WESLEY CHAPEL — Joanne Corcoran had never heard of John Green before.
So when her daughter, Hope, picked the author's 2008 novel Paper Towns from John Long Middle School's eighth-grade summer reading list, Corcoran decided to read it, too — after the 13-year-old girl came to her, book in hand, asking for a definition of "masturbation."
Within the first few chapters, Corcoran found plenty of F-bombs, several discussions about teen sex and references to girls as "honeybunnies," which she considered misogynistic.
Green's surging adoration among adolescents amid the popularity of the hit film based on his book The Fault in Our Stars didn't impress her. Nor did the book's 2009 American Library Association Best Books for Young Adults award.
She was, as she noted in the subject line of her email to School Board member Joanne Hurley, "mortified."
Suddenly, the mom who had only recently decided to stop homeschooling her child had doubts about whether she had made the right choice.
"I thought maybe she is more mature to deal with it," Corcoran said about public middle school. "Then I got met with soft porn."
District officials received her email early June 20, a Friday when their offices were closed for summer hours. Even so, by midday Saturday, the curriculum department had put together some basic information about the novel for leaders to look at.
By Monday morning, the title no longer appeared on the school's summer reading list, in apparent violation of the district's own policy regarding objections to books.
"It is racy," assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said after reviewing the book. "I was concerned that book had been assigned for eighth grade. I don't think I would have done that as a teacher."
Hurley backed the move.
"The book may be appropriate for older kids. But I would find it very questionable for eighth grade," she said. "I have a granddaughter going into the eighth grade. I would probably have the same reaction as this parent, had my granddaughter brought home this book. I'm giving it the grandmother test, and it didn't pass."
Corcoran was gratified that someone took her concerns seriously. She pointed out, though, that she never asked for the book's removal from the list.
Other children may already have begun reading it and doing the assigned annotation work, she said. Some parents might be fine with Paper Towns, about a high school boy trying to figure out what happened to a girl he's infatuated with, she added.
And plenty of kids might have read the book, one of Green's many bestsellers, on their own.
What Corcoran really wanted, she said, was some warning that the content might not be suitable for some children, so she wouldn't have been blindsided.
District policy on book challenges does not call for immediate action based on a single complaint. Rather, there's a detailed review process that allows for many points of view to be considered, plus time for appeals.
That's the model that several groups paying attention to book banning issues support.
Millie Davis, who heads the National Council of Teachers of English Intellectual Freedom Center, calls it the students' right to read.
"Our belief is that students should have the right to read. On the other hand, parents are allowed to say their children are forbidden to read things," Davis said. "But they are not allowed to forbid other parents' children to read it."
This is a position that Green has taken publicly in past efforts to remove his books from schools. He could not be reached for comment by the Times.
Parents frequently put together laundry lists of words or scenes in books that they object to, Davis said. But they don't always include the context, which makes a difference when considering a book's educational and literary value, she said.
"Somebody thought if they took the book off it would solve things," Davis said. "It doesn't solve anything. If I were halfway through I'd be pretty angry, especially if I liked it."
The fairest result, agreed Deborah Caldwell Stone of the American Library Association Office for Intellectual Freedom, comes when everybody goes through the process. Stone noted that as Green has grown in popularity, complaints about his books have increased. His novel Looking for Alaska has appeared on the ALA's list of top 10 most challenged books for the past two years.
The objections have focused on offensive language, drug and alcohol references, scenes of explicit sex and a general "unsuitable for age group" catch-all.
Such descriptions, Stone observed, often have the effect of drawing more kids to the books.
Larson said the district must do a better job of letting students and their parents know what books on reading lists are about, and if any objections might exist. She planned to work more closely with schools to create a process to get that done.
Book challenges that rise to the district level, however, are few and far between. District officials could not remember a year when they had more than two.
Larson stressed that parents should know they always have options if they do not like the materials their children have been assigned.
They just need to ask.
"I am glad this parent called in," she said, "to call attention to this book."
Corcoran said the changes seemed needed.
"I want the schools to send out positive messages," she said. "There's so much bad in the world. I want to preserve my daughter's innocence a little bit longer."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected]