The 2011 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a New York Times bestseller, is at the center of a controversy. Jackie Sims, a mother in Knoxville, Tennessee, has criticized the book as “pornographic” and said that it contains too much “graphic” content for it to be assigned reading. The award-winning book, written by Rebecca Skloot, recounts the true story of a young, poor black woman from the South who, in 1951, was diagnosed with cervical cancer and, without her consent, had cells removed from her by doctors. The cells went on to play a pivotal role in modern medicine. They were dubbed HeLa by scientists and were used in the development of the polio vaccine and in vitro fertilization treatments. Sims has a 15-year-old son and she thinks the book is too mature for his sensibility. “There’s so many ways to say things without being graphic in nature, and that’s the problem I have with the book,” she said, and has pushed for it to be banned from her son’s high school. However, not all parents share her view of the book. One mom said it wasn’t Sims’ place to decide what the rest of the students at the school should or shouldn’t read. “To try and stop the book from being read by all students is, to me, a modern-day kind of book burning,” said Shelly Higgins, the mother of an eighth-grader. So far, the Knox County school has yet to take any action against the assignment choice. Knoxville schools were at the center of a similar controversy in 1984 when the school board tried to ban John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men over “vulgar language.”
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