Free Speech

L.A. Suburban School District Forbids To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men, and More in High School Readings

Other excluded books: Huckleberry Finn, The Cay, and Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.


The L.A. Times (Dorany Pineda) reports:

During a virtual meeting on Sept. 9, middle and high school English teachers in the Burbank Unified School District received a bit of surprising news: Until further notice, they would not be allowed to teach some of the books on their curriculum.

Five novels had been challenged in Burbank: Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men," Theodore Taylor's "The Cay" and Mildred D. Taylor's Newbery Medal-winning young-adult classic "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry."

The challenges came from four parents (three of them Black) for alleged potential harm to the public-school district's roughly 400 Black students [2.6% of the total enrollment]. All but "Huckleberry Finn" have been required reading in the BUSD….

And at its root, it stems from a painful personal story. Destiny Helligar, now 15 and in high school, recently told her mom about an incident that took place when she was a student at David Starr Jordan Middle School. According to Destiny's mother, Carmenita Helligar, a white student approached Destiny in math class using a racial taunt including the N-word, which he'd learned from reading "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry."

Another time, a different boy went up to Destiny and other students and said: "My family used to own your family and now I want a dollar from each of you for the week." When the principal was notified, the boy's excuse was that he had read it in class—also in "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry." …

[T]he parents' objections are not merely over language. They also worry about the way these books portray Black history and the lessons they might impart to modern readers.

"The Cay" and "Huckleberry Finn" feature white children learning from the suffering and wisdom of older Black men. "To Kill a Mockingbird" famously stars Atticus Finch, a white lawyer who defends a Black man accused of raping a white woman. Its white-savior story line reads much differently nearly 60 years after its publication.

"Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" may have instigated Helligar's complaint, but it is something of an outlier. Narrated by a young Black girl growing up in the South during the Great Depression and Jim Crow era, it's the only novel on the list by a Black author….

I don't think the decision violates the First Amendment. A public school district may decide what to include in its curriculum, and that decision could be made by the school board rather than by teachers. Public universities have a long tradition of faculty control over what is taught and how it is taught, and various court cases recognize that; but in public K-12 school, the tradition is of administrative control, and court cases recognize that, too.

Nonetheless, these particular decisions strike me as unwise and narrow-minded, and they show just how broad a range of great literature can be excluded. The objection isn't just that the books include racial slurs (though I don't think books should be excluded for that). It's that some sophomoric students may read a book about slavery and use it to insult the descendant of slaves; how are you going to avoid that by excluding books, unless you exclude all books that mention American slavery? It's that the books "feature white children learning from the suffering and wisdom of older Black men"; but don't we want all children to learn to be open to the wisdom of people from all races? It's that books show whites trying to help blacks who are being oppressed; but aren't we trying to teach members of majority groups (and, I hope, of minority groups) that they should stand up for oppressed minorities? A pretty poor move by the School District, it seems to me.

NEXT: Pennsylvania Court Orders That Certain Ballots May Not Legally Be Counted

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I once worked with a young woman from Holland that spoke English without any accent, so she was foreign but if you spoke with her for just a short time you wouldn’t know she was foreign and I remember not uncommonly people would walk away from an interaction with her thinking she was a moron because she didn’t know an idiom or like who Johnny Bench was. So just think about jokes (spoiler alert)—Americans often invoke Lennie killing the rabbit when and joking around. How can we communicate with a younger generation if their culture is very different from our culture?!?

  2. I agree this is ridiculous, the smarter idea would be, and I’ve seen this in a few districts, teach the books alongside more modern criticism of the books and alongside similar works set in different eras. Teachers are supposed to teach. If you as a parent with pull on the schoolboard didn’t like the lessons imparted from previous teachings, I think its fair to ask that the books be taught better. Just removing the books from the curriculum forces you to lose that opportunity.

  3. Farhenheit 451 is fast approaching

    1. And the people memorizing the books are hiding in the woods not because of the firemen, but because of social media.

      All this in service to a handful of politicians at the top seeking power. What a disgusting nation we have become.

  4. ” A pretty poor move by the School District, it seems to me. ”

    Equally important: What is the School District’s opinion concerning the Volokh Conspiracy’s documented record of repeated, partisan, viewpoint-based censorship?

    This White, male, conservative
    blog has operated for
    125 DAYS
    without using a vile racial slur
    and has operated for
    566 DAYS
    without engaging in partisan,
    viewpoint-driven censorship
    (so far as we are aware).

    Carry on, Conspirators.

    1. Damn. I expected this to be the first post. Get your shit together.

      1. I just can’t seem to make any progress with the deplorable clingers who frequent this blog.

        The Biden presidency will provide some consolation.

        1. I hope you get ALS.

          1. The Volokh Conspiracy’s Board of Censors hopes you don’t use the term “sl_ck-j_w,” or call me a “c_p succ_r,” or make fun of conservatives quite so effectively as Artie Ray Lee Wayne Jim-Bob Kirkland did . . .

    2. “Equally important:”


      1. You’re probably right. Those school district leaders get to set policy. Clingers can only whine about those decisions from the sidelines.

    3. You continue your lofted position of being the Grand Wizard of Religious Bigotry and Intolerance. I expect nothing less from a politically active Democrat in “Filthadephia”.

  5. Leftist scolds finally complete the arc of transformation into fundamentalist religious book burners. Protect kids from those impure thoughts!

    Now we need a new Pleasantville where these kids and their neighbors discover they don’t have to always be petrified with fear and they can just have truthful conversations with each other without experiencing trauma.

    1. Prof. Volokh doesn’t seem to have much to say about the routine prudish authoritarianism or systematic viewpoint-driven censorship at conservative-controlled schools (or blogs, including this one) . . . but never tires of ankle-nipping aimed at public schools, mainstream private schools, and other non-conservative institutions.

      1. So you don’t mind censorship. Got it.

        1. Seems he minds cherry-picking. Perhaps you like it?

  6. I approve of this post.

    Leave Huckleberry Finn alone, you idiots.

    Educate the students who misinterpret the books. That’s your job.

    1. I too approve of this post, but the best example of a work of art that should be censored is the movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”…the Yunioshi character ruins the entire movie. In fact some film school students should attempt to fix the movie through editing and maybe a few news shots.

      1. “In fact some film school students should attempt to fix the movie through editing and maybe a few news shots.”

        So we’ll get to see Yunioshi as a brooding youth, or as a giggling schoolgirl. I hear those types of characters are popular.

      2. Show it and ridicule it. Don’t censor it.

        1. The first scene with that character is jarring and literally produces a physical reaction. Peter Sellers would play Asian caricatures and they are racist but they aren’t jarring like that “performance”.

          1. I agree. It’s totally cringe. But the response should be to ridicule, criticize, and learn. Not censor.

    2. You are right. If a teacher cannot show a student how Scout and Jem Finch benefited from the wisdom of Calpurnia, they are inept and should not hold the exalted post of “teacher.” Anyone with half a brain can see that she, next to Atticus is the most important role in the novel. Then again these people who censor works of art like Mockingbird have probable been “eatin Boo Radley’s pizened pecans.”

  7. but don’t we want all children to learn to be open to the wisdom of people from all races?

    No, they don’t. We want to force-feed them the woke line, and think of everything else as evil, racist doctrine.

    1. Statists hate independent thought and action. Of course they don’t want students to learn for themselves!

  8. N-word, which he’d learned from listening to a hip hop station for 15 minutes.

    1. “a white student approached Destiny in math class using a racial taunt including the N-word, which he’d learned from reading “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.””. Destiny was also extorted $1/week by another boy who allegedly read it in a Book! Didn’t say a thing to her Mom until she was in High School. Seems legit, to me. LOL

  9. “Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” — Heinrich Heine

  10. More than anything else, this illustrates the folly of monopolistic, one size fits all, schooling; sure there are private schools, but parents have to pay for the public schools too. Best would be eliminating government schools altogether, leaving everyone with vouchers, but second best would be providing the vouchers and making it dead easy to switch to private schools.

  11. I’m not familiar with “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.” As I understand it is a novel written in 1976 by an African-American Woman specifically for young adults and likely specifically African American young adults, presumably to teach them something about the world they live in.

    I’m too old to have read it when it was age appropriate and I think young adult novels are generally a dumbed down abomination only slightly less horrible than the movies they spawn.

    1. Or the Brinks trucks which the authors have deliver the money to their door.

      1. (Well, the successful authors; the other don’t count)

  12. Ok, so this is interesting….But there are people who keep up with what books are the most challenged nationwide, and…it doesn’t seem it’s the work of nefarious ‘leftists’ for the most part. Has Professor Volokh written about these much, or is his confirmation bias focusing him here?

    1. Good I’m glad to see there are parents out there challenging leftist indoctrination in public schools. We need more of it so that future generations can remain skeptical of what the left is selling.

      1. So, it’s not about principles with you, well, at least neutral ones. Will to power and such.

        1. Are you daring Prof. Volokh to ban you?

        2. That’s right. Me not wanting my child to read books with “LGBTQIA+ content,” “a transgender character,” and “sexual references” is all about will to power. You figured us out.

    2. Interesting context.

    3. Very useful.

      Oddly, we don’t hear about this from Professor Volokh.

    4. That data set includes settings other than primary school curricula and libraries, such as public libraries, prison libraries, and specialist academic libraries. And more significantly, it includes unsuccessful challenges as well as actual bans. So that list of most challenged books is very much an apples-and-oranges comparison against schools dropping major literature from their curricula.

      1. Trying to get books removed from the public library seems worse to me than removing them from the school curriculum.

        Taking them out of the curriculum doesn’t actually create an obstacle to reading them. Taking them out of the public library does.

  13. I attended the Burbank schools growing up. I am sooooooooo not surprised about this.

  14. Maybe they can reinstate Huck Finn, and other classic works – once they realize they’re gay literature.

    Search for “Leslie Fiedler,” “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey!”

    1. And go the next step – say the exclusion of Huck Finn is homophobic.

  15. I read all of those books except for “The Cay,” because they were all on my school curriculum.

    I pity those who have to grow up in the clutches of (in this case) leftist censorship.

    And the notion that a 15 year old kid learned from any of these books, a common racial slur which they were previously completely unaware of, is laughable and not deserving of any consideration whatsoever.

  16. According to Destiny’s mother, Carmenita Helligar, a white student approached Destiny in math class using a racial taunt including the N-word, which he’d learned from reading “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry.”

    I find it extremely hard to believe that any student would have been entirely ignorant of the existence of the “N-word” without having been exposed to “Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry”.

    1. How are so many people failing at reading this? The “taunt” was more than one word. You can tell because it says it “included” it

  17. “Nonetheless, these particular decisions strike me as unwise and narrow-minded…”

    Or, in other words, Democrats.

    1. Half of Democrats are unwise and narrow-minded. The other half are evil. All deserve to get tumors.

      1. There’s our resident bigot! I see you’ve given up fighting against diversity, and instead have just moved on to wishes of death for those whose political views you dislike.

        Welcome back, bigot!

  18. No free-expression issue here. Unless of course you are one of those libertarian freaks who believe that government-run schools *necessarily* censor by putting the state’s imprimatur on certain works and denying it to other works. But that’s just part of the way a state school has to be run, and who would be so radical as to challenge the premise of state schooling?

  19. To Kill A Mockingbird could be seen as a classic example of a “white savior” narrative…


    …but Atticus *doesn’t* save his client, who is convicted and ends up shot trying to escape prison (or maybe “shot trying to escape” in the Capt. Renaud sense).

  20. I haven’t read “The Cay” in school or out of it – it seems to be Captains Courageous meets Huck Finn.

    1. …although going by Wikipedia, the black guy is there for the purpose of helping the white boy survive and learn and curing him of his racism, then dying. Spike Lee would call him a “Magical Negro.”

      Doesn’t sound like something I’d rush out and buy. Score one for the “censors.”

  21. I think I had *Native Son* in school. Plenty of racism portrayed in it, though the protagonist wasn’t exactly magical or numinous or a role model.

    Of course, I also had The Great Gatsby and Ethan Frome, which at the time I didn’t recognize as classics, I just thought they were excruciating to read. Or would have been if they hadn’t been so short, so the pain was quickly over.

  22. don’t we want all children to learn to be open to the wisdom of people from all races?

    Wouldn’t we be much better off teaching children that races don’t exist, that they’re old pseudoscientific nonsense as thoroughly debunked as astrology and phrenology, and that anyone who talks about a human’s race should be mocked into silence?

    1. I’ll bet DRM wears his panties on his face too, signalling his compliant virtue. As they become soiled, if they are at all effective, then they cut off his oxygen and fresh air.

      Read Nineteen-Eighty Four, The GULAG Archipelago, Culturism.

      The conspiracy of ignorance masquerades as common sense.

    2. I’m sorry your education has been so deficient. As a corrective measures, go read “The Sneetches”.

      See also religious wars, football hooligans, and so forth. People are tribal and, if no deeper distinguisher exists, will complain about their twin’s beard as an indicator of evil and moral depravity.

      1. Yes, sure, it is perfectly possible that people would engage in discrimination over someone’s astrological sign, there being no better distinguisher available. The correct response would still be to mock those people for believing in the significance of astrology, rather than to engage in a campaign of trying to teach children that they should “be open to the wisdom of people from all astrological signs”.

  23. Leftists think that banning books will magically prevent students be snot nosed jerks.

  24. I hate book banning whether it is from the left or right. I graduated high school in 1994 from an extremely liberal suburb on the east side of Cleveland. We read Chinua Achebe, Richard Wright, Steinbeck, and untold other authors. We learned about the “Okies” in Grapes of Wrath, the struggle of blacks in Black Boy, and again all sorts of other concerns affecting all sorts of people. In 11th grade, we openly discussed the use of the word “nigger” in literature. The class was taught by a black woman, and we were about 50/50 white and black.

    We started sex-ed in 4th grade. In middle school we read To Kill a Mocking Bird.

    It just seems to me that a kid should be able to go to school and read Heather has Two Mommies. In high school they should have access to The Nation and National Review. It is easy for everyone to say that Hitler is evil, but challenging children (of an appropriate age) to critique Mein Kampf actually requires that the book is there.

    As you can imagine, I think cancel culture is terrible.

    Oy vey!

  25. When I was a child in the fifties and sixties, most of the folks trying to keep “dangerous” literature out of schools were puritanical, anti-communist right wingers. Now, it mostly seems to be politically correct, anti-racist left wingers. Right or left, it’s equally nonsensical. Censorship is senseless.

    1. Looking at the “most banned books,” it appears that the banning comes mostly from conservatives due to the fact that most of the banned books have LGBTQ subject matter.

  26. Who cares what books are or are not permitted in high school? Those damn kids can’t read anyway.

  27. I remember reading in school and I only liked Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, all the other books were uninteresting to me. However, the school curriculum required me to write assignments for them. I used to write essays or other papers because I couldn’t complete the assignments on my own but needed at least some grades. This resource helped me well then, so I continued to use it in college when I have some difficult tasks.

Please to post comments