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.
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
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.