CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Graphic depictions of violence, suicide and sexual assault in two Pat Conroy books are at the heart of a First Amendment debate, pitting offended parents against high school students who object to being told what they can't read.
Even Conroy has interjected himself into the debate. In an e-mail to a student, Conroy slams those who would ban his works as "idiots."
A student group is vowing to sue the Kanawha County Board of Education if the removal of "Beach Music" and "The Prince of Tides" from two Nitro High School classes is made permanent and expanded countywide.
In a move that appeased neither side, the board decided Monday to explore using advisory labels on books that show content for violence, language, sexual content or adult situations.
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The book challenge is one of hundreds reported to the American Library Association every year on requests to have materials removed from schools or libraries, including the popular Harry Potter series, which some Christians believe promotes witchcraft.
Steve Shamblin, who teaches honors and Advanced Placement courses at Nitro High, said the graphic depictions in Conroy's books are found in newspapers every day. He also noted that several literary groups have deemed the books as age-appropriate for high school upperclassmen.
"As long as we stay in a 1950s utopian mind-set, we're not going to get past the 20th century," he said.
Parents Ken and Leona Tyree said certain scenes in "The Prince of Tides" are "obscene and offensive." Leona Tyree said she was unable to finish the book. Their son has since left Shamblin's Advanced Placement literature class.
Another parent, Karen Frazier, complained about violence in "Beach Music" and told school board members last month that she wants guidelines for books used in public schools.
"If a teacher was on a computer and sending this filth to underage students, they'd probably be arrested," Frazier said at last month's meeting.
Makenzie Hatfield, who teamed with fellow students to form a coalition against censorship, said her group is prepared to go to court if the school board sides with the parents. "This is a college class," said Hatfield, a senior at Kanawha County's George Washington High. "We chose to take this class. The school didn't tell us to. We chose."
Conroy did not respond to requests for comment from The Associated Press but defended his books in an e-mail to Hatfield.
Because the two books were temporarily banned, "every kid in that county will read them, every single one of them. Because book banners are invariably idiots," Conroy wrote in the letter published Oct. 24 in The Charleston Gazette. "They don't know how the world works -- but writers and English teachers do."
Conroy referred to the books as "two of my darlings, which I would place before the altar of God and say, 'Lord, this is how I found the world you made.' "
He said his late father fought in three wars and turned violent on his wife and seven children; his youngest brother committed suicide; a female relative was raped; eight classmates at the Citadel were killed in Vietnam, and his best friend died last summer in a car accident.
"The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out," he wrote. "I've been in 10,000 cities and have introduced myself to 100,000 strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give."