In the children's book "Nasreen's Secret School," a young girl living in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan loses her parents. Her father is taken away by soldiers, and then her mother disappears too. Nasreen is so distraught that she inexplicably stops speaking. Her grandmother helps by enrolling her in school - although, because Nasreen is a girl, she must keep her education secret.
When Taliban soldiers visit the school, the students pretend to be reading the Quran. In the end, Nasreen recovers her voice, but not her parents. The story teaches about repression in other parts of the world, and by contrast, how precious we should hold our universal schooling, gender equality and transparent legal system.
So, why has Nasreen's story upset some Long Island parents? In Southold, Islip and West Islip, parents have asked school boards to ban "Nasreen's Secret School" and another by author Jeanette Winter, "The Librarian of Basra."
Both are true stories, the latter from Iraq, and celebrate literacy and learning - even when one has to fight for those opportunities. The books are written for ages 6 to 9 and are included as optional texts on New York's Common Core reading list for third grade. As such, Nasreen has marched directly onto today's battleground over who decides what kids should learn.
One Southold school board member, Scott DeSimone, sees in the book a "pro-Muslim agenda" that comes straight from the White House. DeSimone touched off a barrage of letters about censorship and prejudice to the Suffolk Times by saying at an October school board meeting, "My take is the intended message is about Islam and Allah." In fact, parents of a third-grader said they were considering taking their son out of public school if the book continued to be read there.
He elaborated in an email to Newsday: "I thought the book was introduced at this young age and grade level as part of the underlying doctrinal forces pushing Common Core ... in this case, the social justice agenda and pro-Muslim agenda."
People left the school board meeting with the impression that the book would be banned, but that's not so, said Southold Superintendent David Gamberg. He has faith in the choices of his classroom teachers. "As long as we have a teacher who has the skill to use the text in an appropriate and responsible way - and I believe our teachers do - the message about the power of literacy comes through," Gamberg said in an interview.
One mother of a third-grader posted in the Suffolk Times' comments section that discussing the book with her son had been "one of the most poignant points of the school year" leading to a talk about freedom, education and persecution. But third-graders aren't all alike.
One Brooklyn child psychologist and author, Laura Markham, said parents are in the best position to judge reading materials. "For a child, [this story] teaches that parents can be taken away by soldiers and never return," she wrote in an email. "It should not be part of the core curriculum. This is not banning books, this is leaving the parents in charge."
In Islip, teachers and administrators decided to pull both Winter books from the third-grade reading list, said Superintendent Susan Schnebel. However, a copy of each is available in the middle school library - a "more appropriate" age level.
These books present too harsh a reality for some third-graders, but I admire the Southold superintendent for standing by his teachers' judgment. And as ugly as these Common Core debates have become, it's a testament to our culture that we have them full-throated, in public. Nasreen would probably agree with this freedom to speak.