Alaska school board removes 'The Great Gatsby,' other famous books from curriculum for 'controversial' content

Bookstores are fielding requests for works removed from Mat-Su Borough School District classrooms.
A first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby" at the London International Antiquarian Book Fair in London on June 13, 2013.Oli Scarff / Getty Images file
By David K. Li

An Alaska school board removed five famous — but allegedly "controversial" — books from district classrooms, inadvertently renewing local interest in the excluded works.

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou, "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller, "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald and "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison were all taken off an approved list of works that teachers in the Mat-Su Borough School District may use for instruction.

The school board voted 5-2 on Wednesday to yank the works out of teachers' hands starting this fall. The removed books contain content that could potentially harm students, school board Vice President Jim Hart told NBC News on Tuesday.

"If I were to read these in a corporate environment, in an office environment, I would be dragged into EO," an equal opportunity complaint proceeding, Hart said. "The question is why this is acceptable in one environment and not another."

Download the NBC News app for breaking news and politics

"Caged Bird" was derided for "anti-white' messaging," "Gatsby" and "Things" are loaded with "sexual references," "Invisible Man" has bad language and "Catch-22" includes violence, according to the school district.

Dianne K. Shibe, president of the Mat-Su Education Association teachers union, said parents and her members were stunned by the board action.

Even though the school board had listed an agenda item to discuss "controversial book descriptions," Shibe said, no one believed those works were under serious threat.

"Most of the community didn't respond, because these books had been used forever," Shibe told NBC News. "Now in retrospect, it's like, 'duh.' I could have seen this coming."

Shibe said her union would push board members to reconsider their action.

"This is not set in stone," she said. "The union is all about educating students, and this flies in the face of educating students."

Mary Ann Cockle, owner of Fireside Books in Palmer, about a mile from district headquarters, said her store ran out of copies of the books within hours of the board's action.

"People who had read the books years ago are buying them to read again and to give away," Cockle said Tuesday. "Our biggest outpouring of support are people buying the books and donating them or leaving them to us to distribute for free."

A new shipment of "Caged" and "Invisible Man" arrived at Fireside on Tuesday, and Cockle expects them all to be gone by Wednesday.

"I don't think they realized they were treading on censorship, and people are completely opposed to censorship," she said.

Hart insisted that the books are not "banned" and said they all remain in district libraries.

Even though students are still free to read the books on their own, Hart said, it would be unfair to ask teachers to have to navigate their pupils through the complicated subject matter.

"These are teachers, not counselors," Hart said.

Several books that were not removed from classrooms also came under harsh scrutiny.

"The Jungle" and "A Christmas Carol" could be interpreted as advocating for socialism, while "A Street in Bronzeville" was called into question for showing too much "realism" in describing racism against African Americans, according to a district memo.

David K. Li