When puberty is more offensive than the holocaust

When my daughter’s eighth grade class was assigned to read Elie Wiesel’s Night, I was concerned. The powerful but slender volume recounts Wiesel’s ordeal as a teenaged prisoner in Auschwitz and Buchenwald, and it spares few details about the horrors he and others endured, including his recollections of seeing Jewish children taken to the ovens. It is haunting reading, even for adults.

But I ultimately decided that my daughter’s English teacher had chosen wisely: Those eighth graders needed to know about the utter savagery to which millions of Jews — and nonconformists — were subjected not so very long ago. I read the book along with my daughter, so I could talk to her about it, helping her to digest its nightmarish, but unfortunately accurate, details.

I thought of that when I read about a southeast Texas schoolteacher who was fired for assigning her eighth grade students a version of Anne Frank’s diary. The school’s administration, though, wasn’t worried that middle-schoolers were too young to read about a child their own age who was forced to hide for years in an attic because the Nazi government wanted to exterminate her and her family and all other Jews. They didn’t seem perturbed that 13-year-olds would learn that a young girl worried constantly that she and her family would be discovered and taken to a concentration camp — as they eventually were. They apparently weren’t troubled that middle-schoolers would learn more about the brutally successful campaign of genocide by a “civilized” nation.

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Nope. That wasn’t it. The Hamshire-Fannett Independent School District was upset because the version the teacher used was the unabridged version published as a graphic novel — as in comic-book style, not sexually-explicit photos. (The most popular version of Anne’s diary is an abridged version that omits her thoughts about sexuality.) When Anne began her diary as a 13-year-old, she wrote about menstruation and described her genitalia. She also, at one point, wrote of her “excitement” at seeing images of female nudes. That, apparently, is much more disturbing to the adults in that school district than the savagery of Nazi Germany.

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According to a 2022 report by PEN America, a nonprofit which promotes free expression, Texas has banned more books than any other state. Gov. Greg Abbott has endorsed the banning frenzy: “A growing number of parents of Texas students are rightfully outraged about highly inappropriate books and other content in public school libraries. The most disturbing cases include material that is clearly pornographic,” he wrote in a 2021 statement.

I certainly understand why parents would want to ban any content that is pornographic, and I support the right of parents to restrict content for their own children (but not for other children). I can still remember being punished as a teenager when my mother found that I had hidden away a racy (trashy, actually) novel after she had told me to toss it in the garbage. I understand why the graphic novel Gender Queer is among the most banned books; it contains sexually explicit images.

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But the book that provoked the firing of a middle-school teacher, Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, does not. It includes the candid and somewhat precocious thoughts of a 13-year-old girl, who also shares about her less-than-ideal relationship with her mother.

As the mother of a teenager, I understand that all of that — the speculations about sexuality, the questions about adult authority, the obsession with the only teenage boy also in hiding — is age-appropriate. What do Texas parents think their young teens talk about among themselves?

And how could it be that a young girl’s description of her genitalia is more disturbing than the fact that after two years in hiding, she and her family were discovered, possibly betrayed by someone they trusted to keep their secret?

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Anne died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 — heartbreakingly close to the time the camps would be liberated. Her mother and sister also died. Her father, the only survivor, later published her diary.

Anne’s account of her years in hiding ought to remind parents of what deserves our consternation. Our children are growing up in a world rife with all sorts of prejudices, including the antisemitism that doomed Anne. That’s cause for worry — not a young girl’s ruminations about human anatomy.

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