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03 December 2007 @ 01:56 pm
The Golden Compass controversy heats up as libraries receive complaints.

Posted on Sun, Dec. 02, 2007
Schools and parents grapple with 'The Golden Compass'
By Amy Wilson

All Catholic elementary and middle schools in the 15-county Diocese of Lexington were strongly advised last month to remove author Philip Pullman's fantasy The Golden Compass from their library shelves. The move comes as a $180 million movie of the same name starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, and based on Pullman's book, is set to hit theaters Friday.

"It is our position that parents should make the first judgment on this book that so many have found controversial," said William Farnau, the diocese's superintendent of schools and the author of a memo recommending against having the book available for elementary student checkout.

"It was not banned," says Farnau, "but it was taken off the shelves. It was removed as a check-out item. If a parent would like to come in and request to check out the book from the school, we would, of course, allow that."

The Golden Compass traces a 12-year-old girl named Lyra from Oxford, England, to the Arctic to the edge of another universe, where she becomes locked in a battle between good and evil. The characters are shadowed by their own "daemons," talking animal companions that take on soullike qualities.

The removal of the book is one of several local reactions to a heated nationwide debate over the film based on the first of Pullman's epic trilogy, referred to collectively as His Dark Materials, and published a decade ago. In early October, the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights launched a boycott of the film, calling it "selling atheism to kids."

Since the conservative Catholic League and various evangelical Christian groups began cautioning parents through newsletters and e-mail three months ago, the series has seen a 500 percent increase in sales, according to Reuters, though much of that surge can be attributed to the movie.

The decision by the Diocese of Lexington, says Cathy Bell, principal at Sts. Peter and Paul School in Lexington, was made because the material in the book was deemed "not just anti-Catholic, but anti-God and anti-religion."

Bell, who received Farnau's memo and agreed with it, also took the matter to her school's advisory board last month. They supported her position to remove the book.

The memo was not sent to Catholic high schools, says Farnau, because his concern was for "age and developmental appropriateness." He added that if a Catholic high school teacher wanted to teach the book with guidance, he would probably not oppose it.

Public schools are not immune to the controversy, either.

In early October, Conkwright Middle School in Winchester heard from parents concerned that The Golden Compass was being taught in a sixth-grade English class.

Conkwright Principal Luke Wright said he followed up complaints by offering any student an opportunity to "opt out" and instead be taught similar principles from a different book. Some parents, he said, continued to complain. "They thought we would immediately remove the book from the classroom. We didn't."

The book was then one of the most checked-out books in the Conkwright library, and it remains so, said Wright.

The matter went to a group of teachers, parents and a school board member who were invited to read the book and report to Wright. That group unanimously agreed to recommend that the book be retained and that it could be taught, with principal permission.

At a site-based council meeting, that committee presented its side while a parent with a different view presented the other side. The site-based council agreed that the book could remain on the shelves. It did note that the second and third books in Pullman's trilogy were "more problematic," says Wright. Those two books and the movie would, ultimately, not be included in the school's library.

Wright is pleased that the book was not banned, as, he says, "We are not in the business of saying you shouldn't read."

Jack Hayes, director of student achievement for Fayette County schools, says his office has not received any complaints about the book and that any decision about pulling a book would not be the district's but the individual school's.

Ollie Gibbs, headmaster at Lexington Christian Academy, said he had not read the book.

Conversation about the film and books is likely to increase in coming days.

Catholic author Sandra Miesel, author of Pied Piper of Atheism: Philip Pullman and Children's Fantasy, has complained that every clergy person in the epic is evil. And, standing in contrast to the Christian belief in heaven, Pullman's afterlife consists of bodies breaking into particles and being recycled into the material world.

Other critiques on evangelical blogs and Web sites are getting heavy traffic. There are, of course, those in the faith community unconcerned about the film's message.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Office for Film and Broadcasting gave the film, which is rated PG-13, a warm review. The film is not blatantly anti-Catholic but a "generalized rejection of authoritarianism," it said.

And there are those unconvinced by Pullman's atheist hype.

Sister Rose Paccate, director of the Pauline Center of Media Studies in Culver City, Calif., said the books portray benevolence toward children and a God figure -- just one that's much different than the one Christians know. She sees irony in calls to shun the film, considering that one of Pullman's central themes is that people should not follow orders and forfeit critical thought.

Since its publication, The Golden Compass has won the 1996 Carnegie Medal, the 1997 American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults as well as the ALA's Notable Children's Book award. It was nominated for the American Booksellers Book of the Year Award -- Children.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
[ spirit in the wires ]: hermioneurbandelirium on December 5th, 2007 03:51 am (UTC)