Monday, September 28, 2015

Talking Banned Books with Middle Schoolers

My BBW lessons came together pretty last minute (read, I was up late last night figuring things out, and stopped at FedEx on my way to work to print color copies).  My hallway bulletin board is pretty shoddy, but I will be able to re-use the materials in the future, so I can build on them from here.

There were some awesome poetry and an infographic about author's responses available online.
And this is why I'm not Pinterest Famous.  
Banned Books we have available in our school library

I started my classes by reading Tango Makes Three aloud.  I told them the book had been banned, and asked them to figure out why as I read.  One 8th grade class was all, "Um, so the penguins are both boys, but why would someone ban it because of that?" The other two 8th grade classes were able to identify why it's been banned, but my 7th graders just couldn't bring themselves to say it.  They GOT it, they just couldn't say "gay," out loud, in class.  Which is interesting, considering how often I STILL hear kids say, "That's gay" to each other.  (Though actually, I don't hear it as much as I did 10 or 20 years ago.)   The level of mild freaking out in all but that one class let me talk about how if something offends or bothers you, you don't have to read it, or give your children access to it.  But you still can't control what others decide.  

How can you not love this sweet story? Still, I did have kids who were clearly uncomfortable when I was reading.

I told them that I won't let my kids play certain video games, but I am not trying to get those games banned for other kids.

I said I hate to read horror, and I've never been able to read A Child Called It, but I support their right to read either of those if it interests them.   Just because I don't like it doesn't mean I can take it away from them.

Heads were nodding by then in all classes.  This was making sense.  

Next, I pulled out a stack of books I'd asked our librarian to send me.  One at a time, I held up a book that has been challenged or banned in the last ten years, and we talked about the reasons behind it.  The Hunger Games.  Captain Underpants.  (Shrieks of disbelief.)   Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.  The Golden Compass.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  Harry Potter.   We talked about how the books reflect reality, rather than create it.  Captain Underpants doesn't teach 3rd grade boys to love potty humor.  He is popular because 3rd grade boys already love potty humor.  ("Heck, I like potty humor too," said one of my 8th graders.)   Another student brought up the idea that when YA books have cussing and sexuality in them, it makes the book more believable and easier to relate to. 


One of my favorite moments happened when I held up Twilight.  The beefy kid in the camo jacket held up his hand.  "I know why that book is banned," he announced.  "Vampires don't sparkle."  This gave me a chance to talk about the fact that while I think it's second rate writing, and the romance is unhealthy, I would still allow my daughter to read it, but I would be sure to talk to her about what bugged me about it too.  Basically, thinking a book is crap is still not a good reason to ban it.

My grand finale each class period was holding up The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian and telling them that this was the number one most challenged book in the US for the last two years running, AND that it is one of my all time favorite books.  I told them the book is funny, and sad, and honest.  I told them it's been challenged because it contains racial slurs--but, like TKAM, how do you write a book confronting racism without admitting racism exists?  I told them the drinking and cussing have offended people.  

And I told them that the book deals with Junior's body and his response to girls and his thoughts about girls.  The 8th graders nodded sagely.  They knew what I was saying.  The 7th graders said, "What?  What do you mean?"  

So, in the spirit of anti-censorship, I said, "Okay, it talks about masturbation and wet dreams."

And then all hell broke loose.

Seriously, kids were falling out of their chairs, they were laughing so hard.  One kid turned bright red.  Another kid made, um, inappropriate hand gestures.  And when I say "kid," I mean "boy." The girls sat and rolled their eyes.  "Grow up, you guys," they sighed.  "So immature."  

In short, I think we all learned something today.

Or as my friend Carla would say, "Teacher of the year award, right here!"


  1. And forever after, you will be remembered by those kids...!

  2. Yes; that may be the only thing some of them remember about their 7th grade year.

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this! You are a riot.


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