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'Persepolis' Memoir Isn't Appropriate For Seventh-Graders, CPS Boss Says

By Patty Wetli | March 15, 2013 8:50am | Updated on March 15, 2013 3:09pm

ROSCOE VILLAGE — Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said Friday that the novel "Persepolis" should not be used with seventh-graders because it contains "graphic language and images."

Byrd-Bennett's statement comes after Lane Tech College Prep Principal Christopher Dignam sent out an email about Marjane Satrapi's autobiographical graphic novel, saying he was directed by CPS officials to remove the book.

Teachers, parents and students called for a protest at the North Side high school Friday afternoon.

"Persepolis," described by Time magazine as a memoir of girl growing up in Iran who has "an obsession with becoming God's new prophet," has been banned in Iran, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates because some Muslims consider it blasphemous.

In a letter to principals, the schools CEO said that the move to remove the book from its seventh-grade curriculum came after "It was brought to our attention that it contains graphic language and images that are not appropriate for general use" for that age group.

While saying "We are not banning this book from our schools," Byrd-Bennett instructed principals: "If your seventh-grade teachers have not yet taught this book, please ask them not to do so and to remove any copies of the book from their classrooms."

While "Persepolis" "may be appropriate" for junior and senior students, Byrd-Bennett said that CPS is reconsidering whether the book, because of "powerful images of torture," should be used in the curriculum of eighth through 10th grades.

Byrd-Bennett's statement followed reports of the book being removed from Lane Tech, which some characterized as a threat to free speech. Lane educates some seventh- and eighth-graders.

In a statement issued before Byrd-Bennett's comment, the author said, "I am ashamed of people who make these kind of decisions."

The controversy was sparked by reports of an email sent Thursday in which the Lane Tech principal told school staff members that he was informed by one of the CPS' Network Instructional Support Leaders group that all ISLs were given a deadline of Friday to make sure the book was not in the library, that it had not been checked out by a student or teacher, that it was not used in "any classrooms" and "to collect the autobiographic graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi from all classrooms and the Library."

"I was not provided a reason for the collection of 'Persepolis,'" Dignam's message concluded.

A second email, sent from the principal later the same day, revised the previous directive, exempting removal from the library.

In her statement, Byrd-Bennett said, "We are not requesting that you remove 'Persepolis' from your central school library."

The book was recommended by CPS in its "Literacy Content Framework: Seventh Grade Toolset," as well as for 11th-graders to teach the "unifying concept" of "individualism and culture" — in both cases for the current school year.

"Persepolis," also made into an animated film of the same name, depicts the author's childhood and young adult years in Iran, during and after the Islamic revolution.

Satrapi's book, originally published in France, describes her childhood in Iran in the 1970s and '80s and how she lived through the Islamic Revolution and the war with Iraq.

An award-winning work, “Persepolis” has been translated into more than 40 languages. It was published in the United States as two volumes in 2003 and 2004 and later as a single volume.

It was chosen by the Young Adult Library Association as one of its recommended titles and named as one of “100 Best Books of the Decade” by the Times of London, according to Satrapi’s publicist.

A film version of "Persepolis," released in 2007, was banned in Iran, a move that the author told an interviewer in 2010 was probably because "it is too Western, and it is un-Islamic and maybe anti-revolutionary.”

In her statement Friday, the author said she visited a Chicago school in 2004 "and loved seeing the kids there, so full of passion and questions. I felt close to them and they felt close to me."

"But when I hear that they want to ban my book — in America — I just don't understand. I cannot accept it. Why? America is the largest democracy in the world!...Shame on them," said Satrapi.

At a press conference, Barbara Jones, director of the Chicago-based American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom, said "Persepolis" has been adopted by "many many public school systems around the country."

"So this is very unusual for the Chicago Public Schools to be removing this book. In most cases, books are judged as a whole. Not by one word, not by, in this case because it's a graphic novel, one frame. It is judged as a whole, and what the impact will [be] on students," said Jones.

The book was the talk of the school, with the principal using the intercom on Friday morning to talk about the issue.

Said junior Eleanor Harvey: "I haven't read it, but this makes me want to read it."

Contributing: Jill Colvin, Lizzie Schiffman