Huck Finn, Boo tossed off Duluth schools’ required reading list

Duluth schools are moving on from “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Huckleberry Finn.”

The Duluth News Tribune says the two books will no longer be required reading in the curriculum because racial slurs are used in them.

“We felt that we could still teach the same standards and expectations through other novels that didn’t require students to feel humiliated or marginalized by the use of racial slurs,” said Michael Cary, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction.

The district has received complaints about both books over the years, he said.

“It’s wrong,” local NAACP president Stephan Witherspoon said of the language in the books. “There are a lot more authors out there with better literature that can do the same thing that does not degrade our people. I’m glad that they’re making the decision and it’s long overdue, like 20 years overdue.”

“Huckleberry Finn” is the 14th most challenged book, according to the American Library Association, and To Kill a Mockingbird isn’t far behind.

It cites a 1977 Eden Valley, Minn., ban as one of the first instances of a challenge to “To Kill a Mockingbird” because “damn” and “whore lady” appear in the novel.

The News Tribune says English teachers in the district were not consulted before the decision , though they appear to support it.

[Correction: The original blog post said teachers appeared to support the decision. This is incorrect. The teachers object to the unilateral decision to remove the material from the curriculum. I apologize for the misinformation.]

  • Robert Moffitt

    As in government, you get the education you deserve, Duluth.

    • No one has banned these books at all, they just aren’t part of the required curriculum.

      • Kellpa07

        You must have missed the part where he didn’t claim they were banned. Or maybe you meant to comment on Alberto Sappwood’s comment, which appears right above this (at least how it’s configured on my screen).

        • i was replying to the “you get the education you deserve” comment as from that statement, it is implied that pupils will have no access to the material in question.

          FWIW: I have that other person blocked and don’t see his comments.

          • Kellpa07

            Maybe he meant that, but it’s not at all evident from what he wrote. Disagreeing with a decision to no longer require them is quite aways from contending they are banned.

          • I inferred that the OP meant that the books are now banned. Was i mistaken, possibly, but as you stated, the OP’s intention isn’t clear.

          • you mean original comment or original post?

          • Mr. Moffitt’s original comment.

            I’m most likely reading too much into it of course.

          • Lindsey

            The pupils will no longer have access to the material in question, but they will have access to the books. Discussion and other lessons serve to help explore themes and historical context, which is hard to do by yourself.

          • Agreed, but I have already stated that the OP implied that pupils will have no access to the material in question, and that was all I was commenting about.

          • // The pupils will no longer have access to the material in question,

            this is categorically false as the DNT pointed out.

            Second paragraph, first sentence:

            “The two books will continue to be available in school libraries and can be optional reading for students,”

          • Kellpa07

            Did you miss where she wrote “but they will have access to the books?” It is in the part of her comment that you didn’t copy.
            Although, I don’t understand her distinction between “the material” and “the books,” although in making the distinction, it is clear she sees them as different things. Perhaps she meant teachers’ lessons, classroom discussion, etc., which can be useful and important for young people encountering these books.

          • The books are no longer required reading. The books are still available in the library.

            Period. End of story.

          • Kellpa07

            Again, let me quote her: “they will have access to the books”
            That part of the quote was there, you ignored it, and then mischaracterized what she wrote.
            Period. End of story.

          • For the purpose of the story as presented … there is nothing in the story that separates material from books and, if you take the time to read it, you’ll note that the reason it’s in the curriculum is not being removed from the curriculum.

            So maybe settle down and read the story so you know you what you’re talking about, and concentrate on the facts in evidence.

          • Kellpa07

            Your mischaracterization was about her quote, not the story.

          • As I said, any assertion that anything has been taken away from students is categorically false.

            I don’t know why you’re struggling with that. The assertion is categorically false, as should be obvious to anyone who actually read the article.

          • Lindsey

            But curriculum (material)l is (or at least should be) much more than just the books. A good curriculum can help explore the themes that have kept them as required reading for decades.

            I’d like to see what these books are being replaced by. If they trade To Kill a Mockingbird for Pride and Prejudice, then they clearly do not understand why To Kill a Mockingbird is considered a classic.

  • Kellpa07

    The decision to remove these books from required reading lists is different than forbidding them outright, but the reading of both of these books ought to be strongly encouraged. Seems to me it’s a failure to understand the books.

    • Alberto Sappwood

      Yes, it’s hard to understand something when it’s forbidden from being taught.

      • Kellpa07

        I should have written that the decision to not require them is based upon the District’s failure to understand the books.
        But kids can, and hopefully will continue to read these books.

        • jon

          They can go grab a copy of huckleberry finn off of project gutenberg…. public domain…

          37 year wait for to kill a mockingbird to get there though thanks to our copyright laws and harper lee’s longevity (wouldn’t be public domain even if she had kicked it right as it was published… would have been ~12 years out still…)

          • Jack Ungerleider

            Or according to the NT article they can go to the school library and check out a copy.

  • Angry Jonny

    *sigh*

  • Gary F

    I can remember tee shirts and bumper stickers that read ” I read banned books”.

    • And that sentiment has nothing to do with these two books. They aren’t “banned” at all, just not part of the required curriculum.

  • kat

    People who have commented seem disgruntled about this news. Anyone want to say why they think these books in particular are important to read in schools? There are countless novels set in many different time periods that teach multiple things to a reader. The books aren’t banned- just not part of required curriculum.

    • RBHolb

      To Kill a Mockingbird is, perhaps unintentionally, an excellent way to discuss class in America.

      The idea of trying to teach American literature without Huckleberry Finn is just bizarre.

      • Joe

        I think most classes read 5 to 8 novels a year. There are hundreds of great American novels to pick from. To say that one of the 5 has to be Huck Finn seems bizarre.

        • RBHolb

          Hemingway once said that “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” I don’t think that’s an exaggeration.

          • kat

            Hemingway died more than 50 yrs ago- I think “modern” is a bit different now. American schools are multicultural. It is difficult for non-white readers to feel good about the racism in Huck Finn regardless of the historical context

          • RBHolb

            The “racism” in Huck Fin traces the evolution of Jim from chattel to beloved friend whose freedom was worth taking serious risks. Honestly, how does the lesson plan on that topic not write itself?

          • kat

            Many people have discussed the topic much better than I. There are reasons for people of color to feel less than uplifted by the tale.

          • RBHolb

            That would be the fault of the teacher, not the book. If the repeated use of the N-word is just shrugged off as “the way they talked back then,” then the word is nothing more than offensive.

            I didn’t know that the main purpose of literature is to make us feel uplifted, but whatever.

        • QuietBlue

          Maybe they should read Fahrenheit 451 in its place?

      • kat

        Huckleberry Finn uses the N word not a few times, but 219 times. This is a novel- not history. Other stories capture the time period without repetitively offending the reader. Of course there is a place for Huck in literature, but required in school seems more like a tradition.

        • RBHolb

          “This is a novel-not history.”

          It is a novel with a historical context, as are the novels of Maya Angelou or Sherman Alexie.

      • MikeB

        The themes in To Kill a Mockingbird are still very relevant today. It was one of my best experiences reading this book in school and I mentally refer back this book even though it was 35+ years ago, because of the book and the specific teacher guiding us through it. It is in the pantheon of American Literature.

        But nothing lasts forever. I would hope students still have exposure to the book and its lessons.

        • QuietBlue

          Yep. I read it in high school 20+ years ago, myself, but it’s just as relevant as ever, if not even more so.

          Finn is a great work as well, but if I were going to have just one in the curriculum, it would be Mockingbird.

    • jon

      I personally would like to see students have more of a choice in what books they read…

      I can’t recall a single book that I had to read for school that I ended up enjoying… I can appreciate narrowing down the list of books for kids to things in their reading/maturity level, and I can appreciate talking about themes in the books etc. in a larger learning group…

      But I think if kids can read something they enjoy, then they are more likely to read it, and more likely to continue reading. I also think that reading something more recent is potentially making it more relatable… To kill a mockingbird and huckleberry finn are ~60 and 100+ years respectively from being best sellers… that something that was relatable to the kids great grandparents and older… There is a place to learn history, and reading primary sources is a worthy skill, but at some point we need to move on… not because of the swear words, but because it’s just not as engaging as it used to be.

      • >>I personally would like to see students have more of a choice in what books they read…<<

        They can read whatever books they want. The books aren't "banned."

        • jon

          They can’t read anything they want in a structured environment.

          And if a school district opted to ban a book and kids wanted to read it they could read it at home… pass it around in secret… I’m sure playboys have been passed around in schools despite being “banned” for generations… (though now it’s probably thumb drives, and even then they are probably just sent over the internet… don’t know if kids today are paranoid enough to use sneakernet.)

          But reading some of the more relatable material in a structured environment has it’s benefits, and for THOSE books I’d like to see kids have more of a choice…

          • >>They can’t read anything they want in a structured environment.<>But reading some of the more relatable material in a structured environment has it’s benefits, and for THOSE books I’d like to see kids have more of a choice…<<

            Agreed.

    • Lindsey

      To Kill a Mockingbird offers discussion on class, racism, empathy, as well as real parallels to current events (such as Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, the MeToo movement).

      Huckleberry Finn offers historical context of slavery and racism, as well as being an example of the first great American writer.

  • Mike

    Any art that’s worth reading, watching, or listening to risks offending someone. The notion that we should be protected from ideas or statements we don’t like is in direct conflict with the value of experiences that make us grow, especially when we’re young.

    That being said, I think it’s silly for any school to have a required reading list. Let the teachers decide (within broad limits) what they want to teach, since the teachers’ enthusiasm – or lack thereof – will make a huge difference in how much students learn from the assignment.

    When officials start down the path of stigmatizing long-recognized works of literature for political reasons, however, it creates a vicious cycle that detracts from education. The mass moral outrage that’s so often celebrated in the social media age is as often as not simply the reaction of closed minds to a new idea or perspective. If a statement or work of art disgusts us, it’s probably best to begin by asking why. It’s a small word that can lead to interesting places, but a capacity for reflection is required.

    • kat

      People have had a problem with Huck Finn long before social media. The books have not been banned- simply not required in a very limited curriculum.

      • Mike

        I wouldn’t say that Huck Finn should be required reading (see above), but I don’t respect the argument that says it shouldn’t be assigned because it offends certain sensibilities. While it’s been a long time since I’ve read it, as I remember it offers a stinging critique of various aspects of 19th-century American society, including slavery. That makes it still valuable in the 21st century.

  • Without peeking, what NEW classics should be on a required reading list for high schoolers?

    • Laurie K.

      “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou. “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. Neither are exactly “new” though.

      • QuietBlue

        Great books both, and also ones that have been pulled from curricula before due to complaints about the content.

    • kat

      Something like “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe. There are so many good books! High schoolers would benefit by reading books with an international focus too

    • Kassie

      I’m against required reading lists in general, kids should be able to choose from a few books along the same theme/time period/style based on their interests, but some good ones to include:
      Sherman Alexie- Anything, but especially The Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian or The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heavan
      Tim O’Brien- The Things They Carried
      Seconding both of Laurie’s picks from Angelou and Morrison and adding in James Baldwin.
      Gene Luen Yang- American Born Chinese
      Rainbow Rowell- Eleanor and Park

    • RBHolb

      Are we having students read only “new” classics? What is our cut-off date?

    • jon

      I Thoroughly enjoyed the “three body problem”… but it’s not an easy read (translated from chinese and referencing a culture that is entirely foreign to me, which makes it all the more fascinating as sci-fi dealing with cultures that are entirely alien to us because they are alien) And I like the idea of starting a trilogy and letting the kids decide if they want to finish it on their own… (“Dark forest” was the best of that particular trilogy and the only one to not even be nominated for a Hugo award… but it’s certainly worth reading the whole trilogy to find out what happens to our planet/solar system.)

      Also recently finished “all the birds in the sky”, an excellent tale of fictitious super science and magic crossing paths… (though a sex scene that might be uncomfortable for some audiences, high school should be fine though…)

      And “uprooted” was a great read (revamp of russian fairy tale)

      I’ve been working my want back through hugo and nebula award winners and nominees recently, so they are all winners or nominees from the last 8 years (it’s as far back as I’ve made it.)

      • jon

        Oh and I’ll add “Cinder”
        My wife grabbed it as an audio book for a car trip a couple of years back and I Thought it was great (the sequels are a bit to targeted to adolescent girls for me… but I think the first book has a cross gender appeal…) And it might be more of a jr. high reading level (really hard to judge when we did the audio book).

    • Mike

      I’ll nominate “The Lacuna” or “The Poisonwood Bible,” by Barbara Kingsolver.

    • crystals

      Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Truly stunning fictional view of the slave system from Africa to America, and the generational impact it has on families.

    • Joe

      Depends on the student body, I’d say.

      But some good modern ones:

      The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
      Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
      The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
      Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue

    • “Exit West” by Mohsin Hamid immediately comes to mind

      • Kassie

        This is on my list. I think I’m going to order it right now.

    • Veronica

      Not high school, but I’m constantly amazed by the things my 7th grader is reading for school. She’s read fiction that discusses mass incarceration, workers rights, gender identity, women’s rights, immigration, race….

      I’m so glad she’s reading those things and NOT the same old stuff by dead white men. So when I saw what Duluth was doing, I thought it was a pretty good move.

      • Kassie

        Yes! Let’s have kids learn about racism from books written by people of color, not by white people.

    • SPHINX

      “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison … a masterpiece that’s not easy to pin down or label.

      … nevermind, class: too many naughty words. Let’s just watch YouTube videos for the rest of the semester.

  • Al

    English major here. I’d rather see older books tossed off because there are better books to use instead–not because there are racial slurs used.

    • Rob

      Agreed. I’m not much of a “The canon is the canon” person, especially since – with exceptions such as Harper Lee – it’s really The Dead White Guys canon.

    • RBHolb

      Excluding older books because they are older is just as misguided as including them just because they are old.

      • Al

        I didn’t say exclude them *just* because they’re older. I said exclude them because there are *better* books out there to teach the same literary principles.

        • RBHolb

          Newer=better? Always?

          I’m a graduate of a “great books” college, so I get the veneration of the canon for the sake of the canon. It’s limiting. Just a few weeks ago, in an alumni forum, someone responded to a request for good noir mystery novels with some pompous comment about Oedipus Rex is the greatest detective story every written. On the other hand, the idea that something more contemporary is necessarily going to be better, or even accomplish the same goals, is the same limited type of thinking.

      • I’d like to see the makeup of the current required reading to determine whether issues of race are only being sparked by the literary work — and thus, perspective — of white authors.

  • DavefromMinn

    A good teacher would have the students read these books, then discuss the terminology used in them. Not ban the books.

    • >>Not ban the books.<<

      The books aren't banned.

      • Guest

        They aren’t allowed to be required reading. Not because there are better books, just because of the N word.

  • DavefromMinn

    What would happen to a teacher if she decided to assign Huck Finn to her class? Would she be fired?

  • Jeff

    My biggest complaint in high school was that we didn’t read any non-fiction.

  • Guest

    IF I was a member of an oppressed minority, I would demand a book about that oppression be taught.

    IF we cleansed all US history of the “terribly offensive” attitude of Mother England toward her own colonies (and the Divine Right of Kings, and class), who could understand the Revolutionary War?

    Who can understand Black Lives Matter without knowing the prevailing attitudes: “Steamship blew up. Anybody hurt? Nope, just a N….”

    • Guest

      Who can understand the Holocaust without understanding the attitude of Aryan superiority?

      • // without understanding

        I think you mean “knowing”

        • Guest

          Fair point, thanks.

  • Diedra Carlson

    I classify as non white. I disagree with the leader of the NAACP in part. I am an educator. I do not feel uncomfortable reading either of these books in an appropriate classroom setting. I am knowledgeable and educated enough to do my homework; and feel obligated, to read this meaningful material give it context as any educator should. I would do the same for “What Does Justice Look Like?” Where, in this book, the violence is so graphic it’s deeply disturbing of the Dakota people when they where taken from their land at the hands of the US government. Censoring the horrors of American history told any form is a tragedy and hinders provocative reason and thoughtful discussion.

  • AmiSchwab

    duluth is not known for it’s racial tolerance. banning books is going to help greatly.
    is duluth actually part of wisconsin?

  • John F.

    I will be interested to see what books they deem “better alternatives” than these two classic American novels.

    I also wonder how people will feel about their replacements – I wish the district well finding a modern book that addresses race and class. Being an English major in college, we read several of the books suggested on this comment board as replacements, and while I agree with the sentiment in many of those books, so many of them will be seen as politically loaded, especially in today’s culture. I suspect that public schools across the country like Duluth who attempt to replace older literature with new books about the same topics will become yet another major battlefield in our culture wars.

    Good luck, Duluth.