Some parents call it glorification of prostitution, murder and obscenity. But educators, academic experts and even other parents see it as a valuable teaching tool.
Their debate over "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest," an award-winning novel, is the latest in a continuing battle across the country to ban well-known books. Recommended by the California Department of Education, the novel now is being scrutinized by officials in the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District after complaints by parents.
"It teaches how very easy it is to smother somebody," said Anna Marie Buckner, who has three children, ages 7, 8 and 17. "I don't want to put these kinds of images in children's minds. They're going to think that when they get mad at their parents, they can just ax them out."
Members of the district's "book challenge review committee," which consists of a dozen parents, teachers and administrators--were handed a copy of the book last week to review. The committee will establish criteria and steps to resolve the issue. It will report its findings in early January, said David Verdugo, the district's executive director of strategic planning and accountability.
Written by Ken Kesey, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is a 1962 classic that was made into a movie starring Jack Nicholson in 1975. It portrays life in a hospital for the mentally ill, including profanity and sexual remarks.
The book is one of five titles on the district's core 11th-grade reading list. It has been used for seven years without previous problems, Verdugo said. Two teachers plan to assign it next semester to 11th-grade students at Esperanza High School. Eleventh-graders at El Camino Continuation High School also will read it. Esperanza Principal David Flynn said one reason the book has stayed on the school's reading lists is simple: Teens like it.
The title was one of Jennifer Hazzard's favorites last year. Now a senior at Esperanza, she said it was funny, and she and other teens could relate to it. Her mother agreed.
"The words and scenes don't bother me," said Jennifer, 17, of Anaheim. "It's like TV today. It's not anything different. There are other, worse books, and curse words you hear daily."
She said the book gave her insight into mental institutions and that she liked the characters' carefree quality, even though they were ill. She said she'd read it again.
"One day, I'll have my kids reading it, too," she said.
But Buckner, of Anaheim Hills, said she was disgusted when she read the book after her 17-year-old son mentioned that he was supposed to read it next spring. She filed a two-page complaint at the district office in November and teamed up with Jenelle Cox, a Yorba Linda mother, to collect about 150 signatures seeking removal of the book from classrooms.
"They can choose the best books, but they keep choosing this garbage over and over again," said Cox, a mother of four children. "It's frustrating."
Buckner and Cox say their sons will be reading alternative books that will teach "good morals and values with heroes." Both said they do not have MTV at home and that their sons have never seen an R-rated movie.
Experts and other parents agree that children are easily influenced by what they are exposed to, but they say that is what makes proper education about controversial issues all the more important.
David Marsh, a professor of education at the University of Southern California, said many universities expect students to know about important literature by the time they enter college.
"The idea is to understand the ideas in the books, but not to expose our children to risky behavior, like spending the night at a party where other kids are taking drugs," said Marsh, adding that the book is about making moral choices and forming friendships in difficult places, such as an asylum.
Colleen Hayashi of Yorba Linda agrees. She has seen the movie, and her children have read the book in their honors English class.
"It's a subject they're going to be exposed to sooner or later," said Hayashi, vice president of her parent-teacher group. "It's not part of the values and morals you want them to hold, but they need to be prepared. The parent has the upper hand to make sure their child is handling it the right way."
She said she never had second thoughts about having a teenage daughter read the book and trusted the teachers to present the materials in an appropriate way.
Hayashi, referring to profanity in the book, said "The kids hear it on the cameras, and their friends utter it, too . . . It's part of reality."
No challenges have been reported to the American Library Assn. on "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" from California. But it was removed from public school libraries in Randolph, N.Y., and Alton, Okla., in 1975. A teacher in Idaho was fired, and the book was banned from the high school classroom in 1978. In 1986, the book was challenged in Washington state, where parents said it promoted "secular humanism." The local school board nonetheless voted to keep the book in its honors English curriculum.
Experts say it is just as important to have such books available on school library shelves as in classrooms.
"The library needs to serve all the children in the community," said Beverly Becker, associate director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom, a subgroup of the American Library Assn. in Chicago.
"A group of parents might think it's not appropriate for their children, but other parents see it as a valuable reading experience, so we have to have the books available."
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The 25 most frequently challenged books of the 1990s:
Scary Stories Series by Alvin Schwartz
Daddy's Roommate by Michael Willhoite
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Forever by Judy Blume
Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Giver by Lois Lowry
My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier
It's Perfectly Normal by Robie Harris
Alice (Series) by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Goosebumps (Series) by R.L. Stine
A Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Newton Peck
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Sex by Madonna
Earth's Children (Series) by Jean M. Auel
The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson
In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak
The Witches by Roald Dahl
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
The New Joy of Gay Sex by Charles Silverstein
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
Ssource: American Library Assn.