Alaska school board pulls 'Great Gatsby' from curriculum

An Alaska school board removed five famous -- but allegedly "controversial" -- books from district classrooms, inadvertently spurring renewed local interest in the excluded works.

"I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" by Maya Angelou, "Catch-22" by Joseph Heller, "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, "The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and "Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison were all taken off an approved list of works that teachers in the Mat-Su Borough School District may use for instruction.

The school board voted 5-2 on Wednesday to yank those works out of teachers' hands starting this fall. The removed books contained content that could potentially harm students, school board vice president Jim Hart told NBC News on Tuesday.

"If I were to read these in a corporate environment, in an office environment, I would be dragged into EO," an equal opportunity complaint proceeding, Hart said. "The question is why this is acceptable in one environment and not another."

"Caged Bird" was derided for "'anti-white' messaging," "Gatsby" and "Things" are loaded with "sexual references," "Invisible" has bad language and "Catch" contains violence, according to the school district.

Dianne K. Shibe, president of the Mat-Su Education Association teachers union, said parents and her members were stunned by the board action.

Even though the school board had listed an agenda item to discuss "controversial book descriptions," Shibe said no one believed those works were under serious threat.

"Most of the community didn't respond because these books had been used forever," Shibe told NBC News. “Now in retrospect, it's like 'duh,' I could have seen this coming.”

Shibe said her union would push board members to reconsider their action.

“This is not set in stone," she said. "The union is all about educating students and this flies in the face of educating students."

Mary Ann Cockle, owner of Fireside Books in Palmer, Alaska, about a mile away from district headquarters, said her store ran out of copies of the books within hours of board action.

“We were getting five or six (calls) an hour,” Cockle told NBC affiliate KTUU. “We've gotten questions from all over the state of Alaska, as well as California, Tennessee, other states."

Board vice president Hart insisted these books are not "banned" and said they all remain in district libraries.

Even though students are still free to read these books on their own, Hart said it'd be unfair to ask teachers to have to navigate their pupils through the complicated subject matter.

“These are teachers, not counselors," Hart said.

Several books that were not removed from classrooms still came under harsh scrutiny. "The Jungle" and "A Christmas Carol" could be interpreted as advocating for socialism, while "A Street in Bronzeville" was called to question for showing too much "realism" in describing racism against African Americans, according to a district memo.