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City Lights:

No kids clamor for this classic

February 25, 2010|By Michael Miller

I spent a large portion of my first two years of high school around the remote shelves of the school library. These were the shelves that most kids, I imagined, never even knew existed, the ones tucked in the back containing bleak British plays and old film reviews from the New York Times.

I had a thirst for knowledge back then, especially if it required digging. However, I never had to scratch to get my hands on a banned book, or even a book that I needed a parent signature to read. The latter, though, is now the case in the Ocean View School District, which put a restriction on Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” after an uproar last year.

That uproar was spearheaded by former Westminster School District Trustee Judy Ahrens and Ocean View Trustee John Briscoe, who urged the district to remove the book from school library shelves. They argued that Angelou’s autobiography, which contains an explicit rape scene and themes of teen sexuality and pregnancy, was too raw for middle-school minds.

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Finally, in November, the school board compromised by returning the book to shelves but requiring students to obtain a signature to check it out.

That seemed like a reasonable solution, because, while I abhor the notion of censorship, the content in Angelou’s book is pretty adult for the average 13-year-old.

So now that the media furor has died down and the permission slips are printed, how popular a selection is “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”? Has the book become a coveted item among middle-schoolers, who are eager to get their hands on a volume that some in the community deem too racy?

The answer, it turns out, is no.

This week, I put a call in to the libraries at Vista View and Spring View middle schools, the only two Ocean View campuses to offer “Caged Bird,” to check on the book’s popularity. But Debi Lew, the library specialist at Vista View, and Linda Ray, the library specialist at Spring View, said not a single student had taken it out.

“I’ve been here four years, and it was never checked out before that,” Ray said. “It’s not a very popular book, at least in middle school.”

Kids at Spring View, she said, check out an average of 1,500 books a month from the library, with “Twilight” and “Harry Potter” common choices. But despite the media controversy over “Caged Bird,” Ray said students didn’t even seem to be aware of it.

That isn’t surprising. Most middle-schoolers are at an age when “Goosebumps” is more understandable than the horrors of child abuse. Students at Spring View and Vista View should be allowed a few more years as kids before the harsher realities of the world set in.

Still, if there’s an inquiring eighth-grade mind that seeks Angelou’s story, the book is at their disposal. And if some kid ends up spending his or her lunch period thumbing through an adult American classic, well, I was that kid once, too.


City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at michael.miller@latimes.com .

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