A southeast Wisconsin school board has rejected a book recommended for use in an accelerated 10th grade English class, in part because it fears it lacks ‘balance’ regarding the internment of Americans of Japanese descent during World War II.
The Muskego-Norway District Program Planning Committee, which serves approximately 5,000 students in Waukesha and Racine counties, had selected “When the Emperor Was Divine”, a 2002 historical novel by Julie Otsuka based on her own family’s experiences. The book, winner from the American Library Association’s Alex Award and the Asian American Literary Award, tells from different perspectives the story of a Japanese-American family uprooted from their home in Berkeley, California, and sent to an internment camp in the desert from Utah.
But on June 13, the board’s educational services committee, made up of three of its seven members, sent the book back to the curriculum committee, from where it is not expected to return.
At that meeting, committee and school board member Laurie Kontney complained that “When the Emperor Was Divine” had been selected as a “diverse” book, according to detailed notes taken by Ann Zielke, school district resident and parent. Muskego resident and parent Corrie Prunuske confirms hearing this: “I think she said, ‘They just looked at various books.’ ”
“I asked why that would be a problem,” Zielke recounts in his notes. “[Kontney] said he can’t be chosen on that basis and I asked again if she had proof of that. What they don’t do. She said it couldn’t just be ‘oppression’. Committee member Boyer, per this account, said the selection committee had to choose a book that was “unrestricted,” meaning not intended to promote diversity.
Kontney is the newest board member, having been elected in April on a platform that included“CRITICAL THINKING NOT CRITICAL RACE THEORY.
Zielke also says he was told, in conversations with school board president Chris Buckmaster and board member Terri Boyer, who sits on the educational services committee, that using the book would create a “balance” problem. in part because the Accelerated English course curriculum already includes a 10-page excerpt from a non-fiction book about internment camps.
“So their contention is that having two texts in this class from what they call a perspective – that is, the perspective of the Japanese people who were interned – creates a problem of balance,” Zielke said in an interview. The feeling was that “we need to get more perspective from the US government on why they did this.”
Buckmaster, she says, explained to her that the kind of balance he had in mind would include a discussion of the Nanjing Rape, the massacre of Chinese civilians by the Japanese that began on December 13, 1937 and continued for six weeks. “So what he’s saying is what you would need in this course is kind of a historical context of the horror of the Japanese in World War II in order to understand the perspective of the American government on the internment of the Japanese.”
“False balance sheet”
Zielke, for his part, sees “no need for this kind of false balance or bilateralism in telling the story of Japanese internment. The US government got it wrong and apologized for the racism that led to the internment of the Japanese.
David Inoue, Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens Leaguea national nonprofit with offices in San Francisco and Washington, DC, agrees.
“The call for a ‘balanced’ view in the context of the incarceration of Japanese Americans is deeply problematic and racist, and plays on the same mistakes the US military has used to justify incarceration” , he wrote in a letter at the Muskego-Norway School Board. “We urge you to reconsider your position on the use of the book, knowing that while not every book and every story can be told, to deny the use of a book like this on the pretenses you have given is false.”
Zielke says Buckmaster and Boyer, in conversations with her, said the district’s curriculum planning committee may have received a directive — it’s unclear from whom — to select a book from an author. not white. According to Zielke, “the council is saying that kind of negates the process, because it’s akin to some type of discrimination.”
After the June 13 committee meeting, Buckmaster had a heated exchange with Hapeman, who works for the district as a teaching assistant. She says he told her, regarding the council’s action, “That’s why they were elected. That’s what they ran on. Emily Sorensen, a community member who was sitting nearby, said she heard him make the comment.
Buckmaster, Boyer, Kontney and Tracy Blair, the third board member who sits on the educational resources committee, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Kelly Thomspon, the district superintendent.
Absent from the lists of “banned books”
Across the country, the MAGA crowd went wild over educational materials deemed inappropriate for young minds.
“When the Emperor Was Divine” is not one of them.
In a letter on the board of Muskego-Norway, Jordan Pavlin, editor of Alfred A. Knopf and editor of Otsuka at the publishing house, noted that “When the Emperor Was Divine” “has been of course adopted in hundreds of schools across the country, where it has become a staple of high school English lessons.
She added that historical fiction “has the power not only to edify but also to transform and deepen our perspectives; it allows us to look outward, beyond the confines of our circumscribed lives, with more sympathy and understanding.
In the 2020 presidential election, the town of Muskego, which constitutes the majority of the Muskego-Norway School District, vote for Donald Trump over Joe Biden by a two-to-one margin. That’s even higher than the margin that voted for Trump in all of dark red Waukesha County, in which Muskego resides.
Yet all of the objections to “When the Emperor Was Divine” came from school board members, not the community as a whole.
“I am not aware of any opposition to the use of the Otsuka book from parents, students, teachers, or community members,” Hapeman says. “The only opposition to the book that I know of is from school board members.”
Parents show their support
Indeed, prior to the June 13 meetings, more than 130 parents and community members, including many former students of the Muskego-Norway School District, signed a petition support book selection. Written by Lawrence Hapeman, Allison’s son and a 2021 district school graduate, the 1,800-word petition challenges the various objections to “When the Emperor Was Divine.”
These included an assertion, allegedly made by more than one school board member, that the book is “too sad”. The petition calls this argument “fundamentally absurd,” noting that other books approved for classroom use in the district include Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” and Tim O’Brien’s “Things They Carried,” in which most of the characters die at the end of the novel in often brutal and graphic ways.
The petition also argues that the educational staff involved in selecting “When the Emperor Was Divine” deserve support in their decisions. He quotes a June 10 article in the Wisconsin Examiner on how the Waukesha School District “received at least 54 employee resignations between April 1 and June 5 of this year, compared to 28 resignations last year during the same period, or an increase of 93%”.
“Many of these resignations came from teachers who cited a lack of respect and acceptance from their school board as the primary causes of their departure,” the petition states. He quotes two district teachers anonymously about a perceived lack of support.
“I have never felt so attacked for simply doing my job or doing my duty to teach children about others and their world,” says one teacher. “I feel like I have to defend every book that has a person of color in it.” Another teacher says, “The anti-diversity and lack of backlash against it from district leaders has caused me to actively seek out other positions in districts that support diversity.”
As for the argument that “this book should not be approved because the selection committee was non-negotiably determined to choose a work by an author who is a woman of color,” the petition refers to a district directivepublished in 2020, to seek ways “to support understanding of the history of marginalization and the positive impact we can have in our daily lives when we use an equity mindset that tackles disparities”.
The petition states: “As residents of the world and heirs to its history, we must be given the opportunity to reflect on the past and to highlight the pain and suffering caused in the past. This reflection aims to prepare us to create a stronger country and world by categorically rejecting the mistakes of the past.
Or, as Inoue put it in her letter to the school board, “The story of what happened to the Japanese-American community is an American story, a story that balances the challenges of injustice, but also the stories patriotic stories of service and resistance, on the contrary, these are stories that need to be told more in our schools.
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