Originally created 12/03/99

Mother pushes school to ban book



With today's focus on school violence and zero-tolerance policies, Debbie Jordan never thought the Berenstain Bears children's books would be a problem.

That was until she saw page 31 in The Berenstain Bears and the Nerdy Nephew. On that page, Brother Bear thinks he could kill his super-smart cousin for the cousin's obnoxious behavior. An illustration depicts the choice of weapons he could choose.

"You could tell that was a poison bottle," Mrs. Jordan said. "You could tell that was a piece of wood with a long nail stuck through it, a knife and a gun. Those are four things that little bear already knew he could do. He was trying to figure out which method to use against the other little bear."

Because of that one page in the 112-page children's book, Mrs. Jordan plans to ask North Harlem Elementary School -- where her son attends second grade -- to pull the book from its library. It's a move one of the book's authors would understand.

The book -- written by Stan and Jan Berenstain -- was published originally in 1993, before the incidents of school violence that have been the focus of media attention in recent years.

Mr. Berenstain said if they were writing the book today, they would do it differently.

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"In today's atmosphere it's going to raise eyebrows and objections," Mr. Berenstain said in a telephone interview. "I don't think that functionally this is going to trigger some kid to go do violence. I don't think that's the case, but I think people have a right to be hypersensitive on an issue like this.

"We have grandchildren, and we know what's happening in the world."

Mrs. Jordan's 8-year-old son Brian checked the book out from the school's library to read as part of the school's accelerated reader program. When he got to the illustration, Brian said he didn't understand all the weapons depicted and how they could be used. Mrs. Jordan and her husband, Jim, discussed the illustration with him and explained that violence is not a way to deal with others.

"I was totally shocked at this book," Mrs. Jordan said.

In more than 33 years of writing children's books and 240 million books sold, the Nerdy Nephew is the only one the husband and wife writing team has received complaints about, Mr. Berenstain said. But even then they've received only two complaints in writing.

In defense of the book and the illustration, Mr. Berenstain said the gun is actually a water pistol and in the context of the book's larger message the image is not as offensive.

"This book is really about accepting people that are different from you," he said. "It's sort of the nerds vs. the jocks. And eventually they get together beautifully and become friends."

To remove a book from a Columbia County school, complainants must go through a formal process with a school media committee hearing. Everyone involved must read the book. Complainants can appeal to a system-wide committee and eventually to the school board, Associate Superintendent Jonnie Ghetti said. A book removed from one school would not necessarily be removed from others.

"We do have a very formal process in place," Ms. Ghetti said. "We can't just go take a book off a shelf."

Ms. Ghetti said she has explained the process to Mrs. Jordan, who plans to take the first step -- meeting with the school principal -- in the next few days. The school's review process should take about a month.

Allan Josephson, chief of child, adolescent and family psychiatry at Medical College of Georgia, said the image alone would probably not cause a child to be aggressive unless he already had those tendencies.

But as a societal issue, the more images children see that depict violence as a solution could lead to problems, Dr. Josephson said. And things that might have seemed innocent just a few years ago take on a different meaning today.

"This one page or image is probably not worth fighting about," Dr. Josephson said. "But if repeatedly children see this in stories and then it's amplified on the media and finally they have family structures that are not teaching them to control their impulses, then that begins to be more of a problem."

Reach Peggy Ussery at (706) 868-1222, Ext. 112.