Monday, September 28, 2015

I Read Banned Books, but can I let students do the same?

In honor of Banned Books week, I'm re-running my second post ever, from way back in June.  Yes, barely three months ago.  But I still feel strongly about it!

Click here for a list of the ten most frequently challenged books in 2014.  60% are young adult novels.

Click here for Ellen Hopkin's very cool poem on the topic.
I'm being pretty public with this blog, so I'm considering how best to approach this topic without being unprofessional.  Forgive me, but I'm going to have to stick to generalities.  There's a book.  It's a really good book.  It's written about high school juniors.  The book includes infrequent but vicious swearing, sexuality but no sex, and some pretty ugly portrayals of one character's home life.  It was banned at my middle school last spring.  I disagreed with the decision, but after a passionate but polite email exchange with my boss, followed by a face-to-face conversation, I decided not to engage in civil disobedience.  The book is still available to students at the public library, many of them probably aren't ready for it yet, and it's not worth putting my job at risk.  Right?  Right?  

Yet I've felt somewhat queasy about my capitulation ever since.

As I wrote those emails to my principal, I started listing all the other books we have available, or even include in our curriculum, that some parents might object to.  Then I got paranoid, and removed all the titles from my email, not wanting to be told to yank all those books too.  That's the thing--once you start, where do you stop?  If the c-word and f-word aren't okay, do we also get rid of books that say dammit?  If the plot can't include teens who are sexually active, can it include reference to teen pregnancy or masturbation? Does it matter if it's the main character or a side character is pregnant?  If masturbation is handled referred to with humor or detachment?   What about the dad that doesn't want his children--or wife-- reading Harry Potter because magic comes from Satan?  What about the family that doesn't want their 14 year old reading (Newbery award-winning children's novel) The Giver because a baby is murdered?  (Yes, those are both real situations I've had in my classroom.)  Do they get to dictate what is on the shelf in our school library or in my classroom?

The slippery slope argument works both ways, I suppose.  "Why don't we just let them read Fifty Shades of Grey and The Joy of Sex?" I imagine the pro-banned book types sneering.*^  Well, for one thing, I am an actual educator, with actual 20 years of experience and an actual master's degree.  So I'm smart enough to tell the difference between "YA" and "porn."  If your kids are going to investigate porn, they're going to do it on your time, not mine.  But again--while parents have EVERY RIGHT to supervise their kids' reading habits (and viewing habits and dealing-with-other-human being habits), they have ZERO RIGHT to supervise the choices of other people's kids.

I read Clan of the Cave Bear (and its even racier sequels) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in middle school, with my parent's awareness, if not explicit approval.  (And I just this second realized they are both by Oregon authors.  Woot.)  I loved both of them, and if I didn't get the full impact that a more mature reader would have gotten, I still got what I was ready for.  I loved pondering human evolution with Ayla, I laughed and wept over McMurphy, and I was horrified by the banal evil of Nurse Randall.  Sure, I was a precocious reader.  Does the fact that some of my classmates weren't ready for these books mean I should have been prevented from reading them?

For that matter, I read some downright crappy smut around that age.   We all snuck-read the dirty parts of Forever and Flowers in the Attic.  The former just made me giggle, but the latter made me ill, so I never picked up another book by that author or in that genre.  In those pre-internet days, that's where many kids expanded on their classroom sex ed.  Other kids...well, some other kids engaged in more hands-on research.  I'd far rather have my kid read smut than try it out.  I know it's not an either/or, but I can tell you for sure that my precocious reading did not lead to early sex.  If anything, it gave me a somewhat better understanding of the adult world and its pitfalls.

That leads me to the final point I'd like to make about censorship and middle schoolers.  Instead of focusing on why we shouldn't ban a book, let's talk about why we should allow a book.  "We read to know we are not alone," as C.S. Lewis said.  I wish all of my students lived in a safe, happy, G-rated world.  But they don't.  I have kids who are abused, kids who go hungry, kids who have lost parents to death or prison or drugs.  I have kids who are battling mental illnesses or eating disorders, kids who struggle with their sexuality, kids who face racism, kids who are racist, kids in gangs, kids scared of gangs...anything that someone might object to in a YA novel is something that real teenagers, and even children, are dealing with in their real life.

As for cussing, we do our best, we really do, but if any student in the United States has ridden a school bus all year, walked down the halls of a middle school all year, changed in the locker room, and ducked into the restroom, and not heard a single cuss word, I will eat my laptop.

So let the kids read their reality.  Let them find out they are not alone.  Let them see how others have overcome the unthinkable, how pain can lead to growth, how decisions they are facing might play out.  A book won't spill your secrets or judge you, but it can encourage and advise you.  It can make you less alone.

What about the lucky kids?  The ones whose lives do not include anything objectionable?  We--for I was a lucky kid myself--we need to hear those stories too.  How else to develop empathy?  When you tell a kid, "Be kind, for everyone you meet is facing a hard battle," do you want them to simply imagine waiting in line for mediocre cafeteria food and not being allowed to stay up all night playing video games?  Or do you want them to have the scope of imagined experience that will inform them that their classmates could indeed have real problems?

Kids crave honest reality.  A Child Called It is one of the most checked-out books in our school library.  I've never been able to bring myself to read it, but students flock to the description of dehumanizing abuse.  They root for Dave and marvel in his transformation from objectified victim to kind man and famous author.  So, just because as a parent of kids who come from an abusive background I find the concept too upsetting, should I censor it for my students?  Of course not--and may the empathy they develop for the boy in the book translate into empathy for my kids and all like them.

My make-shift compromise is this:  Books that include language that wouldn't be allowed in a classroom, sexually active teenagers, or certain mature themes such as suicide, drug abuse, etc., will be housed at my desk.  If a student wants to check a book out from this collection, they need to first talk to me.  Part of my job is to know the books, and to know the kids.  I will explain this in my letter home at the start of the year.  I will give parents three choices to indicate on a paper that returns to me.  A) Please do not allow my child to browse or borrow from these books.  B)  Please notify me of any titles my child wants to borrow, and I will let you know if I approve.  C)  My child has permission to borrow any books they are interested in reading.  B) is more work for me, but I think it's necessary to let parents be informed and not make blanket decisions.  What do you think?  How do you handle this in your classroom?

Maybe I'll use this sign to indicate this section of my classroom library.

No?  Too sassy?

*I feel like my lack of smutty book knowledge is showing with those examples.  SorryNotSorry.
^ I'm not adding links for these titles...I think I just developed a Blog Policy.  I will only link to books I would actually recommend to a student.  


  1. This is a GREAT sign idea! I love: "Kids crave honest reality."

  2. Thanks for commenting and sharing, Liz! I'm working really hard at writing a supply of posts so that when I get into the school year I have plenty to release even when I don't have time to write. I'm having a lot of fun!

  3. Great blog, Wendy! I tried to subscribe, but all I got was a page of code... What's a fan to do?

  4. "We read to know we are not alone." I love that, and I think your argument is really persuasive. Kids are experiencing 'mature situations' every day, so why ban the books that might help them work through those experiences (as if not reading about those experiences will keep them innocent)? I think your compromise makes sense. Growing up, my parents allowed me pretty free rein over what I read, but that was because they knew me and judged that I was able to handle it. (My mom talked to me about this explicitly, which I appreciated). So, it makes sense that you offer an option for parents who are more concerned about their child's reading material--without letting them restrict other children. Also, that sign is fantastic. :)

    1. Thanks, Kelsey! I think the key as a teacher, as you said, will be letting parents opt their kid out without restricting other kids.

  5. I think the solution you came up with is perfect. Allowing the books to be available but allowing the individual parents to decide is probably the best course of action you could take. I have to confess that I don't know how comfortable I would be with my middle school son and daughter reading some of the YA books that I adore. I don't think they're ready for them yet - that doesn't mean that I don't think that they're great books or that they're appropriate for high schoolers, but in my opinion they're too mature for my middle school kids to read. Some other parents might be fine with them, and I respect that. I certainly wouldn't want the school to ban them (hypothetically - I actually homeschool my two older kids, so the point is moot for me) - but I would appreciate a heads up before my kids picked up these "questionable" books. For me, the best course of action is always to read the book first and decide for myself whether or not I think it's okay for my kids. (And, for me, the fact that teenagers have sex is not an automatic no, but if it is for someone else, that's their right as a parent to decide that.)

    Oh, and I read Clan of the Cave Bear as a high schooler and I remember my Biology teacher being horrified when she saw it and I told her I was writing a paper on it. Not sure I'd want my middle schoolers to read that one, I have to admit! :-)

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  6. This is a great article and I am so glad you linked to it in my post. It is very refreshing to see an educator who is against censorship. When I was younger, my parents didn't censor my reading at ALL. I remember reading Blubber by Judy Blume (a very popular banned book) when I was a teenager. When I mom saw I was reading it, she asked me about it. She said that she heard that it had negative content. I told her I didn't see anything wrong with it. I actually reread this book recently as an adult and I was disgusted by all the bullying. But when I was a teenager, I did not use it as a how-to manual. I was lucky that my parents trusted me when it came to my reading material. Oh, and I also read Flowers in the Attic when I was a teenager. I admit that was crazy, but I still enjoyed the story and loved the series. I loved your solution of letting the parents decide. When I have kids, I don't think I will censor my child's reading, but every parent does get to make that decision, NOT the school.

    1. It's interesting that there's a perception that educators are pro-censorship. And by "interesting," I mean "horrifying." I think the problem is not teachers (I mean, who put "Some Girls Are" on the list in the first place? The teacher, right?), but admin that is afraid of public controversy. I think it's inexcusable at the high school level, but that it is tricky at the elementary and even middle school levels. I don't know that I'd be super pleased if 50 Shades was in my 2nd grader's classroom, but again, I think that there needs to be some trust that teachers know their kids and what books will work for them.

  7. Thank you for reposting this! It is so important and I love your post just as much now as I did then. I actually wish there was a Banned Book section in bookstores or libraries. I would gravitate towards them more than any others.


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