It’s Banned Books Week, which despite what a friend posted on Facebook, is NOT the week when we decide what books we want to ban for the next year. My first memory of participating in Banned Books Week was when I worked at Bookshelf at Hooligan Rocks (now known as Bookshelf Stores, Inc.) way back in the twentieth century. We put together a display at the front of the store, featuring books that had been regularly challenged. We even managed to get the local paper to cover the event. The other thing I remember is that, when asked, a local school official said that the district didn’t experience much controversy related to challenged texts because they didn’t include said texts in their courses. Now, I could be misremembering that last bit, but there is an emotional resonance to the memory that I can’t shake.
When I was in high school (even further back in the last century!), I remember having to get my mother’s signature on a permission slip so I could read The Color Purple in my 11th grade English class. She was incensed and offended, but not for reasons one might imagine. My mother had her own (special) approach to parenting, which included a fervent belief in my freedom to read. (Hence, my choice of Agatha Christie novels when I was ten, and Rebecca when I was twelve, and which turned out to be required reading in 12th grade…). How else, she explained later, was I going to develop my own understanding of literature?
More recently, I was teaching a methods course, which focused on using children’s and young adult literature to promote K-12 students’ literacy development. It was Banned Books Week, so naturally (!) our discussion focused on the nuanced understanding required of classroom teachers when it comes to literature. Our conversation was difficult and honest and revelatory.
In response to my hypothetical question about how they would handle a book challenge, students wrote and thought and began to share. One student talked about a book she might not have wanted her own children to read (And Tango makes three), until she learned that it was based on a true story. She told us that in considering the book, she realized that, as a future teacher, she would need to interrogate her personal feelings about topics in light of her responsibilities for teaching all of her students. Another student said that he would simply provide a book list to parents at the beginning of the year, and ask them for their input (and approval). I asked if he was planning to let parents approve the texts for the math curriculum, too.
Like the American Library Association, I fully support the right of parents to be involved in decisions about what their child(ren) reads. In fact, I’d argue that it’s parents’ (guardians’) responsibility to be engaged with all of the texts their children read, watch, play, etc. However, I adamantly believe that no one has the right to tell other people’s children what they can read. No way. No how.
Every year, the ALA receives reports of attempts to challenge, restrict, and/or ban books in public schools and libraries. Last year, the number–that they know about–was well over 300. They estimate the actual number could be much higher:
We do not claim comprehensiveness in recording challenges as research suggests that for each challenge reported there are as many as four or five that go unreported. In addition, OIF has only been collecting data about banned banned books since 1990, so we do not have any lists of frequently challenged books or authors before that date.
Every year, I review the list of books to see which challenges I find the most confusing. Below are two of my all-time-head-scratchers:
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson is often on the challenge list. In 2010, Speak was challenged in the Republic, Mo. schools because of two concerns. 1) Someone believed the book qualified as “soft-pornography”; and 2) someone claimed the book “glorifies drinking, cursing, and premarital sex.”
Source: Nov. 2010, pp. 243–44. I don’t know what they’re reading or watching in Republic, Missouri, but a book about the devastating aftereffects of a date rape can hardly be categorized as either of the above. (But, of course, Todd Akin is from Missouri, so perhaps that explains the book challenger’s confusion.) Aside from the specious nature of the challenge (I truly don’t see how someone could come to those conclusions having actually read the book in question!), there is the very real fact that the book is about what has become an all-too-often-reality for young adults. We can’t make the bad things go away by hiding the books in which they are discussed honestly.
Speaking of which, here is my all-time-favorite challenged book: The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary. That’s right. A dictionary. A parent in Menifee, California Union School District complained when a child came across the term “oral sex,” so school officials formed a committee to consider a permanent classroom ban of the dictionary. Source: Mar. 2010, p. 55.
George Orwell was right (you knew there’d be an Orwell reference, didn’t you?!?). If reference materials are removed from schools, then Ignorance really must be strength.