(WBIR - KNOXVILLE) The author of a New York Times bestseller is weighing in on a heated conversation surrounding her book, stemming from one East Tennessee mother's push to ban the book from Knox County Schools.
The text is called The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Published in 2010, it details the true story of a poor black woman who had a sample of her cells taken for research in 1951 without her knowledge or consent, while she was in the hospital with cervical cancer. Those cells have led to major medical breakthroughs, and for decades Lacks' family had no idea.
The book addresses issues of medical ethics and race inequality. It also contains themes of infidelity and violence, and some local parents - who reached out to WBIR - say it's unsuitable for teens.
Jackie Sims' 15-year-old son is a sophomore at Knox County Schools' L&N STEM Academy. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was a book on his summer reading list, and Sims said it didn't come with any parental warning or permission form.
Sims' son brought the book to his mother recently, when passages he read made him uncomfortable.
"I was shocked that there was so much graphic information in the book," Sims said.
What Sims read appalled her, she said, citing a passage that describes infidelity and another that describes Lacks' intimate discovery that she has a lump on her cervix.
"I consider the book pornographic," she said, adding it's the wording that bothers her most.
"It could be told in a different way," she said. "There's so many ways to say things without being that graphic in nature, and that's the problem I have with this book."
Her son has been provided with an alternate text (Phineas Gage: A Gruesome but True Story About Brain Science), per district policy, but Sims said she wants The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks out of the hands of all Knox County Schools students.
Author Rebecca Skloot responded to the buzz on her Facebook page, saying, "Just in time for #BannedBooksWeek, a parent in Tennessee has confused gynecology with pornography and is trying to get my book banned from the Knoxville high school system...I hope the students of Knoxville will be able to continue to learn about Henrietta and the important lessons her story can teach them. Because my book is many things: It's a story of race and medicine, bioethics, science illiteracy, the importance of education and equality and science and so much more. But it is not anything resembling pornography."
She told WBIR she has, "gotten wonderful messages from many students at L&N STEM, and I've talked with the school's administration, which has been a real treat. I'm thrilled that my book is part of their curriculum each year, and that students have responded so positively to it and the important lessons it can teach about science, ethics, race, education, and so much more."
The school's community, she continued, "is clearly a caring and devoted one, and I'm confident they'll handle this situation in a way that's graceful, and best for their students. The type of science-based education L&N STEM offers is invaluable — Knoxville is lucky to have such a school for its youth."
WBIR also reached out to Sims on Wednesday for her reaction to the heated conversation prompted by her efforts.
"Obviously, it touched a nerve...If it's a constructive discussion, that's good," she said.
She still plans on asking the district to review the material.
Some commenting on the story on social media have pointed out there are many other assigned texts throughout the nation's public schools that also address mature subject matter and use coarse language. At least two mentioned Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which contains the 'n' word.
"I think that there's a difference," Sims said. "When you have somebody describing the way that they touch their body in order to discover these things...That doesn't happen in Mark Twain...And the mention of a man that's laying and touching himself on a bed with a female next to him, that's not in Mark Twain, so there's a huge difference comparing Mark Twain...This one is very graphic and totally breaks the Knox County policy."
Doug Harris, Knox County Schools Board of Education chair, said the board updated its policy last year regarding the selection of instructional materials other than textbooks. Board members added language specifically addressing sensitive material.
"We've got some specific language in there that talks about graphic violence or coarse language or sexual content," he said. "We give teachers guidance to make sure that they're aware of the books that they're putting in the classroom."
Millicent Smith is the district's executive director of curriculum, instruction and professional development. She said the district gives teachers a lot of autonomy in selecting those teaching materials.
"We rely heavily, from that point (after distributing the above-mentioned guidelines), on teachers' professional judgment," Smith said. "We feel very strongly that teachers and administrators will make the best instructional decisions for their school communities."
She said parents can formally request the material be removed from all district classrooms, by filling out a form called the Citizen's Request for Reconsideration of Instructional Materials.
"I've been in this position for three years, and I've had one text that has actually gone through the process of reconsideration," Smith said, "so we feel pretty comfortable when you think about 90 schools, 59,000 students and almost 4,500 teachers. We're doing a pretty good job selecting the appropriate instructional materials, supporting our curriculum, which supports our standards."
Once that form is submitted, a committee comes together at the student's school. If that committee decides the text is acceptable, the parent has the option to appeal at the district level.
"I would say it's pretty rare for it to escalate to the district level, but if it does, we are certainly prepared and willing to have conversations with parents and follow that procedure all the way through," Smith said.
While Sims is not alone in objecting to the book, other parents applaud it as an critically acclaimed text to teach students about important topics, including bioethics.
"I don't think it's inappropriate," said Shelly Higgins, one such parent.
She has an eighth-grade son in the district and said she plans on allowing him to read the book when he reaches high school. She said she thinks the book teaches students important lessons about bioethics and history.
That's why she doesn't appreciate Sims' efforts to ban the book district-wide.
"To try and stop the book from being read by all students is, to me, a modern day kind of book burning," she said. "If someone comes along and tries to take the book out of the curriculum, then that affects me and that affects my child...If the parent doesn't want the child to read it, the parent doesn't want the child to read it, but do not take away everybody else's choice to read that book."
Sims said she plans on taking the appeal as far as she can, "because I just feel that strongly about it being out of the hands of our children."
Higgins opposes that approach.
"I respect each parent's right to decide what they want their child to read. I really do," Higgins said. "My major point is: don't take that opportunity away from all the students."
She asks parents to read the book before forming an opinion.
Sims said she has read most of the book, and while it addresses important medical issues, she still objects to what she calls graphic language.
"Always, good people can disagree," Harris said, "and I think on this book that's probably the case."