While big crowds of book lovers flocked to see Iowa native Peter Hedges at book signings in the state this week, his breakthrough novel was actually banned by one Iowa school district. “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape” was removed from the school library and curriculum in Carroll in November of 2008 after school leaders heard from upset parents about its sexual content.
Hedges earned wide fame from the book and the 1993 movie starring Johnny Depp and Leonardo Dicaprio, but says he understands when parents feel they have to draw a line. “Look, I have a 15-year-old and a 13-year-old and I’ve just written a book, ‘The Heights,’ which is even dirtier than ‘Gilbert Grape.’ I don’t allow my kids to read ‘The Heights.'” The story of Grape is set in the fictional Iowa town of Endora and follows the young man, played by Depp, who’s caring for his mentally-challenged younger brother and his obese mother.
The film was nominated for an Oscar. Hedges, a West Des Moines native, says the book contains a few scenes that aren’t appropriate for all readers. “I understand parents who were upset that their kids are being exposed to material that may seem premature,” Hedges says. “At the same time I felt that the school had taken all the proper precautions, giving people an opportunity to not read the book, so I thought it was a lot about nothing.” He says the parents who were upset about the content on a couple of pages likely didn’t read the entire story.
“It’s very hard to protect your kids from all that goes on in the world and ultimately, the novel ‘Gilbert Grape’ isn’t about a few sexual encounters that you can point out,” Hedges says. “It’s really a story about a guy making his way through the world.” After much debate in Carroll, the book was put back on the reading list in January of 2009 after the school board voted to overturn the superintendent’s ban.
Hedges says, “After that was all over, I sent a bunch of copies of the book to the school because the students prevailed and I was proud of them for fighting for their right to read, and in this case, read ‘Gilbert Grape.'” Hedges, who now lives in New York, made appearances this week in Ames, Des Moines and Iowa City to promote his newest book.
Listen to Matt Kelley’s complete interview with Hedges here: Hedges 12:00 MP3