In latest Central York book controversy, author calls ban a 'violent act'
When Sapphire wrote "Push" — the novel that ultimately spawned the Oscar-winning film "Precious" — 25 years ago, she specifically wrote it with teenagers in mind.
Prior to her career as a writer, the novelist born Ramona Lofton often counseled teens on everything from pregnancy to drug use. Those experiences, in addition to her own life, informed the novel that was recently pulled from the shelves of Central York School District libraries.
“If they could live it, they certainly could experience it being written about and reading about,” Sapphire told The York Dispatch, adding that teenagers are still facing the same problems — and more — today.
Sapphire said she didn’t expect her book to be banned, yet a number of school districts have removed "Push" from their shelves — and not just in York County. Similar bans have cropped up in Florida and Michigan in recent months.
It's all part of a larger nationwide push that includes Central York's own 2021 ban on books, movies and other teaching materials that specifically targeted creators of color. Central York's school board ultimately walked back the earlier ban amid global publicity and outcry. "Push" was not included in that earlier list.
PEN America, a nonprofit organization that supports free expression via literature, recorded 2,532 individual instances of books being banned at American schools between July 2021 and March 2022.
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In Central York, Superintendent Peter Aiken sent a letter to parents Tuesday, explaining that a parent had challenged a book in the high school library. Following current policy, the district had a team of two administrators and three teachers meet to discuss the book.
The team decided the novel was inappropriate, the superintendent explained, so the book was removed.
Aiken wrote that he, as a former English teacher, values literary expression.
“That said, I also believe books in schools should be age and developmentally-appropriate,” he wrote, adding that the district will identify books that wouldn't receive a "PG" rating. Aiken also said parents can choose to restrict their children's access to specific books, similar to policies in place at other districts.
At a meeting earlier this week, school board members didn't comment on the latest removal of material from the library. Board Vice President Jodi Grothe, in a subsequent phone call, described the situation as a "fictitious ban" but declined to comment further on the situation with "Push."
School officials have often denied that the 2021 ban was a ban — despite it being described by that word in emails to teachers. At the time, then-board member Veronica Gemma claimed that "we have never been a district who bans books, and we do not support banning books."
Earlier this year, in an interview with The York Dispatch, Aiken described a book included in the 2021 list by saying: "I'm going to put it in air quotes — banned."
Sapphire said she thought teachers and her peers would embrace her book. To her, "Push" addresses real-life issues of teen pregnancy and how people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps even when they don't have any.
The novel's removal speaks to larger cultural undercurrents, the author added.
“We’re in a shift for the very life of the democracy in this country,” she said.
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Without books like "Push," Sapphire said, the realities teenagers face are being erased. The silence condones the idea that women who become pregnant due to rape — as the book's protagonist, Precious, does — are sinners.
“(If) you don't read anything like 'Push,' you might buy that,” she said, adding that some people then might believe that someone like Precious should face death if she sought an abortion after being raped.
USA Today reported that South Carolina Republican lawmakers are mulling a bill that could potentially make those who get abortions face the death penalty. This bill does not allow for exceptions such as rape or incest.
Sapphire said she read many texts with disturbing themes as a young woman, including Anne Frank's "The Diary of a Young Girl" and George Jackson's "Soledad Brother: The Prison Letters." Those books helped teach her empathy, she said.
Removing material from school libraries effectively closes young minds off from the world, she said, likening it to placing the child in jail with no access to an attorney.
“It is a far, far more violent act,” Sapphire said, explaining that once a banned book is gone, children won't know about it at all. “It just won’t exist.”
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She said her book has done its work: It doesn't teach people to be violent but helps people see other parts of a world that isn't clean. She still gets letters from children who want to grow up and become the teacher in the book, she said. Some time ago, two white men approached Sapphire in a department store to say “Push” changed how they view their social worker positions, she said.
“Precious is a good girl,” the author said. “She wants to live a good life. She wants to be a good mother. She wants to learn how to read.”
For those looking to read the book, one physical and one audiobook copy are available through the York County Libraries system. Sapphire also pointed out that students can join the New York City Public Libraries, get an online learning card and borrow any book they want to read.
— Reach Meredith Willse at email@example.com or on Twitter at @MeredithWillse.