February 24, 2008
When the book first came home I couldn’t sleep the first night. I just kept waking up and just had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach.
— Patricia Cosby, Yorba Linda, California,
whose 12-year-old daughter found the novel Prep at her school library
I first knew about Prep, a coming-of-age novel that follows a teen girl’s course through her four years in a New England boarding school, in August of 2005. The author, Curtis Sittenfeld, reported on her experiences as a first-time and best-selling author in a personal essay in that summer’s fiction issue of The Atlantic. (Sittenfeld is a woman. Curtis is her mother’s birth surname.) I liked the voice in the piece, at once ironic and self-deprecating, but gently so. It showed me how different the process of publishing and marketing your work is from the process of creating it (a process which for Sittenfeld took three years in the writing and two years on the road to publication). I bought the book and began reading it in January of 2006.
And was greatly disappointed. On January 26, 2006, I wrote in my journal, “Bogged down in Prep on p. 172. 229 pages to go — I’m less than half way. I’m bogged down — the narrative is bogged down — because the character/narrator hasn’t changed. Her life is even, still trying to fit in, still keeping emotional distance from everyone and everything.” I copied out two passages and reported the disappointment in my commonplace. I did read a little more. From the placement of my bookmark, it appears I got to p. 229 before putting the volume aside and forgetting about it.
Evidently I did not read far enough. According to a story I saw last night on the local Fox News broadcast, things get pretty steamy after p. 300. It is the fifth week of senior year for Lee Fiora, the central character and narrator. On a weekend when her roommate is off campus, the boy whom she lusts after (and with whom she has forged a friendship as a way of spending time with him) comes to her room late at night, climbs into bed with her, and initiates a physical relationship that progresses, over the next several months, from intimate touching to full intercourse.
The relationship is entirely clandestine. The boy never acknowledges her to others as his girlfriend and they never appear on campus as a couple, although most people know that the two are “messing around.” The most tender thing he ever says to her is, “That was a great blow job.” (Sittenfeld takes two pages — 314 and 315 — to describe the first of these acts, only one page — 348 — to describe a subsequent one that ruins a “tan wool sweater with cables.” Sittenfeld leaves no detail unmentioned.) Eventually he discards Lee and turns his affections to another girl, something Lee has to learn by reading it in the school newspaper’s gossip column and observing the two holding hands in the dining hall.
The mother quoted above was reacting to her sixth-grade daughter’s acquiring the book at Heritage Oak School, a private school in Yorba Linda, California that serves students through eighth grade. It is unclear (to me) exactly how this book fell into the hands of the particular child whose mother lost sleep over it. The national Fox News announcer who introduced the story called it “required reading,” but Jonathan Hunt, the correspondent who reported the story, said the girl got it at the school library.
Perhaps the girl chose it as one title in part of her required number of books to be read. The school uses the Accelerated Reader program, part of the offerings of Renaissance Learning, a Wisconsin-based company that specializes in software and hardware that helps teachers and parents monitor student progress. Accelerated Reader is a program that helps determine that a student has actually read a book by administering title-specific quizzes that can be machine scored. (Wow! No need for the students to write tedious book reports nor for the teacher to read them, nor actually engage the students in conversation about the books they read. How efficient! How modern!)
Prep is in the program’s database undoubtedly because of its inclusion on two important and respected lists, the New York Public Library’s “Best Books for the Teen Reader” and “Adult Books for High School Students,” titles chosen by School Library Journal. Its “readability level,” arrived at by analyzing the number of words used and the complexity of the sentence structure without regard to content, does place it at sixth grade. While the story line of the novel and even its brief graphic content are suitable for older teen readers, most people would agree that it need not be offered to, and certainly not required of, sixth graders, especially given the availability of a vast number of other titles without such problematic content.
The mother said that sleepless night occurred when her daughter had read only to page 90. That much of the book covers only part of Lee’s freshman year and contains nothing much beyond the narrator’s incessant self-absorption and analysis of her efforts to fit in. How did the mother know what was to come in the text? How did this become a national news story instead of a local matter?
Heritage Oak’s principal, Greg Cygan, immediately pulled the book off the library shelf. He blames Renaissance Learning for including the book on their lists and not warning users of the content. Actually, they do. On their site (information available to me, and I’m not even a subscriber to their service) they label the interest level “upper grades” and offer this summary: “In this coming-of-age novel, Lee Fiora’s father takes her to a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts where she manages to survive in spite of the social differences between her and her classmates and an intimate affair with a popular boy.”
Renaissance Learning in turn blames the school for not exercising proper care in choosing titles. “A book’s Interest Level reflects the judgment of the book’s publisher and the professionals at Renaissance Learning,” they write. “However, the final decision on whether the content of a book is appropriate for a particular student is the responsibility of school librarians, teachers, and parents.”
Exactly. If you’re going to cede your responsibility for choosing reading material for your children or your students to a company that cares more about the business of selling software and hardware than they do about the community of learners they sell their stuff to, then you will get what you pay for.
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