CBLDF Drafts Letter of Support for New Jersey School in 'Fun Home' Challenge

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has issued a statement in support of Alison Bechdel's graphic novel Fun Home after parents of students at Watchung Hills Regional High School in New Jersey have called for the book to be withdrawn from the school curriculum.

Fun Home is the story of Alison Bechdel's childhood growing up in a funeral home and reconciling herself with her discovered sexual identity. Critically acclaimed, it has won literary awards and a Tony Award for Best Musical in 2015. It has been repeatedly challenged in schools and libraries over the years and frequently turns up on Banned Books Lists.

Fun Home was added to senior English classes at the school after graduating students told school surveys that the school didn't reflect the spectrum of sexual and gender identities at the school and in the world at large.

The book is the final of four graphic novels read during the senior year's English curriculum.

The two parents who objected to its presence, Steve DiSturco and Mark Bisci, asked that it be replaced with another book with another, saying that the images in Fun Home are not appropriate for a high school curriculum.

The school allows students to opt out of any assigned text with which they, or their parents are uncomfortable with, but the parents thought that this was not enough and that children who did choose another text may be victimised.

Before a school board meeting, the following letter was circulated:

As you may be aware, Watchung Hills Regional High School has included the book "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel in the 12th grade English curriculum.  Contained in this memoir are explicit graphic images showing nudity, oral sex and masturbation.  Attached is a Word document with a few of the images.  Our goal is to have the book replaced with another book that satisfies the school's educational goals, as the images in this book are not appropriate for a high school curriculum.

 The school's position for inclusion of this memoir in the curriculum is based on the following: The curriculum was expanded to include a broad range of literature to reach all students, not just works that portray traditional gender and sexual identities.

Our argument is NOT against the school goals of diversity and expanding the curriculum beyond those of traditional gender and sexual identities. Our argument is that a more appropriate book in support of their goals should be selected; one that does not include explicit graphic images of nudity, sex and masturbation, which is not appropriate for a high school curriculum.

Exposure to images such as those contained in this book should be a parent's decision and it is not something that should be included as required reading by the school.  The school's firewall prevents students from accessing sites that show such images, yet the school finds it acceptable to include similar images in their curriculum.  When the images were uploaded to the Warren Forum, they were removed because they were deemed as not appropriate for the Forum.  When asked if some of the images could be included in the Echoes-Sentinel article, they also stated that the images were not appropriate for publishing in the paper.  I agree with both of these stances, and it supports our case that these images should not be provided to high school students.  And remember, these are your tax dollars paying for the books.

 Our understanding is that the only way to effect change is to show up in large numbers at the next school board meeting on Tuesday, June 5th.  The meeting will start at 7:00 PM in the Media Center room at WHRHS (the meeting starts with the "Executive session" followed by the "Public session" part of the meeting which officially starts at 7:30 PM, but once the Executive session part of the meeting is completed, they will move right into the Public session – so it might be earlier than 7:30 PM).  You are welcome to speak at the meeting, but it is not required – your presence is the most important statement to the board.

 The second part of this request is to contact the School Board members in advance of the meeting.  This will set the stage for the next meeting.  You can write something as simple as: "I am concerned with the explicit graphic images showing nudity, oral sex and masturbation in the book "Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic" by Alison Bechdel, which is currently included in the 12th grade English curriculum for next year.  I am offended by these images and ask for your support in replacing this book with another book that will meet the intended educational goals without such offensive images."

 The explicit images, in and of itself, are concerning; however, allowing this book to remain in our curriculum will set a bad precedent and open the door to who knows what else in the future.  If you are supportive of this position and want to keep this book out of our school curriculum, please attend the school board meeting on June 5th and reach out to others that are willing to attend. This is not a 12th grade issue – this is an issue for anyone who has children in the sending district or are paying tax dollars to fund the purchase of these books.  I know everyone is busy, but we need to show that this is a community concern – not a concern of a small number of families.

The meeting went ahead, with many membrs of the public present, and recorded many statements both in support of, and critical against the book.

Prior to public commentary on Tuesday, WHRHS Board president Peter Fallon stated,

Fun Home also helps us teach intertextuality – a more complex form of literary reading. We want students to understand that no literary text we read exists in isolation, and we attempt to show students how each text exists in conversation with others – informed by its antecedents and, sometimes, opening new spaces for other texts to emerge. We want students' reading to be informed by an understanding of intertextuality – of this ongoing conversation among the literary works they read. We want them to develop context and make thoughtful, relevant connections. Bechdel's book demonstrates such connections among several important literary works

Watchung Hills teacher and GSA advisor Sean DiGiovanna said "A lot of the students I work with have read it and not one of them has felt stigmatized by it. To have it characterized as something that is harmful, I have to say in my experience that this is absolutely not the case."

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has drafted the following letter in support of the book alongside other freedom of speech grouos, including their Teacher's Guide to using Fun Home in the classroom.

We understand that the book – which was recently added to your 12th-grade curriculum after a two-year review – contains illustrations that some parents have objected to, prompting a review per Watchung Hills District Policy 2240. We write to offer our support as you perform this review. We urge you to base your decisions on pedagogical motives, rather than yielding to ideologically motivated pressures from some groups or parents.

Our legal system recognizes images, like words, as symbolic expression protected by the First Amendment. Removing Fun Home simply because some parents dislike a few illustrations in the book would be constitutionally suspect. See Monteiro v. Tempe Union High School District (9th Cir. 1998) (recognizing the First Amendment right of students to read books selected for their "legitimate educational value," even if offensive to some parents and students). Rather, the Supreme Court has said that public schools should base curricular decisions on pedagogical reasoning, not to satisfy an "officially prescribed orthodoxy." See Board of Education v. PICO (1982).

Graphic novels combine visual art with literary and cinematic techniques for educationally rich storytelling. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home is an essential text that has been recognized with significant literary awards. The book has been heralded within the literary and arts community as "a pioneering work" in the comics and memoir genres. (New York Times Sunday Book Review). The inspirational novel chronicles Bechdel's real-life struggles of sexual identity, emotional abuse and domestic strife while growing up in rural Pennsylvania with a closeted gay father. Bechdel's memoir is resonant with many youth experiences and offers teen readers a safe place to examine questions related to personal identity, family relationships, and the need to face the truth in their own lives.

While the book does contain a few images that some may find sexually explicit, these images are an integral part of the larger narrative. Booklist has recommended Fun Home for young adult readers, noting that the "the very few incidental sex scenes" are "non-prurient" and that "the family story rings utterly and movingly true." The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund has produced a discussion guide to aid teachers in moderating discussions on these questions and Bechdel's use of illustration. We hope your teachers will find the guide (attached) useful.

Some parents may still find their children are not yet mature enough to appreciate the literary and artistic value of Fun Home. We encourage you to offer them alternative assignments, rather than removing Fun Home from the curriculum and thereby denying all students the opportunity to read and learn from its pages.

We hope that your review committee will consider and prioritize educational qualities over the ideological objections of some parents and keep Fun Home in the 12th Grade curriculum.

CBLDF Drafts Letter of Support for New Jersey School in 'Fun Home' Challenge

About Rich Johnston

Founder of Bleeding Cool. The longest-serving digital news reporter in the world, since 1992. Author of The Flying Friar, Holed Up, The Avengefuls, Doctor Who: Room With A Deja Vu, The Many Murders Of Miss Cranbourne, Chase Variant. Lives in South-West London, works from Blacks on Dean Street, shops at Piranha Comics. Father of two. Political cartoonist.

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