Thursday, November 3, 2016

Does Your Mother Know You're Reading That?: Part One

When I read a bunch of books from my classroom library during the recent Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon, I found myself rethinking which of those books should be on my "PG-13" shelf, which brought me back to wondering if I should have such a shelf in the first place.  I have a lot to say about this topic (SO MANY THOUGHTS!), even though I've addressed it before, so I had to split this up into a few posts.

My core beliefs are:
1.  My students come from a wide range of life experiences.  Some of them have had happy. protected childhoods and aren't ready to be rushed into confronting the ugliness of life.  Others have not had that luxury, and their life experience is already "not appropriate" for children. And then we have the kids who are different from the mainstream in any one of a number of ways, and who feel alone in their difference.  Still others have not undergone anything particularly difficult, but are emotionally ready to start learning about those who have. MY CLASSROOM LIBRARY SHOULD CONTAIN BOOKS THAT WILL MEET THE NEEDS OF EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THESE STUDENTS.  (This one's in caps, because it's probably the most important one.)

2.  My role as a parent is to know what my children are consuming and to oversee that, based on my knowledge of my child. If a book/TV show/song/video game is something my child is not yet ready for, I have every right to withhold it from my child.  (And, much to my children's chagrin, I do exercise that right.)   But I don't have the right to restrict other children's options.  My son can't play first person shooter games, but his best buddy can.  It's not my business to tell that child not to.  My daughter's BFF has had her own public Youtube channel since she was 7.  My daughter at ten is starting to receive more freedom for viewing videos, but no way in hell is she getting her own channel to post on.  I respect all parents' rights to restrict their own child's reading choices, but will not tolerate any attempt to control what other people's children are reading. 

3.  I believe that the vast majority of students have the ability to self-censor.  "This one is too creepy," they'll say, putting a book back on the shelf.  "There was too much swearing," they say, handing it back to me and looking for a new book.  I model this for them completely honestly.  A Child Called It has been a favorite of students for years.  I tell them, "I can't read that--my kids had tough starts and I just can't handle reading about a mom who is that abusive."  They ask me for more scary books, and I confess that I need their suggestions for titles, because I don't read horror.  It's too much for me.   It is completely okay to preview or even start a book and then decide it's not your cup of tea.

4.  A classroom library should not replace a school library, which should not replace a public community library.  However, the reality is that for my students, many of whom live in poverty, all of whom struggle with reading, they are more likely to explore freely in my classroom than in either of those more public spaces.  I can't justify keeping books out of my library that my students would connect to just because those books are available elsewhere.  If a book would benefit my students, then it is my responsibility to make it available.

5.  I don't know if this is a "belief" exactly, but while I would be (reluctantly, because I hate confrontation) willing to handle a challenge to the books in my classroom, I draw the line at risking my job.  There is no reason for me to stock erotica in my classroom, even if a handful of my 8th grade students saw Fifty Shades of Grey in the theater.   Nor will I get the kids a copy of The Anarchists' Cookbook. This is not a public library serving the entire community. A classroom library serves all of the students who might come through the doors, and not a single one of mine is over the age of 18.

6. Any book that I require my students to read, or make part of my classroom curriculum, will be one I can back up even to someone who cherry-picks offensive phrases or images to challenge.  This doesn't mean they will all be sweet and happy; it just means that they will be books that are appropriate developmentally for any 12-14 year old, regardless of personal background.  The Giver, Orbiting Jupiter, Pax, George, Nightjohn--these are all books that introduce serious themes and portray upsetting events, but they are done within a context that is appropriate for tweens, and they show individuals responding bravely and positively to their challenges.

Those are the things I'm sure of.  There are other things I am nowhere near as sure of.  That includes:

1. How much responsibility do I have to inform parents about their children's choices?  Is a blanket letter home, stating that I have books in my classroom that might not be appropriate for every student, so talk to your kids about their books sufficient, or do I need permission slips?

2.  How should I handle the "controversial" books?  Should they be separated from the others?  Identified with a sticker?  Or just mixed in with the rest of the library?  Should I caution kids when they pick up a book that seems racier or darker or whatever-er than I perceive that kid to be comfortable with?  Or trust their self-censorship?

3.  If I do somehow differentiate "those" books, what standards do I use?*  Do I read up on the movie rating systems and use the same standard for how many "fucks" and how explicit the sex scenes are?  What about "mature themes and subjects"--how do I determine where the line is for THAT?!?**

4.  How do I monitor my own prejudices and personal beliefs?  I think of myself as tolerant and open-minded, but when a kid last year wanted a Duck Dynasty memoir, I conveniently "forgot" to track it down for her.  There are no biographies of Trump in my classroom library, and not one copy of the gigantic "Left Behind" series.  There are quite probably other books, topics, themes, and attitudes that aren't represented in my library without me even noticing I've avoided them.  Does my responsibility for building readers extend to me stocking books that I personally disagree with, even if they are age appropriate?  

*Currently, I use three super scientific yardsticks: 1) Would I feel comfortable reading this out loud?  2)If a parent challenged this book, would my principal back me up without any reservation (like if parents object to Harry Potter or Bridge to Terabithia), or would I have to put together some sort of formal response and justification?  And finally, 3) if a kid is reading a book and brings it to me, wide-eyed or smirking, to say,  "Um, this one should probably be on the YA shelf," then that's where it goes.  Again, kids can self-censor.   

** A book containing homosexuality or other gender issues does not automatically get the YA label.  If the romance/sexuality wouldn't push it off the general shelves in a heterosexual relationship, it's not PG-13 just because there's two boys, or what-have-you. 

In upcoming posts, I am going to walk through some of the decisions I've made so far about what actions to take based on these beliefs and questions.  

What about you?  Did you ever read a book you totally weren't prepared for?  (I was totally disgusted by Flowers in the Attic, although I don't think I would have been any more prepared for it when I was older, either.)  Do you think a middle school collection requires more "gate-keeping" than a high school collection?  Do you find that sex/swearing/violence has more or less of an impact on the page compared to on a screen?  Has a book ever led you to bad decisions? Because that seems to be one of the main reason parents don't want their children reading YA material.  Did any of your required reading in school push people's boundaries?  Do you have any thoughts or suggestions about the issues I'm still unsure about?  


  1. I’m in the “let kids read what they want” camp because I wouldn’t be talking to you right now if I hadn’t discovered Stephen King when I was 11. My parents did take away my first Stephen King book, but by the time they discovered I was reading it, I had already read enough to become obsessed with horror.

    When I was a kid, my mom would buy me nonfiction books about animals, but she’d always rip out the chapters about mating. No animal sexy times in my books. Ripping out pages probably just made me MORE curious about sex. Instead of getting correct info about it from nature books, I got incorrect info from my friends. I think it’s fine to show realistic mature relationships in YA books.

    The only book I ever read that I wasn’t ready for was Night by Elie Wiesel. It was required reading in 9th grade. At the time, I was having major problems with depression, and the book stressed me out. I ended up not finishing it and faking my way through the test. I guess that was self-censorship. Nothing was going to make me read that book.

    Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. I agree with most of this. I do tend however to fall more in the cautious camp when it comes to middle school. For example I wouldn't want my middle schooler reading a book with the "f" word or with sex in it. That's just me, I know some will disagree, but that's just my thing. I know it's hard to know where to draw a line... and I do think kids can self censor. Many of us did after all growing up. So I try not to be too over protective, and I also agree that I would monitor my own kids's reading, not presume to decide for other people.

    I do think it's okay for you to caution a student if they pick something you suspect they're not ready for. As a teacher you have the privilege of knowing these students really well in lots of ways, so I absolutely think your insight can be helpful to them.

    And I think it's funny you "conveniently" forgot to find a certain book. I think we all bring our own preferences or whatever it would be called . We're only human after all. :) Nice, thought provoking topic, and not always easy answers.

  3. Okay, well first of all, I want to say that everything you say in the top section confirms why I believe you are doing things very right. I completely agree with you that you should have an eclectic offering of books, but that you should use some level of judgment as to what's appropriate (I don't think that 50 Shades belongs in any school library--if parents want their kids to be able to read that, there are plenty of places they can get it.) I also completely agree that parents should have the right to set limits for their OWN kids.

    Your questions on the bottom get a little more murky because you're treading into difficult territory. Personally, I do think there should be some indication of which books have more mature content so that kids know what they're getting into before they start reading. I do think that kids are pretty good at self-censoring, but if a sex scene or something else questionable for middle graders happens three-quarters of the way through the book, chances are they aren't going to put the book down. They're already invested in the book at that point. So, if kids know up front what they're getting into, they can make that choice without being put in a situation where they have to try to "ignore" something they don't feel ready for.

    As far as handling it with parents, that's even tougher. I would say a permission slip might not be a terrible thing, but I'm more conservative on that than some parents might be. The permission slip wouldn't have to be a blanket "My kids can't read anything from the YA section" but just that the parent would need to approve a book from that section. I know that might be complicated, but you might not have that many parents who feel the need to exercise that right and you'd be covering yourself just in case.

    Just the fact that you're putting so much thought into it shows how much you care!

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction

  4. Ahhhh hahaha I was totally scarred by Flowers in the Attic too. It was worse because my own mother recommended it to me when I was 12 years old. I highly doubt she actually remembered what kind of content it had since she wouldn't even let me read from the adult section of the book store when I was 18 (Anne Rice aside, which I also doubt she knew what kind of content it had), but still. I mean, I was mature enough to handle it, but...

    Anyway, I don't really have good answers to this since I don't work around kids or teens or have any of my own or anything. But I think your super scientific yardsticks sound pretty good. It is hard to differentiate between books though. I had a discussion once about whether books should be rated, and the biggest issue to that is that it's all so subjective. What should the standard be? Not to mention, as you said, different kids/teens are ready to read about certain things at different points in their life, depending on their experiences and maturity. I can understand why you're cautious though. I think it makes sense to have more gatekeeping for a middle school library than a high school one.

    That being said, I've never been influenced negatively (that I know of) by any books I've read. For example, reading about sex didn't make me decide to rush out and do it myself. If anything, reading about things helped me to understand them and make sense of them *without* having to do them myself.

    Piggybacking on Nicole's comment, a permission slip sounds like a good idea especially since it is your job on the line. But maybe parents could check a box that either their kid is allowed whatever books they want, or they want to approve books from the YA section? That way it would save you time and effort for any parents who are in fact fine with those books.


Please share your thoughts. Comments are almost as sweet as chocolate!