The controversy over the Chicago Public Schools restricting access to Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi’s memoir of her youth in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, continues to roil the nation’s third largest school district, as free speech advocates weigh in.
Friday evening, the National Coalition Against Censorship joined together with five other organizations that advocate for freedom of expression and sent a letter to CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett and the CPS board of education, condemning last week’s order issued to school principals throughout the system to immediately pull Persepolis from their classrooms. The letter was re-sent Monday morning.
Books under challenge cannot be pulled from CPS library shelves without undergoing a formal process.
Persepolis previously was recommended by CPS for use during the current school year in its Literacy Content Framework: 7th Grade Toolset, as well as for 11th grade teachers teaching the concept of individualism and culture. While Persepolis will continue to be available to 11th and 12th grade students, as well as Advanced Placement classes, it is no longer available to 7th-10th graders until guidelines for teachers wanting to teach Persepolis are set in place. The timeline for the implementation of these guidelines has yet to be established.
“While we are relieved that the book will remain available to older students, the restriction on access to junior high students is extremely troubling,” the letter from the NCAC and five other organizations stated, “The explanation that the book is ‘inappropriate for this age group’ is unpersuasive. The vast majority of Chicago middle school students are surely aware of violence and its devastating effects on people of all ages. Most have witnessed it on the news, if not in their own neighborhoods.”
The NCAC letter, which also advised that the images in Persepolis are as fully protected under the provisions of the First Amendment as the text, was signed by Joan Bertin, executive director of the NCAC; Charles Brownstein, executive director of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund; Chris Finan, president of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression; Judith Platt, director of the Free Expression Advocacy division of the Association of American Publishers; Larry Siems, director of the Freedom to Write and International Programs of PEN American Center; and Kent Williamson, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English. As of Tuesday morning, the coalition had not received a response from CPS.
On Monday morning, a student-organized sit-in at Lane Tech, a magnet high school on Chicago’s north side protesting the decision to restrict access to Persepolis didn’t take place in the school library as planned, despite prior approval from the school's librarian. Hundreds of students were locked out of the library and forced to crowd the hallways. According to Chicago retired teacher Fred Klonsky, who blogs about Chicago’s public education scene, CPS officials were on site Monday, but the school principal was absent.
And Monday evening, author Arundhati Roy, speaking at Northwestern University, referred to the ongoing controversy, saying, according to Chicago blogger Mike Klonsky, that it is considered "inappropriate to learn or talk about" torture in countries that practice it. Event sponsor Haymarket Books sold five copies of Satrapi's memoir alongside Roy's books, and offered CPS 7th graders a discount. According to Haymarket Books representative John Kurnisky, there were about 30 additional requests last night, and the press has ordered a case of books, to accommodate the needs of the progressive organizations for which the press organizes events.
Chicago Bookstores Report Brisk Sales
Chicago-area independent bookstores contacted by PW on Tuesday all reported brisk sales of the three editions of Satrapi’s memoirs, Persepolis (2003), Persepolis 2 (2005), and The Complete Persepolis (2007). It may be impossible to find any copies on bookstore shelves in Chicago today, as every bookseller contacted told PW that they were sold out of the few copies they carried over the weekend and have had to re-order.
“As soon as the news hit over the weekend, people wanted to buy it,” said Jason Smith, the owner of The Book Table in Oak Park, a nearby suburb. “It was also a main topic of conversation in the store – people were expressing shock.”
While Smith declined to provide sales figures, he disclosed that, due to the “high demand” for Persepolis, The Book Table has reordered “what normally would be a six-month supply” of copies.
Jack Cella, the general manager of the Seminary Co-op in Hyde Park, across the street from the University of Chicago’s campus, told PW that the store sold out of all five copies in stock this past weekend. The 2003 memoir “sells pretty well in general,” Cella said, disclosing that the Seminary Co-op had sold 18 copies this year.
Laura Prail, manager of 57th Street Books, also in Hyde Park, reported selling out of all five or six copies in stock over the weekend and has reordered five copies each of the three editions. Customers included one middle-aged woman who told Prail that, as a 17-year-old, the woman had promised herself that she’d always buy any books that were banned. “She was pretty worked up about it,” Prail said.
“It’s good for sales,” Smith told PW, “But we all wish there was a different way to get there. It’s a shame, especially for a book that’s been used in so many classes over the years. The Book Table sells it for classroom use all the time.”