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Publisher Is Puzzled by Texts Mix-Up : Education: Two L.A. area school districts received a far more graphic version of reading books than they ordered. Debates about the texts have raged elsewhere.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The publisher of a controversial series of elementary school texts said Wednesday that he was perplexed as to why two Los Angeles area school districts received books with far more graphic imagery than the version they ordered.

Ralph Caulo, president of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., said officials were searching through sales receipts and shipment bills trying to determine why the East Whittier and Hacienda La Puente school districts were sent the U.S. version of the text, labeled morbid and evil by some parents, when they said they ordered the less-controversial Canadian version.

At a meeting Monday night, the East Whittier school board voted to send $160,000 worth of the disputed textbooks back to Holt, Rinehart & Winston of Canada Ltd., a subsidiary company of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, which produced the books. Board members said the publishing company breached its contract by sending the district the wrong series. The district plans to sue for a refund.

Hacienda La Puente school officials have temporarily banned the books, titled “Impressions,” and will discuss the matter at a school board meeting Dec. 7.

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Caulo said he hopes to meet with officials from both districts next month to work out their differences. He said the company is looking into the possibility of exchanging the books, which would require approval from the state Board of Education because state funds were used to buy them.

“We want to solve this before it becomes an issue,” Caulo said during a telephone interview from his office in Orlando, Fla.

But the district superintendent in East Whittier said it may be too late to solve the problems harmoniously.

Some parents in the East Whittier and Hacienda La Puente districts complained that the books, which contain poems about monsters that decapitate children and stories about excreta-eating pigs, evoke devil worship and a curiosity about witchcraft.

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Some educators, however, say the series stimulates children’s interest in literature. In addition, some child psychologists have argued that children find release in seeing their fears about scary monsters externalized and then resolved.

“The books are excellent,” Caulo said. “The story lines interest kids.”

Holt Rinehart officials said they produced two versions of the book after Canadian educators criticized the original as being morbid. The Canadians, said Holt marketing executive Liz Stephens, thought “it was a little bit, well, dark.” The books are aimed at first- through sixth-graders, but the most controversial language is contained in the editions for third- and fifth-graders.

According to officials in both districts, many of the controversial stories were not in the sample editions that educators reviewed and approved last spring.

For example, an edition previewed by the districts contained the original “Twelve Days of Christmas” poem. The edition the district received, contained a tale called, “A Wart Snake in a Fig Tree,” where the narrator gives his true love raven wings, bags of soot, useless things and a wart snake.

The earlier edition also contained the tale of a boy who had misplaced his toy marbles, but that was replaced with a poem called, “He’s Behind Yer,” a story about a monster who bites off children’s heads.

Debates about the books have raged elsewhere in the country. Protests have been mounted in several Oregon and Washington communities.

A district in Troutdale, Ore., was considering buying the reading series but backed down to avoid controversy, said Donna Hulsizer, a spokeswoman for People for the American Way, a Washington-based nonprofit group that monitors censorship issues.

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But in other communities, Hulsizer said, the books “had a wonderful response.” The books have awakened in children a love of reading, she said.

Members of the East Whittier School board said they decided to return the books because they thought their contract had been breached, and not necessarily because they thought the series was morbid or tainted.


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