BY ELECTRONIC MAIL

July 30, 2014
 
Dr. Nikolai P. Vitti
Superintendent
Duval County Public Schools
1701 Prudential Drive
Jacksonville, FL 32207
Email: vittin@duvalschools.org
 
Dear Dr. Vitti and the Duval County School Board,
 
As organizations dedicated to the freedom to read, the integrity of the public education system, and the application
of First Amendment law and principles in public institutions, we are writing to express concern about demands to
remove The Librarian ofBasra and Nasreen’s Secret School from the third grade curriculum.
 
According to press reports, eight parents submitted petitions protesting the inclusion of the books, written by
acclaimed author and illustrator Jeanette Winter, after a Facebook post went viral. The books are part of the
recently adopted Engage New York Curriculum. Those who argue against the use of the books claim that their
serious content and references to Islam are inappropriate for third grade children. The Facebook post even claims
that they “promote reading the Koran and praying to Muhammad.”
 
The Librarian ofBasra tells the true story of Alia Muhammad Baker, who saved 70 percent of Basra Library’s
30,000 books from destruction on the eve of war by bringing them to her own home and the homes of others. In
an interview, Winter says that she aimed to tell the story in the “hope that children would take with them the belief
that one person can truly make a difference. And that they would remember the bravery of one woman protecting
what was important to her, especially when they feel powerless, as we all do sometimes.” The book received a
starred review from School Library Journal and is listed by the American Library Association as a 2006 Notable
Children’s Book. Nasreen’s Secret School, which is a Smithsonian Notable Book for Children and a winner of the
Jane Addams Children's Book Award for Younger Children, tells the true story of a young girl who stops speaking
or smiling after both her parents disappear. But after her grandmother enrolls her in a secret girls’ school in
Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, she begins to learn to read and write and once again finds her voice, and her hope.
The American Library Association recommends both books for grades 3-5.
 
Arguments that the books promote Islam are misguided: learning about life in an Islamic culture is no more
promoting Islam than learning about a Christian character is promoting Christianity. Indeed, learning about
different cultures – and different faiths – is a core part of a comprehensive education. This principle is embedded
in Chapter 4.00, Section VII.A of the Duval County Public School Policy, which states that “[i]nstructional
materials used in the District shall give credit to and reflect the contribution of the multiple cultures and
ethnicities identified and recognized in the history of our civilization.” The district also emphasizes Character
Education, which, Section XIX states, is “secular in nature,” and which “shall stress such character qualities as
fairness, attentiveness, patience/perseverance, initiative/courage, patriotism, responsibility, citizenship,
kindness/caring, respect, honesty/trustworthiness, self-control, tolerance, and cooperation.” Both The Librarian of
Basra and Nasreen’s Secret School teach these lessons, and in guided classroom discussion could be a powerful tool
to help children understand the lives and hardships of others in very different parts of the world, and make a

connection to their own lives.
 
A school district puts its students at a distinct disadvantage if it fails to introduce them to the range of ideas that
they will encounter in life. When considering parental complaints, the Board should also recognize that the
educational issues raised by possible book removal are compounded by constitutional concerns. The First
Amendment “protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures—Boards of Education not
excepted.” West Virginia Board ofEducation v. Barnette (1943). As a result, school officials are bound by a
constitutional duty not to suppress unpopular, controversial, or even “objectionable” ideas. It is a fundamental
First Amendment principle that “local school boards may not remove books simply because they dislike the ideas
contained in these books.” Board ofEducation, Island Trees Union Free School District No. 26 v. Pico (1982).
 
Decisions about instructional materials should be based on sound educational grounds, not on some individuals’
agreement or disagreement with the message or content of a particular book. This approach is consistent with
constitutional and educational principles and will serve the interests of both the Duval County Public School
system and its students.
 
Please do not hesitate to contact us if we can be of further assistance.
 
Sincerely,
 
 
 
 
 
Chris Finan, President
Joan
  Bertin, Executive Director
American Booksellers For Free Expression
National Coalition Against Censorship
 
 
 
 
Charles Brownstein, Executive Director
 Judy Platt, Director
Comic Book Legal Defense Fund
 Free Expression Advocacy
 Association of American Publishers
 
 
Millie Davis, Senior Developer
Affiliate Groups and Public Outreach
National Council of Teachers of English

Lin Oliver
Executive Director
Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators

CC: The Honorable Cheryl Grymes, grymesc@duvalschools.org
The Honorable Scott Shine, shinef@duvalschools.org
The Honorable Ashley Smith Juarez, juareza1@duvalschools.org
The Honorable Paula D. Write, wrightp@duvalschools.org
The Honorable Connie Hall, hallc6@duvalschools.org
The Honorable Becki Couch, couchr@duvalschools.org
The Honorable Jason Fischer, fischerj@duvalschools.org
 
 

Fatima Shaik, Chair
Children's and Young Adult Book Committee
PEN American Center