NEW TAMPA — Ashyaa Brown is in the gifted program at Turner Elementary School. She can handle pretty advanced books, says Darryl Brown, her father.
But when the 11-year-old discovered a racially offensive term in two books from the school's accelerated reading list, her parents were appalled to learn they came from shelves at her school library.
Ashyaa was reading The Starplace, by Vicki Grove, when she ran across the N-word. She also found the term in another book, The Land, by award-winning author Mildred Taylor, who is black.
Now Darryl and his wife, Alytrice Brown, who are black, want those books off the shelves.
"There needs to be an examination of these words that elementary school kids are reading," said Darryl Brown, who lives in Live Oak in northeast Hillsborough. "I want them pulled."
Book challenges are not unusual in Hillsborough County. In a typical year, about a half-dozen are filed, school officials say.
Two months ago, after Ashyaa discovered the words, Brown told Turner's assistant principal that he was offended by the content. Last week, Ashyaa saw a student reading one of the books in an after-care class and an emotional discussion about the N-word ensued, leaving Ashyaa visibly upset, Brown said.
Brown complained again. This time, the media specialist at the school, Donna Simonetti-Tedesco, called him. She told him he could file a formal complaint, but used the word n----- when discussing the book's contents, he said. That incensed him even more.
"It's like pouring salt on a wound," said Brown, who is a doctoral student in education at the University of South Florida and the director of sales and marketing for an event planning business. "She was like, 'I apologize,' but it was a lackluster apology."
Brown, 44, sent Turner principal Donna Ares a letter Monday asking that Simonetti-Tedesco be suspended. Simonetti-Tedesco could not be reached for comment. Ares did not return a call for comment.
The Browns have not read either book, but they think the word has no place on elementary school bookshelves.
The Land is about the son of a prosperous landowner and a former slave whose white father raises him openly in post-Civil War Georgia.
Taylor, the author, has addressed her use of the offensive term. She wrote: "I have chosen to use the language that was spoken during the period, for I refuse to whitewash history. The language was painful and life was painful for many African-Americans, including my family. I remember the pain."
The Starplace, whose author is white, is about racism and the friendship between two middle school students, one black and one white, in Quiver, Okla., during the early 1960s.
According to the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, which has kept records of challenges from school and public libraries since the 1970s, this is the first instance they have heard of in which someone has challenged these two books.
"These challenges are often based on a sense of language or the use of racial slurs," said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, deputy director for the office for Intellectual Freedom. "That's one of the reasons To Kill a Mockingbird is often challenged. Yet it's one of the most eloquent arguments against casual racism in this country."
Caldwell-Stone said the most-challenged book last year was a picture book aimed at 5- to 8-year-olds titled And Tango Makes Three. It's about two male penguins who raise an egg together.
Upset by reaction
The Browns are upset they weren't told initially they had the option of filing a formal complaint.
"Two months later, it takes my daughter getting hurt for me even finding out about the procedure," Brown said.
School district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said the Browns did not receive a phone call from the media specialist after the initial complaint because of a miscommunication.
The assistant principal who fielded the complaint did not realize the Browns wanted to make a formal challenge and was not familiar with the process. The media specialist has been reported to the Office of Professional Standards to review Brown's complaints about her use of language, Cobbe said.
The Browns will now fill out a form so that a school review committee can determine if the books belong in the Turner library.
According to Barbara Rooks, supervisor of K-5 media centers for Hillsborough, each school has between 9,000 and 20,000 books, and not every school has the same books.
When a book is formally challenged, a committee of teachers, media specialists and parents from the school in question reads the book and decide to either keep it on the shelves or find another place for it.
If the person complaining is not satisfied, he or she can appeal to a district committee, which goes through the same process. Again, the person can appeal, and the School Board will have the final say.
In most cases, the books stay, Rooks said.
Rooks said she has not read the two books, but plans to. Taylor, the author of The Land, "has won millions of awards. She's very well known," Rooks said.
"The key is if things are taken out of context," Rooks said. "You can probably find something wrong with every book in our library if you chose to find something."
Times researcher Caryn Baird and staff writers Jared Leone and Amber Mobley contributed to this report. Information from the Washington Post was used in this report. Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 269-5312.