Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Does Your Mother Know You're Reading That? Part 2

As I work through my thoughts and actions around censorship and gatekeeping in my classroom library, I'm sharing with you.  For the first part of this series, where I worked out my core beliefs and remaining questions, see here.  

When I was sorting out my vast amount of new books last August, and putting up signs to help students navigate the classroom library, I printed out this sign without much thought beyond grabbing students' attention.  I've switched from using "PG-13" to using "YA" both because it's specifically a term from the book world, and because it implies more of a sliding scale.  

By using the YA label, I am trying to walk a line between honoring the sensibilities of my wide range of readers, clarifying for parents which books they might want to discuss or supervise, and allowing books in my classroom that will serve kids who are ready for more challenging material and themes.  And yes, "not losing my job" is always part of these decisions as well.    

How do I decide which books go on the shelf?  Well, as I mentioned in my earlier post, if I would be too embarrassed to read it to the class, I'm pretty sure the warning label is a good idea.  Thus, frequent use of the remaining "bad" cuss words, on-page sex scenes, and, well, I think that's about it.  After reading a lot about the kerfluffle over Kate Messner's middle grade book in which an older sibling has an opiate addiction, as well as a few well phrased tweets about the insult of putting all LGBQT books in the YA category even if there aren't any sex scenes, I am unwilling to label books as YA just because they have "mature themes." 

 The kids (especially the seventh graders) are good watch-dogs.  They will look up from their book wide-eyed and say, "I think this needs the YA sticker."

"Is it too much?"  I'll ask.  "Should we look for a new book for you?"

"NOPE!" is the usual response.  "I just don't want other kids to get surprised by it if they're not ready."

And that, upon reflection, is the reason for this bookcase.  For many kids this is the first time they've read a book that has those words or those behaviors in it.  Most of the kids have already seen movies that feature all that and more.  And I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that there are exactly zero students in my classroom who have never heard anyone say "fuck."  But still, if your prior reading is mostly Magic Tree House and Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the real-talk of Chris Crutcher, Matt de la Pena, Ellen Hopkins, Sherman Alexie, Rainbow Rowell--WOW.  Intense.  You might want that heads-up.

I think of my own daughter, aged ten, who listened to Carl Hiassan's Chomp this summer.  Hiassan's kid lit is definitely not on the YA shelf--he dials back the adult language and situations of his adult mysteries while keeping the wacky Florida lifestyle alive.  Still, my daughter was thrilled, because there was a GUN in the book, and (in true Chekhovian style) someone got SHOT.  One of the adults was a DRUNK, and he sometimes said, "DAMN."

"It's my first young adult book," she kept announcing.  "It's a lot better than the 'Oh no, I lost my lunchbox!' kind of mysteries." I couldn't help but agree.  Kids crave reality.  They don't want to be patronized and protected.

It took me awhile to realize how many books I'd just brought into my classroom based on what I'd read ABOUT them instead of based on reading them myself, but now I'm starting to make a conscious effort to read from my library.  When I first made a push to do so during the read-a-thon, I noticed that some of the books I'd marked YA didn't really call for that, but others that I hadn't marked kind of needed it.

I'd had Honor Girl on that shelf because I knew there was a lesbian romance--more specifically a underage girl/ young adult element that sounded inappropriate, if realistic.  I get especially wary about graphic novels because an on-page makeout scene that's pretty tame in a book can quickly become the start of a classroom uproar when there's an actual picture.  After reading it, I realized that the girls never cross any lines in reality, so I took the sticker off.  Then a student who picked it up said, "Wow, these girls swear ALL THE TIME!"  I'd been so focused on deciding if the romance was too sexual that I hadn't even really noticed the cussing.  But she was right, and again, even though it's damn representative of the way teen girls talk to each other, we put the sticker back on.

We Were Liars also started off on the YA shelf.  I just had the impression that it was all Gillian Flynn for high schoolers.  Upon reading it, though, I realized that the twists and turns and shocks are all fairly clean.  The book may LOSE the less experienced reader, and the elite setting and subsequent rebellion against wealth may not be as fascinating to my younger students, but there isn't really much that's "inappropriate" per se.

On the other hand, More Happy Than Not, with its empty-lot against-the-wall sex scenes, is staying right on that YA shelf.

There's an argument against sectioning off ANY books in a classroom library, saying it gives the wrong message.  Books aren't "bad."  But given the range in maturity levels and life experience within my classroom, this is the best way for me to bring in as many books as possible while still offering a level of protection for students and families who aren't prepared for unvarnished reality in their fiction. My goal is to cover my ass without having to censor my collection, all while giving students guidance they can easily decipher as THEY decide what they are ready to read.


  1. This is so interesting to read from a teacher's point of view and with all the thought that entails. The teacher vs parent dynamic is so different. Partly I don't have to worry about losing my job if my kid picks up a book others might deem too advanced or with controversial themes but you're also able to see it much more objectively. I remember when my oldest was 11 or so she picked up the first Princess Diaries and loved it. My husband and I were both a little horrified by some of the themes and the language but of course the issue wasn't that SHE wasn't ready for it it was really that WE weren't ready for her to be ready for it! My parents never edited what I read (except for 1 time when she took a book away that I'd read a chapter in and said that it wasn't a good book. Almost 30 years later I still wonder what that book was because that was the only time she ever did it and I read all kinds of things) and I haven't edited what my kids have read. Though when the girls were reading Twilight I read it with them and we did have a rather interesting discussion on what healthy relationships were like. Fascinating post!

    1. Yeah, I was turned loose to read whatever I chose, although I remember being horrified and embarrassed when I got caught showing my best friend the really dirty parts of the novel my dad kept by on his bedside table. I'm glad you read Twilight with your daughters; that's exactly the kind of thing I believe in as a parent and teacher.

  2. Before I came to my K-6 library, the previous librarian had tagged all her books for sixth graders with a yellow square. She'd been told the sixth grade was going to be moved to the junior high in a few years and she wanted the books ready for the move. I liked how these books had a simple yellow caution sticker and told kids these books had to be shared with parents. I told the kids that the books either were terrifically difficult reads (War of the Worlds) or had ideas or stories that students might want to talk with their families about.

    The one time I had a book questioned there (one of the Princess Diary series) I pointed out the yellow sticker and explained my system to the parent and the principal. Problem solved.

  3. I love the way you approach this. Kids are so much smarter than so many parents think. They wouldn't think twice about taking them to the new block-buster film, but let a word like Lesbian be bandied about in print and they go to the school board. I love your daughter's reaction. LOL


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