularly features books with LGBTQ characters, characters of color, or are written by authors from those communities. In 2020, seven of the top 10 most banned books were banned due to content regarding race. In 2019, eight of the top 10 banned books were banned due to content regarding the LGBTQ community.
“Particularly when it comes to banning books featuring people of color or other marginalized communities such as LGBTQ people, the issue is that people from those communities do not get to see themselves portrayed in literature,” said Tager. “And of course, any book that sort of whittles down the diversity that children are exposed to in literature, it affects their understanding of diversity in life and disadvantages these children from operating in a multicultural and diverse society.”
Tager used the metaphor of a vampire, the mythical creature unable to see themselves in the mirror. He says the lack of visibility of oneself is what tells you that society sees you as “monstrous.”
“That is a sort of a beautiful, but uncomfortable metaphor for the importance of representation in literature,” he said.
“There’s also the case with this book, the fact that it’s this young man conversing one on one with Martin Luther King is a powerful representation of the fact that the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement are not divorced from where we are today. That’s a really powerful message. And it’s disappointing to hear that the superintendent in question thought that was not an important enough message to stand up for this book.”
A parent commented on Facebook saying her child read the book and was deeply moved by it.
“My son read this book in 8th grade,” said Jaylee Hobbs. “I remember him telling me about it. He had never been so emotionally involved in a book. To be able to get a perspective of the real issues that people of color face in this country every day. The truth is not always pretty, but it needs to be addressed.”
Several members of the public who reacted to the removal of “Dear Martin” from the English II class expressed concern that there was not more oversight or a coherent process for removing the book.
“I am saddened that the county did not come to us as a group and ask us to read and review the book before deciding to ban it,” a school media specialist in Haywood County Schools commented. “There is a process outlined by the American Library Association for how to handle challenged books and the media specialists of the county should have at least been consulted.”
Megean Wantz, librarian at Tuscola High School, previously told The Smoky Mountain News that there are no copies of “Dear Martin” at the Tuscola Library.
Haywood Attorney Mark Melrose commented that he would donate unlimited copies of the book to any teacher in Haywood County who would like to provide it to their students.
Stone, along with several members of the public reacting to the removal of “Dear Martin,” noted that in banning or challenging a book, those challengers do a lot to raise the profile of the book, sometimes making it even more popular than it was before being challenged.
According to Haywood County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Nolte, “Dear Martin” will be permitted for assigned reading in the future. He said it may be more appropriate for students older than those who received it in their 10th grade English class. The catch, however, is whether any teacher would be willing to assign this book, or any other book that hasn’t stood the tests of time, knowing that one parent’s complaint can lead to a quick pull of the book with almost no discussion on the matter.
Stone says she isn’t shocked anymore when “Dear Martin” is challenged or banned. She knew this book would ruffle some feathers from the very moment she got the idea for the project. She was nervous about writing it. Even with that knowledge, it still makes her sad every time it happens.
“Knowing that there are going to be kids who can identify with the characters in this book that don’t get to read it in class and instead have to read something about kids that they do not identify with at all, that’s unfortunate to me,” Stone said. “Especially as a kid who was never given anything, never assigned any books that had a positive representation of an African American character.”
Stone used the example of “To Kill a Mockingbird.” She had to read it as required reading in high school, as did her mother when she was in high school several years before.
“It’s a book that’s safe simply because it’s been read over and over and over and over again,” said Stone. “Parents are familiar with it I think to the point where parents overlook the language in that book. No, it’s not the F-word, it’s the N-word over and over and over again. You have a better chance of hearing the F-word in a high school hallway than you do the N-word, I would hope.”
Again, it’s the unfamiliarity of subject matter and the powerlessness that comes with that, Stone believes, that leads parents to be uncomfortable with certain novels.
“I think that we have been sold a lie that adults are supposed to know what they’re doing,” she said. “We have no idea what we’re doing. I don’t know if there is a single adult on this planet who actually knows what they’re doing. And there’s almost this shame that comes along with that, not knowing exactly what to do with every moment of every day and every situation. But how could we? So I think it has more to do with this sense of not having control of these people that you made, being exposed to something that you were not exposed to, and therefore you don’t have a complete understanding of.”
A banned books display at Malaprop’s Bookstore in Asheville in 2020. Cory Vaillancourt photo
According to the American Library Association, book bans are on the rise across the United States. Tager says that if parents are opposed to banning and removing books, they should be vocal in their opposition to the issue.
“We are seeing those who are in favor of those challenges and book bans being ever more vocal and shutting down access to ever more books,” he said. “Parents who are concerned about that, I encourage them to sort of be that counterbalance to speak to your local officials, speak to your principal, superintendent, school boards and say that you demand an education in which your children are not disserved by being exposed to fewer perspectives or identities or themes.”
Stone is not worried about the pace at which books are being challenged and banned in public schools.
“It’s the times of greatest upheaval that the most progress is happening,” said Stone. “When I’m seeing this much pushback, it’s because there’s a lot of progress and that’s literally just historically speaking. I look back over history, I look back over times of tumult and chaos in society, and when you get to the other side of that, things have changed and they’re different and they’re more equitable. So I’m not really worried. I do think that it’s going to be important for those of us who are kind of eyes wide, and not scared to make sure we are being compassionate toward literally everybody we come in contact with. It’s important to me to remain compassionate towards these parents who think that my book should be pulled from their kids’ classrooms.”
This sentiment of Stone’s harkens to that of “Doc,” the main character’s mentor and only Black teacher in “Dear Martin” when he says, “you can’t change how other people think and act, but you’re in full control of you. When it comes down to it, the only question that matters is this: If nothing in the world ever changes, what type of man are you gonna be?”
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I am a former educator, that taught English for all grade levels, and I decided to read this book Dear Martin before writing my review. For those who chose to have the book band; I respect your position, but let's be honest and call it what it is,simply because the book deals with race and the vantage point of a young black male and his insight to his life and adjust to social injustices and typical teenage issues many kids deal with. The author brings attention to the differences in social classes and society and how students and young people think and address issues facing thier generation. So for those who chose to hide behind a few curse words and sexual references be real . It's not like teenagers are not exposed to this in other forms like music, video games movies and each other. I'm sure the parents who pushed for the ban of the book would agree but I didn't see anything suggestions we do anything about other forms of media. Let's call it like it is if it wasn't a black author bringing light to social injustices this would not be a story. The book is very well written should and could be used to heal, spark conversation and open blind eyes. Parents, students and so called school officials alike. There needs to be a more balanced and objective process when it comes to evaluation of books and not just take them at "Face Value"
Thanks so much for this thoughtful interview. I'm delighted you actually called the author of "Dear Martin." Top notch journalism here.
Thank you for your article on the banned book Dear Martin. You have captured an insightful interview with Stone that reveals some known but unannounced truths: Adults do not know everything, and of course we all need to be reflected in the society in which we live to create a sense of belonging. The metaphor by Tagar is jarring truth!!
How absolutely ridiculous that one person can complain and a book is BANNED! Outrageous. The school board and administration did not follow protocol on this. How embarrassing and backward for Haywood County. Shame! Of course it's because of race. 30 years ago, in my high school days, the book of choice to ban was Beloved by Toni Morrison (also a Black author with Black characters); however, instead of banning it, our library put up a poster saying it had been banned in other places which, of course, made us rebellious teens want to read it even more to see what all the fuss was about. Thank you, Mr. "Karen," as you've now made this book the must-read of the season! Let's get a better policy in place than removing from the curriculum a book simply because one pearl-clutcher got uncomfortable.
As a lifelong reader, books have never damaged me. Not a single time. They have introduced me to words, context and understanding of stuff I didn’t know about. I’ll go so far as saying that because of what I learned in books, I have avoided situations that might have proved dangerous or tragic.