With its lavish illustrations of colorful, cuddly critters, "Our Family Tree" looks like the kind of book kids keep by their bedside to read again and again.
But when its St. Paul author, Lisa Westberg Peters, planned to talk about the book in classroom appearances today and Friday at a Monticello, Minn., elementary school, educators got cold feet.
"Our Family Tree" focuses on evolution, the scientific explanation for human origins that some believe contradicts biblical teachings. Peters' appearances, which were to focus on helping kids learn how to write, were canceled.
"It's a cute book. There's nothing wrong with it. We just don't need that kind of debate," said Brad Sanderson, principal at Pinewood Elementary.
Monticello's assistant superintendent, Jim Johnson, said school officials made a reasonable request of Peters to talk about writing but leave the discussion about evolution to teachers. When she refused, the visit was scuttled.
Across the country, there has been increasing opposition to teaching evolution. Peters said officials at two other Minnesota school districts have asked her not to talk about the book in visits over the past year.
The author believes that she is being censored -- something the schools deny.
"Once you start censoring, it's a slippery slope. Are geology and physics next? You have to stop it right away," said Peters, who won a Minnesota Book Award for "Our Family Tree," published in 2003.
In Kansas, the State Board of Education is expected to require that teachers tell students that evolution is controversial. Bills have been introduced in Georgia and Alabama to allow educators to question evolution in the classroom and offer alternatives.
Last year, the Grantsburg, Wis., school district drew widespread attention when a new policy urged teachers to explore alternative theories to evolution.
Peters' book and her school visits have caught the attention of people on both sides of the evolution issue, as well as those concerned about academic freedom.
"I think the school can decide it is not going to introduce second- and third-graders to the origins story and say we ... should not be teaching origins at this age. I think that is an appropriate policy," said John Calvert, managing director of the Intelligent Design Network. The Kansas nonprofit has been active nationally in getting schools to implement curriculum changes that challenge evolution.
Susan Spath, public information director for the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., said she was troubled that Minnesota school officials appeared to fear even talking about evolution.
"This is a signal that school administrators may not be backing up good science teachers, that good science teachers may not be teaching evolution, teaching it correctly, or allowing religious beliefs to be substituted in the classroom for fear of controversy," Spath said. "This is a sign that should concern any parent who cares about good education."
The American Library Association and the Minnesota Coalition Against Censorship also have expressed concerns over the cancellation of Peters' school visits.
A 53-year-old mother and former journalist, Peters is the author of numerous children's titles and is typically paid between $1,000 and $1,500 for school appearances, which she has made around the state for years. Her books -- including "We're Rabbits!" and "Cold Little Duck, Duck, Duck" -- are featured as she talks kids through the writing process and serves up examples from her own work.
"Our Family Tree" was inspired by the geology of the western United States and the works of Stephen Jay Gould, a well-known Harvard University paleontologist. Peters gently walks kids through how one-celled organisms morphed through the eons into more complex creatures, including humans. She could easily leave "Our Family Tree" out of her presentations; it's not a huge part of her material. But she said that would imply she's ashamed of it.
There's also a broader concern. "This is about open discussion in public schools. Censorship is wrong. It's OK in a repressive society, but that's not what we have," Peters said.
In addition to Monticello, Peters said Emmet D. Williams Elementary in Shoreview and Rutherford Elementary in Stillwater also have tried to prevent discussion of her book.
Rutherford teacher Mary Ellison and the school's principal declined to return phone calls. Kay Smith, the Shoreview school's principal, said educators asked Peters not to talk about the evolution book because they didn't have time to review it with students before she arrived -- something Peters disputed.
The Shoreview school staff relented and allowed Peters to do her full presentation. "It was a beautiful job. Students and staff were very appreciative," Smith said. "At no point did anybody feel she was pushing the agenda of evolution."
Mary Ann Nelson, assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Education, said it's up to local schools to set policy for outside speakers.
Nelson said that state science educational standards provide for students to learn more about evolution as they grow older, and that the standards allow for teachers to provide background on the limitations of scientific theories. She declined to comment specifically about Peters, saying she didn't have enough information.
Robert Zink, a University of Minnesota professor of ecology, evolution and behavior, said Peters' experience should send a chill through parents and anyone who cares about the free exchange of ideas.
"This is a form of censorship," Zink said. "I understand the schools' perspective. It's easier to avoid hot-button topics than confront them head-on, but they have no more basis backing away from this than someone who would come in and discuss the laws of physics.
"As the parent who has children in elementary school, [Peters] is exactly the type of person I would want to be there."
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