'Paper Towns,' once banned at Pasco school, is back on summer reading list

Published July 29, 2014

A Pasco County middle school that quietly removed star novelist John Green's Paper Towns from its eighth-grade summer reading list after a parent's complaint has now just as quietly put the title back on its list.

Superintendent Kurt Browning faced threats of legal action from anti-censorship groups after he authorized the book's deletion last month over concerns about sexual content and language.

Joanne Corcoran was moving her daughter Hope from homeschool to public middle school. When the 13-year-old started reading the popular novel, she came to her mother asking her the definition of "masturbation." Corcoran further spotted F-bombs and references to teen sex. She emailed the district, not asking for the book's removal from John Long Middle School's reading list but expressing that she would have liked a warning about its content.

District officials received her email early on 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 policy regarding objections to books.

That policy provides for a detailed review process that allows for many points of view to be considered, plus time for appeals.

The book's abrupt removal drew criticism from intellectual freedom groups, who said one mother should be able to prohibit her own child from reading a book, but not everyone's children.

District spokeswoman Linda Cobb said it was the school's decision to remove and now replace the book.

Superintendent Kurt Browning said in an email to a colleague that he and district leaders wanted to take community standards into consideration, and learned the teacher who selected the book never had read it.

The district administration wanted to tighten its procedures for selecting reading list titles, and also provide more information for parents to help their children make proper choices. It has offered more about Paper Towns along with other titles on the list, which also includes Animal Farm and, for seventh-graders, The House on Mango Street. Now each title includes descriptions, which were not there originally.

For Paper Towns, it says: "Quentin, 17, has loved his next-door neighbor Margo most of his life, so when she takes him on a middle of the night adventure he is happy to go. He wasn't prepared for how the night ends, however, when Margo disappears with only a few clues directed to him. Includes sensitive issues and language often found in coming-of-age stories."

In the email, Browning made clear he never intended to ban any books. He also stressed that he didn't change course because of warnings from national organizations. "I want to point out that it was returned to the list because it was the right thing to do," he wrote, "not because of the threat from the National Coalition Against Censorship."

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Going forward, he added, "I also believe that principals need to continually ensure that reading selections are relevant and appropriate for instructional purposes."