'Kite Runner,' 'Chinese Handcuffs' will remain in Waukesha schools despite objection

Chris Kuhagen
A Waukesha mother attempted to have “The Kite Runner,” a book required for high school English courses in the Waukesha School District, banned from the curriculum. However, her request was denied last week by a district panel.
Published on: 8/25/2014

Karen Tessman had the same reaction as Ellen Cox.

Both Waukesha mothers attempted to have books banned in the Waukesha School District this summer and both have been unsuccessful.

Tessman, who has a 10th-grade son at Waukesha West, wanted "The Kite Runner" and "Chinese Handcuffs" removed, while Cox, who has a daughter entering 11th grade at Waukesha South, wanted "Looking for Alaska" removed from the district.

"I'm frustrated that they aren't viewing this from any perspective other than a literary perspective," Tessman said after the district's Consideration Committee, made up of teachers, librarians, administrators and other school personnel, unanimously denied her request at a meeting last week. "They're not viewing it as parents or as a teen. It seems that they're just looking at these as literary works."

Harmful content

Tessman, who spoke out against "Looking for Alaska" at a meeting in July, filed a complaint last month to have Khaled Hosseini's 2003 novel "The Kite Runner" and Chris Crutcher's 1989 young adult novel "Chinese Handcuffs" removed due to the "extreme violence" depicted in each book. She gave examples of scenes that depict gang rape, animal cruelty, suicide, child molestation and other brutal killings in the books.

"They're concepts that are inappropriate for children at 14, 15, 16 years old to be reading," Tessman said. "We're desensitizing our kids to violence when we bring these concepts again and again into their lives."

Tessman said that, because of the schools, as a parent she has only limited control over what content her child is exposed to.

"I can tell him no M-rated games, but I can't control these M-rated concepts coming into his life by the high school bringing them in," Tessman said. "They're kids; they're not adults. They don't need this kind of violence brought into their lives by the high school. We're voluntarily bringing this fiction into their lives and hurting them."

Paul Reese gave an eerie and extreme real-life example of what he believed was an effect of not censoring children.

"What better evidence do we have than Horning Middle School when two girls sat and read something that was full of violence and acted out on someone they called a friend," said Reese, referring to online Slender Man character and the two 12-year-old Waukesha girls who allegedly nearly stabbed their friend to death in May. "It's absurd that you don't see what just happened."

Choices at hand

"The Kite Runner," which was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, is part of the district's curriculum, having been previously approved by the district in 2006. But Waukesha West Principal David LaBorde, who heads the Consideration Committee, still took up the complaint at the meeting.

"Chinese Handcuffs" is not part of the district's curriculum but is housed in high school libraries.

Tessman said after the meeting she plans on filing an appeal with the School Board, something Cox has already done for "Looking for Alaska."

LaBorde, however, said students always have the choice of choosing an alternative book in class.

"In no way, shape or form are we saying every child has to or must read this novel," LaBorde said. "We have choice as part of our curriculum. So if there is a piece of reading or literature — fictional or nonfiction — that parents don't want them reading, they can substitute another piece for that, and that's a fundamental right that our students and parents have in Waukesha."

Tessman said she and her child will exercise that right this school year with "The Kite Runner," a book that will now be taught in 10th grade English. The book was previously part of the 11th grade curriculum.

Books' value

Waukesha North teacher Mary Ann Krause, who has taught English in the district for 26 years, said this was the first time books in the district have been challenged like this.

Krause said she was part of the committee that wrote the curriculum of which "The Kite Runner" is a part. The curriculum includes novels that highlight tradition and revolution or tradition and change in cultures.

"This book is a linchpin for that course," Krause said. "It is incredibly powerful in the classroom and fundamental to our curriculum. This is one book that the students read carefully and maturely. Just the discussions are incredible that the book develops and encourages."

Waukesha South Assistant Principal Stephanie Blue said "it's the perfect kind of book to expose students to," due to the rich discussion that comes out of the historical fiction.

While many members of the Consideration Committee said they agreed that parts of "Chinese Handcuffs" were "unsettling" and "disturbing," Krause said banning books or denying access can become a "slippery slope."

"Slopes slip both ways in that if we remove this book, what's the next book that we remove, what's the next book after that," Krause said. "Our democracy is founded on access to information."