Freedom to teach: implications of the removal of Persepolis from Chicago schools

In March 2013, the school district authority in Chicago instructed schools to remove the well-respected graphic novel Persepolis from classrooms. I’ve recently had an article published reflecting on the implications of this incident for teachers’ and students’ freedom to teach and to read.

Persepolis is an autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. It was first published (in French) in 2003 and depicts her childhood and early adult years in Iran during and after the Islamic revolution. It has been translated into over 40 languages and won numerous awards. It has long been the subject of controversy in Iran, but the reaction in Chicago was unexpected; Persepolis had previous been a recommended text in district curriculum guides. It’s difficult to be sure about the reasons behind Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) decision, but it appears it was prompted by this page showing what the young Marji imagines when she hears her uncle has been tortured. A host of free speech organisations, including the National Coalition Against Censorship, American Library Association and the American Booksellers’ Foundation for Free Expression attacked the directive to remove Persepolis from libraries and classrooms and teachers and students protested. This led to a degree of backtracking, but CPS remained insistent the book be banned from 7th grade classrooms until they had developed professional development guidelines for teachers ‘so the content of this book can be accessed’ by students.

I found this episode highly worrying. In the article, I discuss comics in relation to reader response theories, arguing that meaning does not reside in the text itself, but is created through the interaction of reader, image and text. Each reader’s interpretation is therefore unique and there is no single ‘correct’ way to access the content. As a medium, comics are particularly open to different interpretations due to the way in which they use more than one code system (words and images); the use of gutters between frames and so forth. Previous research I conducted with librarians suggested that, when adults decide to make a book unavailable to young people, they frequently do so based on an assumption that young people will interpret a text in the same way as they have. Many young people have a much more sophisticated view, however! For example, in a focus group I ran about controversial novels, one teenager commented: “You bring your own existing ideas…when you read the book, so people can read it differently”. The group felt that younger children would be likely to construct less graphic images than an older teenager when they read the same book.

In the same research, young people also said they valued opportunities to discuss controversial books and to discuss the issues raised. Removing Persepolis from classrooms denies young people not only with an opportunity to read the book, but also to discuss its implications. As I argue in the article, adults with the power to deny young people access to books have a duty to ensure they possess a thorough understanding of all types of young people’s literature. Sadly, from the controversy in Chicago as well as many more less high profile incidents I’ve come across, it seems this is often not the case.

Sarah McNicol

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