Staff react to Gilbert Grape controversy

By Torie Jochims 2009

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, a critically acclaimed novel set in Iowa and written by Iowan author Peter Hedges, has been making national headlines lately. The book, which is taught in English teacher Jennifer Paulsen’s modern literature class, was recently yanked from the English classes of Carroll High School in Carroll, Iowa.

Carroll’s superintendent Rob Cordes pulled the book after reading only the controversial sexual passage.

“I think the superintendent made a mistake in not reading the entire book before pulling it,” Paulsen said. Paulsen’s modern literature class had read the book before the Carroll incident took place.

Paulsen said that there is a higher capacity for controversy when a book is taught in the classroom as opposed to a material available for checkout in the library. According to her, the story has deeper themes to be explored other than the brief, yet blunt, sexual passage.

She said the themes, symbolism and messages the students can take away from it outweigh the small sexual portion.

Paulsen said that ignoring that part of the novel wasn’t an option, especially since it consists of something that is an inevitable part of growing up.

“One parent held up the book to Penthouse magazine and said they were the same,” Paulsen said of a point of controversy at a meeting on the book at Carroll. Paulsen said that it was obvious the parent was not familiar with either pieces because the two were incomparable.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is not a banned book at Cedar Falls High School, and Paulsen said that she would absolutely continue to use the book as part of her curriculum.
“It had a strong impact on me,” she said.

Carroll had been teaching the book for four or five years before it was pulled.

“I don’t recall ever hearing of it being challenged [anywhere],” Paulsen said.

At Cedar Falls High School, the books that are a part of the curriculum go through a review process before they are approved.

The review process has the main objective of implementing, enriching and supporting the instructional program.

General selection criteria used in the review process includes educational significance, validity, contribution to the subject matter, the interests of students and staff, reviews and recommendations, examination of the material by professional personnel, reputation of the author, publisher, etc.

Judy Timmins, head of the English department, is also responsible for approving materials before they are allowed into the curriculum.

“Materials used in the English classrooms are selected for their literary merit, meeting of curriculum goals and student interest. In fairness, a novel, and other literature, should be judged in its entirety,” Timmins said.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape made it through the review process at Cedar Falls High School and came to Paulsen highly recommended.

Paulsen said that a few students were uncomfortable with the questioned aspect of the book, but the majority really enjoyed it.

She said all the students took away much more from the book than those few passages.

Among other reasons, Paulsen chose What’s eating Gilbert Grape because of its main theme of tolerance and intolerance.

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