Virginia School District Bans Sherlock Holmes Book

The desire to shield children from controversy has led another school district to ban a classic novel.

Albemarle County, Virginia is primarily known as the home of Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia, but now it’s also earning a distinction for another reason:

Thursday’s vote was the culmination of the work of a committee commissioned to study the book and two discussions by board members.

Board member Diantha McKiel, of the Jack Jouett District, said it was important to note that the school system has a history of reconsidering books.

“Sometimes we have declared books age inappropriate, sometimes we have decided that they should stay where they are,” she said.

More than 20 former Henley students turned out to oppose the book’s removal from the lists. Rising Western Albemarle High School ninth-grader Quinn Legallo-Malone spoke during public comment to oppose removal of the book. He called the work “the best book I have read so far.”

The board based its decision on the recommendation of a committee commissioned to study the Victorian work. In its report, the committee concluded that the book was not age-appropriate for sixth-graders.

In her comments to the board, Brette Stevenson, the Henley parent who first complained about the book in May, said the work was not suitable as an introduction to mystery and deductive reasoning.

“‘A Study in Scarlet’ has been used to introduce students to the mystery genre and into the character of Sherlock Holmes. This is our young students’ first inaccurate introduction to an American religion,” Stevenson told the board.

The offending portions of A Study In Scarlet apparently had to do with several passages referencing Mormonism:

You don’t have to be a world-class detective to see that the book casts Mormons in a bad light, suggesting it’s a religion whose adherents are willing to commit murder to protect their ideals. Take this passage from Chapter 3:

“The man who held out against the Church vanished away, and none knew whither he had gone or what had befallen him. His wife and his children awaited him at home, but no father ever returned to tell them how he had fared at the hands of his secret judges. A rash word or a hasty act was followed by annihilation, and yet none knew what the nature might be of this terrible power which was suspended over them.”

Although the school board agreed to pull the book from the sixth-grade curriculum, members said they might introduce it in the high school curriculum.

Perhaps then they could use the book to teach a lesson about forgiveness.

Why can’t that lesson be taught in Sixth Grade? And if you’re going to introduce students to the mystery genre, what better book to start with than the very first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries. The book, for example, tells the story of how Dr. Watson and Holmes met and introduces plot elements that show up in later works. Moreover, the book was published in 1886, when the controversies over Mormonism, it’s practice of polygamy, and the question of Utah statehood were still being debated in the United States. To the extent that Doyle’s predominantly British audience knew anything about the LDS Church, it was through press coverage of the LDS Church’s various conflicts with American authorities going back to the 1830s. It wasn’t until 1890 that those conflicts were resolved. So, it’s not surprising that at fictional depiction of the Chruch would be heavily influenced by the era it was written. It strikes me that this would be an excellent opportunity for a teachable moment that even 6th graders can learn from.

There is this tendency in education to shield students from controversial ideas that gets reinforced when ever some vocal minority speaks up and complains. It’s led to bans on Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the two greatest works from one of America’s greatest writers, because of their use of a racial epithet, even though both works are meant to show how wrong racial prejudices are. It’s led to bans on books by Kurt Vonnegut and Judy Blume  because they deal with controversial subjects. And, now, it’s leading a Virginia school district, ironically located in the home county of one of America’s greatest advocates of books and reading, to choose to shield children rather than teach them. That doesn’t strike me as constructive at all.


FILED UNDER: Education
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed for too young in July 2021.


  1. michael reynolds says:

    It’s appalling. It’s inexcusable.

    The entire notion of “age-appropriateness” is utter and complete nonsense. And it flows from the ludicrous notion that children are fragile objects whose minds might be hopelessly damaged by exposure to ideas and emotions that are new to them. It’s the diametric opposite of education.

    If we want kids to read we have to let them read what they want to read, and what they can be convinced is worth reading. To erect barriers to children reading is a crime. The people doing it are damned fools. And sadly they are not all on the right. Common Sense Media is the leftie equivalent, forever erecting barriers to reading.

    If you want to know why boys in particular stop reading there are two simple, one word answers: school and parents.

  2. John Burgess says:

    Michael: I definitely get your point, but I really don’t think Naked Lunch, for example, is ‘age appropriate’ for typical sixth graders. While I wouldn’t categorically ban sixth graders from reading it, neither would I have it on any of their book lists.

    My in-school introduction to mystery writing was mostly Poe: “The Gold Bug” and “The Purloined Letter”.

  3. michael reynolds says:

    @John Burgess:
    Kids are actually very good self-regulators. If you give them info on what a book is about and what it involves, they will tend to reliably pick books that they can handle.

    Their parents and school boards are far less reliable. They look to politics, ideology, guilt, religion, worry and nostalgia to reach conclusions that have nothing to do with the matter at hand and serve only to support the teaching of books almost designed to turn a boy off reading.

    The “danger” if there is one of a kid reading a sex scene or a drug scene is far lower than the danger of well-meaning adults utterly destroying a child’s desire to read.

  4. James in LA says:

    Ditto, michael reynolds.

    Puritanism persists because we capitulate too easily to busy-bodies, which always seem to number in the low single digits. We respond to screech and holler as though it were enlightened debate. The mental state known as “being offended’ is at all times a choice.

    With a proper mentor, any item on the agenda can be discussed with children. Any. Pick your phrasing carefully, and charge ahead. They will love you for it.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    Look at it this way. Let’s say we were talking movies and we decided to eliminate all the sex, violence, drugs and “bad” language. The result? We’d empty out the multiplex.

    Well, we’re doing that with books. We’ve tried to cut the sex, violence, drugs and “bad” language from books and we’ve emptied out the library. We’ve lost kids to movies, TV, games and the internet where they can get the kind of thrills they can’t get from bowdlerized reading lists.

    Books are not medicine. They don’t have to be good for you.

  6. Ernieyeball says:

    I am increasingly aware that as I get older my memory fades. So I am as certain as I can be that this really happened.

    It was probably right after Batista was overthrown New Years Day 1959. I was 10 but two days later I would be 11. Fifth grade at the new Bay Road School in Webster, NY.
    At dinner right before the Flintstones and Yogi Bear at least one of the TV networks had a 15 min. (?) newscast. ABC or CBS maybe. I’m pretty sure we did not get all 3 in the Rochester market at that time.
    I think I saw this at least twice. Somehow newsreel film got out of Cuba of Castro’s soldiers executing the Batisita supporters. The film recorded a row of blindfolded men standing in front of a trench that I am sure they had just dug for themselves.
    The Soldiers were not all that far away with their rifles. Black and White, no sound. Just puffs of smoke out the ends of the barrels as the shots were fired and the corpses falling backwards into the trench.
    I was riveted to the screen. It was a traumatic experience! And right as we were eating! I’m sure I saw this more than once.
    If we abide by the reasoning of these do gooder/control freaks, I should have acted out my fears and fantasies by now. Or had screaming nightmares or something.

    Today this would be all over the internet.
    The dopes on the JJDist. board should get their heads out of their asses and be grateful the kids are actually motivated to read a book.
    I wonder where that comes from?

    PS “A Study in Scarlet” is a great read! This I remember 4 sure!

  7. RW Rogers says:

    What Michael said works for me. How sad that “Sanitized for your protection” no longer applies only to toilet seats.

  8. PD Shaw says:

    I do not understand what action has taken place.

    Is it no longer taught in class?
    Is it no longer available in the library?
    Is it no longer on some recommended reading list?

    I might apply different standards in each case.

    In any event, we could cure the problem by having a Mormon representative speak to the class and to offset any problems that might cause have the Mormon standing next to a menorah and a festivus pole.

  9. John Burgess says:

    As a kid, I certainly read books that were not aimed at my demographic. Some of them shocked and upset me. Did they scar me for life? I’ll have to leave that to others to decide. I do know that some took years of growing up to figure out and put into a comprehensive view of the universe and its people. Graphic images of the Holocaust, Japanese executions, and Civil War prison camps were not what I exactly needed at 6 or 7. By the time I was 12 or so, I could handle them.

    Similarly, there are films that can go way beyond a child of a particular age and maturity can deal with. ‘Misty Beethoven’ was a very funny porn film, with an actual plot, but I still wouldn’t promote it to middle schoolers. ‘Raintree County’, with its raw emotions, isn’t exactly for kids, either.

    I’m not calling for banning these media, not at all. I would support a school board decision to keep them in a reserve section, however.

    Of course, there are going to be arguments–many of the fatuous–about just what should be banned or otherwise restricted. Inevitably, there are going to be judgment calls that fall other than were I think a line should be drawn. But schools do have limits on what they can or should do. Parental rights are at least as important. My parents essentially let me read whatever I wanted–okay, the sex manuals in the sock drawer were not on the list of approved books. That was likely due to the fact that they were both traditional Catholics. By the time I found those, I could comprehend them, though the gross-out factor was still pretty high.

    I think there simply are books that are inappropriate for certain ages, at least for most kids. A medical book filled with pictures of the consequences of STD (venereal diseases, in my day) can really mess up a kid who’s just starting to wonder about sexuality, for example. The book certainly has its place, but its place is, perhaps, not in the hands of a 10-y/o, at least not without serious adult engagement.

  10. just me says:

    I have no problem with filtering out for age appropriate books when it comes to whole class reading materials, but I think including a variety of books on a reading list-some that may have a slightly above age content level is perfectly fine and to be encouraged.

    I have a hard time though seeing the age inappropriateness of Sherlock Holmes for a 6 grader. People are much too easily offended and I hate this idea that books written in a certain time with all the ugly warts from that time are somehow dangerous for children.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    @John Burgess:
    I guess I would counter that being disturbed is a good thing if what you want is to keep imagination alive, and grow kids who are better able to digest data outside of some pre-determined set.

    Until the last century or so of human existence kids were not even a separate, protected class in the way they are now. Kids saw all of life. Once they learned to read (a tiny minority until recently) they were set to reading the Greeks and the rest of the founding books of western civilization — the same thing the adults read. The notion of children as a class of human that must be protected from shocking ideas or disturbance is new and not necessarily rational.

    Most of the Founders, for example, would have grown up seeing all there was to be seen on an 18th century farm — illness, death, sex. They would have direct personal knowledge of fears far more profound — smallpox for example — than anything books can show them. Nevertheless, they weren’t traumatized, to use that vastly overused word.

    We have deprived kids of the essential ingredients of human life as we knew it for millennia. I’m not arguing for a return to a more primitive time, just saying I don’t see that kids need to be hermetically sealed. I think it leaves them weak, narcissistic and perpetually immature. It also sucks all the joy and peril out of reading.

    If we wait until fearful, bullied-by-the-scolds parents and politically-cowed school boards think it’s “safe” to let children read Huckleberry Finn or Sherlock Holmes or Burgess or Kerouac or King or whoever, they will long since have lost the taste for reading. Which is exactly what we have today: kids coming out of school so turned off by books we’d need a gun to get them to read.

  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    You don’t have to be a world-class detective to see that the book casts Mormons in a bad light, suggesting it’s a religion whose adherents are willing to commit murder to protect their ideals. Take this passage from Chapter 3:

    Hmmmm…. Kows about we take this chapter
    from the book of american history?

    “If any miserable scoundrels come here, cut their throats.” Brigham Young 1

    Or to get the full spectrum of the violence laced thru out the history of the church of LDS, hows about we put the shoe on the other foot?

    Governor Lilburn W. Boggs said, “Mormons must be exterminated or driven from the state.”

    A Study In Scarlet has nothing on actual history. But I guess history has to be “age appropriate” in order to be taught as well.

  13. An Interested Party says:

    I wonder how the people who did this would feel about banning books that spoke disparagingly of other religions..say, Islam…

  14. MarkedMan says:

    Although my opinion is to make books freely available whenever possible, I find the headline here misleading. It doesn’t appear the book is banned, merely removed from the curriculum. This is a far cry from a banning.

  15. A voice from another precinct says:

    @michael reynolds: I think that “kids coming out of school so turned off by reading…” is a little bit hyperbolic, but my experience is that such kids had plenty of help at disliking reading from their parents being non readers. The school needs little eftort to finish the job off. Still in all, the point about self-selection is well made and well taken. It also addresses the “Naked Lunch” cannard–I’ve not encountered many students of any age that were interested in reading much William Burroughs; he’s too much of an acquired taste.

    If schools would spend more time on oversimplified and reductionistic thinking on the order of “reading is good and not reading is bad,” there would be less time to waste on the oversimplified and reductionistic thinking of the other sorts.

  16. michael reynolds says:

    @A voice from another precinct:
    I’m not at all diminishing the parental role in this. But too often the parents and schools are singing from the same hymnal: read what is “age appropriate,” read what’s “good for you,” don’t read anything controversial. In fact it’s parent complaints that fuel the school’s reactions.

    As a rule the librarians are on the side of the angels. I’ve had librarians (this is not an exaggeration, actual events) come up to me after I do a school presentation and thank me in whispers for saying that kids should be allowed to read what they like. They tell stories about teachers vetoing kids checking out comics, for example, and sending them back for something less fun. Because the less fun reading is, the more kids read.

  17. A voice from another precinct says:

    @michael reynolds: While I was in Education School–the second time, the first education school kicked me out for being a reactionary–I encountered an assessment of Myers-Briggs scores for school personnel. The author of the report noted that something in the nature of 80-85% of teachers had “judgemental” as a key component of their personalities (the same ratio as is in administration, hmmm…) and went on to observe that teachers with strong judgemental qualities believe that the mission of the education is to produce replicas of themselves.

    Sadly, the reason that these teachers send the kids back for “more appropriate” reading materials is not that they think that reading shouldn’t be fun. They send them back for other materials because they are Nazis but are too weak and cowardly to pick on people their own size, as Nazis tend to be. Remember, “when I want your opinion, I’ll tell you what it is” is not merely an ironic quip, it is, too often, the discussion policy (and model for teaching critical thinking) of too many reading, science, and history classes in public schools. Endorsed by foolish and often right-wing evangelical parents who mistakenly believe that they can protect their children from “dangerous, secular worldviews” by raising them in vaccuums.

    Keep up the good work, Mr. Reynolds.

  18. PD Shaw says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: If you’re going to rummage through history, it might also be interesting to reflect that the Prophet was assassinated as a result of ordering the destruction of an anti-Smith paper’s printing press.

    I’ll assume the kids won’t get that out of hand in Virginia, but they might get excited enough to read the damn book.

  19. Richard Gardner says:

    To the extent that Doyle’s predominantly British audience knew anything about the LDS Church, it was through press coverage of the LDS Church’s various conflicts with American authorities going back to the 1830s.

    They would have been very familiar with the LDS missionaries throughout the UK and northern Europe promoting (and subsidizing) immigration to Utah. Becoming a Mormon was a way to leave the poverty to Europe (and UK) for a better future in the USA. For example, there is a large “Mormon” monument in the Westman Islands of Iceland, to those that immigrated to Utah in the 1854-1914 period.

  20. Rob in CT says:

    Having just recently read A Study in Scarlet (the entire Sherlock Holmes collection is available for one’s Kindle for $1.99. Two bucks!), I’m inclined to view this decision unfavorably. That said, they pulled it off the curriculum, they didn’t ban it (right?). So yeah, I’d disagree w/the decision (what are they replacing it with?), but this isn’t as bad as the headline makes it sound.

  21. sam says:

    “You don’t have to be a world-class detective to see that the book casts Mormons in a bad light, suggesting it’s a religion whose adherents are willing to commit murder to protect their ideals”

    Well, it wasn’t all that far-fetched, given some history. See, Mountain Meadows Massacre.

    No Mormon today would defend that action, but the early history of the church is one of persecution and retaliation. Deep, deep suspicion and paranoia all around. Unfortunate, but there it is. See also, Utah War.

  22. mattb says:

    @michael reynolds:

    As a rule the librarians are on the side of the angels. … They tell stories about teachers vetoing kids checking out comics, for example, and sending them back for something less fun. Because the less fun reading is, the more kids read.

    Just wanted to second Michael’s point — librarians have and continue to do amazing work, not only in encouraging and assisting children in finding exciting stuff to read, but also in fighting censorship and protecting privacy rights.

  23. PD Shaw says:

    @Richard Gardner: True. I would add Mormon missionaries operating in the U.K. were known to promise that if they migrated to Nauvoo, Illinois, they would enter a second Jerusalem, where tropical fruits could be picked from trees, and there was wealth and leisure for all. Upon arriving in Western, Illinois, many were sorely disappointed and the number of people arriving were beyond the means of the religious community to provide for. The malcontents tended to be the angriest critics and I’m supposing many wrote directly back to U.K. their view of things.

  24. WR says:

    @mattb: Yes, but don’t forget they’re also parasites and takers, greedily stealing tax dollars from billionaires to fund their lavish Commie lifestyles.

    This message brought to you by the Tea Party.

  25. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @PD Shaw: PD, there are many examples to choose from, I just wanted to get one from each side. I could play the same game for most religions. (but not all, by any means)

  26. RW Rogers says:

    While wholeheartedly endorsing what Michael and others have said about librarians individually, I think it worth noting that the American Library Association, which poses as a staunch supporter of literary freedom and strident opponent of book burning, tacitly supports the long-term imprisonment of over seventy independent librarians (and, it appears, endorses wholesale book-burning) by the Cuban government.

    While I support full diplomatic relations with Cuba, I detest organizations such as the ALA who sacrifice their stated organizational principles because to pursue them violates some unrelated personal need for politically-correct posturing.