Ban This Book is, ironically, squeaky clean. It's not even a middle grade novel, but is firmly in the children's book category, with a painfully shy fourth grade narrator who has dilemmas such as "My sisters are annoying!" and "The librarian makes me wait a week between renewals on my favorite book so other kids get a chance to read it too!" Still, you gotta love a protagonist whose response to a concentrated effort to "clean up" the elementary school library is to start circulating banned books out of her locker.
The main book banner, a bossy PTA mom in a pink tracksuit, seemed cartoonish in her prudery and self officiousness. The books that are challenged seemed for the most part to be older books that would no longer raise many eyebrows. And yet...there is something very frightening about the idea of someone coming in and enforcing their personal opinions on a public school library. One of my favorite moments is when Amy Anne's dad buys her a copy of her favorite book, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, thinking that he's solved the problem. AA thinks about how she discovered this beloved book on the library shelf, and that while she's glad to have her own copy, now no other kid will be able to find it and make it their favorite.
The day after reading this book, I pulled a bunch of banned and challenged books off the shelves of my classroom library and talked about them with each class. I knew they'd be shocked when I held up Captain Underpants, confused when I held up Harry Potter, and giggle when I held up It's Perfectly Normal and Forever.
Last year my big message was that if you say a book is inappropriate because a character in it is transgender/has an alcoholic parent/uses profane language, what kind of message does that send to a child who is transgender, has an alcoholic parent, and is constantly inundated by swearing? This year my big themes were that while any parent can make choices for their own child, no parent should make choices for the community as a whole, and that if a book is offensive, or frightening, or goes against your values, than you have the choice of not reading it.
I also talked about that whole E&P incident, how parents cherrypicked the vulgar language in the book to "prove" to our principal why it didn't belong in a middle school. And how now that I've educated myself more about that, what I wish I could have articulated then--that the hateful language in the book is used by characters who are either abusive, or who are unaware of the whole story and heedless of the impact their words have. That the book shows that we don't always know what other people are going through, so we should give them grace and kindness, not ugliness and mockery. That if those words offend you, then they are doing their job. They were used cruelly in the book, not as something to emulate. I also talked about the need to read a book before clamoring for its removal. Anyone who's actually read Eleanor and Park knows what I just said. Anyone who's read Harry Potter knows it's about love and sacrifice and friendship, not devil worship.
My experience with E&P also led me to information about the correct way a book challenge is supposed to be handled. Amy Anne's school librarian, resplendent in polka dots throughout the story, attempts to remind her boss about the district policy, only to lose her job. This part was highly improbable--while a principal might want to move quickly to placate an angry parent, being told that they are violating board policy would slow them right down. And you can't just fire a librarian--she seemed to be a licensed media specialist, which means she'd have the support of the teachers' union. At any rate, I've since researched my own district's policy and am much better equipped to push back if there's a next time.
My students, as ever, grabbed the challenged and banned books as quickly as they could. Both copies of Forever and both copies of Eleanor and Park were checked out. Someone checked out This One Summer and someone borrowed George. One boy asked, red faced and smirking, if he could actually check out It's Perfectly Normal. He was still reading it during silent reading time today, giggling and showing bits to his friends at times, but also focused and serious at times. (Side note: I loved books about puberty when I was that age. You don't want to have to ask adults, you don't even know what you don't know, you don't want to reveal ignorance to peers, and well, online sex ed quickly gets overwhelming and non-factual. A no-nonsense book is so helpful.)
Touting banned books makes me feel like a rebel, I must admit. Banning a book is no proof of literary quality, but hey, neither is NOT banning a book. If there is merit in a book, if it can serve as a window or mirror, as a safe way to learn about hard things, if it can answer questions a reader is afraid to ask, if it can help a young person to find value in reading, then that book has a place in my classroom library. As I told one class yesterday, there is no place for 50 Shades of Grey, because it does none of those things. (Not that I would prevent any adults from reading it, or even prohibit young people from reading it on their own--just that it's not defendable in a classroom.)
I started my day with two "I read banned books" buttons on my lanyard, but handed them to students, one reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and one reading Speak. We read banned books.
image from here; buttons provided in many Oregon libraries
My Banned Books Week posts over the years:
Talking Banned Books with Middle Schoolers 2015
I Read Banned Books; Can I Let My Students Do the Same? 2015
Banned Books Week 2016
Flotsam and Jetsam 2017
Today's post was inspired by Anne of My Head is Full Of Books writing her TTT this week about challenged and banned books. She has a great list!