Tales from Wasilla: The Book Burners Are Back

WC had intended to make this Tale from Wasilla about Shawn O’Shea-Grantham, who died recently while serving her prison sentence. But as appalling as Shawn O’Shea-Grantham’s story is, she’s been trumped (sorry) by the Mat-Su School Board and its 5-2 decision to ban five outstanding books from the tender eyes of Mat-Su high school students.1

The five books in question are I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou, Catch – 22 by Joseph Heller, The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. 

Maya Angelou won a Pulitzer Prize, three Grammys for her spoken word albums, the Spingarn Medal, the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was awarded over fifty honorary degrees. The first volume of her autobiography, the book the Mat-Su has banned, is widely regarded as one of the best autobiographies of the 20th Century. But Mat-Su’s high school students, in the judgment of the school board, are too delicate to be exposed to this Pulitzer Prize Winner.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is arguably the best anti-war novel written in the 20th Century. It has sold more than 10 million copies, and is a tour de force of the absurdities of war. It also has an amazing plot structure, but WC understands that school boards set no store by plot structure. It’s a book that rocked WC’s world when it was assigned as reading by Eve Kozloski in WC’s AP English class. But, sadly, the book has been deemed too much for Mat-Su students, so it is banned.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is widely regarded as one of the great American novels, and the definitive story of the Gilded Age. It’s takedown of the American Dream is brilliant. It’s certainly not pablum, which seems to be what the Mat-Sue School Board wants to use for instruction.

Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is probably the best known exploration of African-American consciousness and a sheer delight to read. Yes, it’s a bit raw, but the world is a bit raw, too, and you’d think the Mat-Su School Board would want to prepare it young scholars well to face that world. You’d be wrong.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a series of linked short stories and vignettes, meta fiction, about the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War, told from the soldiers’ point of view. It’s one of the best Vietnam War books WC has read, brilliantly written and so vivid you can practically smell the swamps. It has received multiple awards including France’s Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger Award and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, as well as being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award. But the Mat-Su School Board banned it was to intense for high school students bing recruited by the Amed Forces to, you know, go and fight in places like Vietnam.

The late U.S. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan wrote in Texas v. Johnson, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.” And Justice Abe Fortas wrote in Tinker v. Des Moines, 1969, “students do not shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” Alaska Supreme Court cases are even more protective of constitutional rights. The Mat-Su School Board is on very thin ice. In Island Trees School District v. Pico, the U.S. Supreme Court said that school officials may not remove books from the school library simply because they dislike the ideas in the book. School officials may remove a book from a school library if it is inappropriate for the children of the school. For example, if Lolita was in an elementary school library, the school board could probably remove it because of its highly sexual and violent content. None of the five banned books is Lolita. WC thinks it’s more likely than not that what the Mat-Su School Board has done is unconstitutional under both the U.S. Constitution and the Alaska Constitution. It seems likely tens of thousands of dollars will be expended on lawyers to find out.

WC has no objections at all to spending money on lawyers. But suggests the money might be more useful spent educating the kids.

Mat-Su School Board President Tom Bergey and members Jim Hart, Ole Larson, Ryan Ponder and Jeff Taylor voted to ban books. Kelsey Trimmer and Sarah Welton voted against. The Anchorage Daily News article and Mat-Su Frontiersman story suggest that many of the board members voted without even bothering to read the books. The fact is that there is more racism and violence – sexual and physical – in hip-hop song lyrics than in all five of the banned books. There’s more perverted sex on the internet than you can find in an entire public library. And if the school board members think high school kids don’t have access to hip-hop music and on-line porn, they are too naive to be functioning adults, let alone school board members.

When schools fail to teach the world as it is, when they teach some sort of pretend world, they fail in the fundamental goal of preparing students to be citizens. When school boards cripple the ability of teachers to perform that most important function, they simply prove Mark Twain was right. The Mat-Su School Board would be Exhibit A.


  1. Mat-Su School District has a sophisticated system by which parents can ask that their kids no be forced to read objectionable books. The Mat-Su School Board banned books anyway, saying that parents were insufficiently involved in their kids’ education to play that role. Can we think about that for a minute? 

5 thoughts on “Tales from Wasilla: The Book Burners Are Back

  1. First, thank you for your thoughtful blog. Anything that starts with a Mark Twain quote, and is concerning book banning, definitely gets my attention. And, if you don’t mind, I offer some proof reading suggestions.

    In the paragraph on Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is the line:

    “But the Mat-Su School Board banned it was to intense for high school students bing recruited by the Amed Forces to, you know, go and fight in places like Vietnam.”

    I think this was meant to read:

    “But the Mat-Su School Board banned it because it was too intense for high school students being recruited by the Armed Forces to, you know, go and fight in places like Vietnam.”

    Thanks again.
    Bruce Johnson


  2. I suppose exposing them to “To Kill a Mockingbird” is utterly unthinkable to the Mat-Su school board. I expect that Mr. Clemens characters Tom, Huck, Becky and Jim are far to adventurous for the Mat-Su crew.


  3. As a resident of the Matsu Borough, I expect a shakeup with the school board soon. They’ve been dancing around with their decision ever since it broke out in the news. All the feedback from the citizens has been against this board decision.


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