The text that Kaia Alexander received on Thursday was not from some right-wing group bent on banning books in schools in the supposed name of liberty and parental rights.
It was from her 11-year-old son’s fifth-grade teacher at Skyline Elementary School in Solana Beach, California. And it was about a novel that the boy had picked out with her on a trip to a bookstore. Alexander is a single mom and a writer whose work has ranged from screenplays to a novel about the events leading up to the burning of the great library in Alexandria, Egypt. Her son’s name is Atticus, the name of the crusading father in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The teacher wrote: “Hi, are you aware that Atticus brought a copy of Cujo by Stephen King to school today? This is the Goodreads write-up: ‘This book deals with mature themes, contains a decent amount of strong language, depicts pretty graphic violence, and has fairly explicit sexual acts. Definitely a book intended for adults.’”
The text continued, “Of course it is a family decision whether he reads the book at home or not, but I am not comfortable having this book at school in a classroom of 11-year-olds. I recommended a book to him that I think he will like, he’s got it now.”
When Atticus came home from school, he went into his room and flopped on his bed. His mom stood in the doorway.
“I said, ‘So, is there anything you want to tell me about what happened at school today?’’’ she recalled. “And he knew right away that I knew. And he was like, ’Okay, all right. You must know everything.’”
She asked him which book the teacher had selected for him..
“He said, ‘Look! She took away Cujo and gave me Hunger Games!” Alexander recalled. “He couldn’t believe it. He was laughing.”
Alexander later said to The Daily Beast, “How is this more appropriate? This is a book about children murdering children.”
Kaia and Atticus Alexander.
Courtesy Kaia Alexander
She and her son gave The Hunger Games a try as bedtime reading.
“He’s looking at me like, ‘This is a very dark book,’” she reported. “He says he likes Stephen King’s writing style better.”
Atticus began asking her about Stephen King after reading Tui T. Sutherland’s Wings of Fire Series and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline.
“He loves scary books,” Alexander said. “He was asking me about what books he could possibly read. And he was really interested in Stephen King… I grew up reading him, so I’m thrilled my son discovered his books and the love of reading at this age.”
Alexander took Atticus to the local Barnes & Noble.
“We spent about an hour going through all of Stephen King’s books and finding the ones that were maybe the least scary for his age level,” she recalled.
They decided on four; Cujo, The Stand, The Gunslinger, and Different Seasons.
“From my research these are considered the least scary King books,” Alexander said.
Alexander said she was aware that Atticus’ teacher is conservative and that not all kids—including herself at that age—share her son’s fondness for horror tales. She had told him not to bring Cujo to school, and she noted that in her reply to the teacher’s text.
“He will find another book to read. I am a writer, and a screenwriter, and outside of school I don’t limit his reading. I’m a liberal parent. I think there’s no better place for kids to learn that in books. We have a Socratic learning approach—if he’s interested in a topic, we provide books about it. My issue is more with that he deliberately disobeyed me and went against my thorough explanation as to why this book is not an appropriate choice for school. Thanks for telling us.”
The the kerfuffle over Cujo felt to Alexander feel like a variation on a disturbing national rise in book banning. And the clamoring for censorship is too much like the historical period in which she set her novel, Written in the Ashes
“In that era in the 5th century, what we saw was the rise of religious extremism and the destruction of …not just the Great Library of Alexandria, but many libraries around the Mediterranean,” she said. “And it’s that same, whoever controls the information, controls the world scenario, which is what we’re seeing in this country… Our greatest defense against ignorance, hate and extremism is the education and literacy of our children.”
She added, “History repeats itself…So, especially now, I just feel really passionately about children getting to read these books that are being banned, about my son being allowed to be a self-motivated reader.”
She got another surprise when she posted about the Cujo incident on Twitter. The tweet racked up 2.2M views, 1,069 retweets, 16.4K likes and 1,993 comments from people who share her alarm about book banning and also love reading, many of them Steven King in particular.
“Obviously Stephen King is a national treasure,” Alexander said. “I’m thrilled my son discovered his books and the love of reading at this age. And I’ll proudly continue to provide Atticus with any books he wants to read, and we’ll discuss the themes and situations from the pages together. I think there’s no better place to learn about adult issues and what it is to be human, than from books.”
She proudly noted that Atticus is reading two levels about his grade. But there was still the issue of Atticus disobeying her.
“He did lose phone privileges for the rest of the week because he defied me in bringing the book to school,” she said. “But he was very quick to point out that his defiance made me famous on Twitter.”
She added, “I think he’s gonna be an attorney,”
Atticus’ phone privileges were restored on Sunday. He has expressed interest in whether her viral tweet had drawn a response from one specific person.
“My son keeps asking, ‘Did Stephen King respond? Did he reply?’” Alexander said.