This year, Banned Books Week runs from September 24th to October 1st. The main site is here. You'll find a map of censorship attempts, a handbook of materials (including the posters featured in this post), a list of local events by state, and social media links. This year, the big featured event is the Virtual Readout, in which participants make videos of themselves reading a passage from a favorite banned or challenged book, and then post them to this YouTube channel. (Orwell is well represented, and it's nice to see so many kids participating.)
Banned Books Week has a number of sponsors, including the American Library Association and the National Council of Teachers of English.
My archive on banned books is here. If you write a post celebrating Banned Books Week or intellectual freedom this week, write me an e-mail or leave a comment below, and I'll include it in a roundup at the bottom.
As we've covered in previous years, censorship in America generally hasn't approached the level that has existed in some other nations. However, one of the reasons for that is because of pushback against censorship attempts. Intellectual freedom is extremely important, and needs its defenders. I'm always fascinated to read the stories behind some past book bans and challenges.
Bans and Challenges
Certain titles appear almost every year on the "ten most challenged books" list, but there some new contenders this time:
The 10 most challenged titles of 2010 were:
And Tango Makes Three, by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson
Reasons: homosexuality, religious viewpoint, unsuited to age group
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Sherman Alexie
Reasons: offensive language, racism, religious viewpoint, sex education, sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Reasons: insensitivity, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit
Crank, by Ellen Hopkins
Reasons: drugs, offensive language, racism, sexually explicit
The Hunger Games (series), by Suzanne Collins
Reasons: sexually explicit, violence, unsuited to age group
Lush, by Natasha Friend
Reasons: drugs, sexually explicit, offensive language, unsuited to age group
What My Mother Doesn't Know, by Sonya Sones
Reasons: sexism, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich
Reasons: drugs, inaccurate, offensive language, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint
Revolutionary Voices, edited by Amy Sonnie
Reasons: homosexuality, sexually explicit
Twilight (series), by Stephenie Meyer
Reasons: sexually explicit, religious viewpoint, violence, unsuited to age group
The American Library Association helpfully explains "What's the difference between a challenge and a banning?":
A challenge is an attempt to remove or restrict materials, based upon the objections of a person or group. A banning is the removal of those materials. Challenges do not simply involve a person expressing a point of view; rather, they are an attempt to remove material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others. Due to the commitment of librarians, teachers, parents, students and other concerned citizens, most challenges are unsuccessful and most materials are retained in the school curriculum or library collection.
As I wrote last year:
These are important distinctions. There's nothing wrong with criticizing a book on aesthetic or other grounds, but it's quite another thing to try to deny other people the right to read it. Parents can choose that their child can't check out a book from the library, but they don't get to decide that for every other child, and certainly not for every other adult. For school curriculums, it can get a bit trickier, but such things as age-appropriateness are typically discussed at length. Parents (the most common objectors) have a voice, and while the specific laws and guidelines vary by state, county or school system, parental opt-outs are commonly available.
Perhaps more importantly, when a book is taught in the curriculum, it is discussed in class with students. Parents can also discuss it with their kids. The same goes for books checked out of the library - parents can discuss it with their kids, or not let their kids check a book out. Art is capable of saying more than one thing at a time, and stories often contain ambiguity and room for interpretation. These factors make literal or authoritarian-minded people uncomfortable, but they're pretty unavoidable if you study literature and poetry. It's common for English curriculums in secondary education to try to foster critical thinking skills and a tolerance for ambiguity. Parents who think of education as indoctrination - or who favor indoctrination, only the type they want – tend not to understand or like that.
I'm not dismissive of parental anxieties, but as with questions brought up by students in class, normally they can be addressed. Racial slurs in Huck Finn, The Elephant Man and Invisible Man can and are discussed in the classroom, and that's usually a better, safer place to do so. The reality is that parental discomfort generally emerges when a parent doesn't want to discuss something with their kid. Age and maturity are legitimate issues, of course, but teenagers are often more mature or informed than their parents admit. It's that same maturity, not the lack of it, that can further unnerve an anxious parent. Navigating all this is an important part of growing up for students, and a crucial part of good parenting for the parents. Challenging a book is often just a proxy for deeper issues...
Huxley and Alexie
I wanted to take a closer look at two of the challenged or banned books. First, let's consider Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. It routinely shows up on lists of great novels. Not coincidentally, it has been banned or challenged many times over the years. There doesn't seem to be detailed information yet on the 2010 challenge or ban, but in 2008 the situation was this:
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
In Baxley, Georgia, the school board banned Brave New World - along with John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and Richard Wright's Native Son based on a local church minister's objection to the texts, despite parents' and teachers' approval of the book.
I don't know if the 2010 ban was this same one extended, or a similar one. You can read long and eloquent defenses of Brave New World and the other books from back in 2007-2008 here, but I wanted to excerpt parts of them. This section comes from an appeal to the local Board of Education:
All three books are highly acclaimed, seminal works of American fiction and have long been used for instruction in schools across the country. If these books are deemed “unsuitable,” the same could be said of a vast body of important literature, including works by Shakespeare, major religious texts such as the Bible, the works of Flaubert, Joyce, Faulkner, and Twain, contemporary books such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Beloved, and many of the texts regularly assigned in high schools throughout the State of Georgia. As these examples suggest, any attempt "to eliminate everything that is objectionable...will leave public schools in shreds. Nothing but educational confusion and a discrediting of the public school system can result...." McCollum v. Board of Educ. (1948) (Jackson, J. concurring). Indeed, the school district puts all students at an educational disadvantage, and puts college-bound students at a particular disadvantage, by not introducing them to literature of this sort in high school.
The task of selecting readings for the curriculum properly belongs to professional educators. Parents may be equipped to make choices for their own children, and religious leaders may be equipped to make recommendations to their congregants, but, no matter how well-intentioned, they simply are not equipped to make decisions that address the needs of the entire student body. Without questioning the sincerity of those who object to the books, their views are not shared by all, and they have no right to impose those views on others or to demand that the educational program reflect their personal preferences.
The head of the school's English Department, Mary Ann Ellis, penned an op-ed over the matter:
On November 19, 2007, the Appling County School Board set a dangerous precedent by removing books from the classroom. The board betrayed not only me and the English Department, but our students and their parents as well.
Back in June, a local minister challenged two classics—Of Mice and Men and Native Son—which have been taught here for decades; my husband read them back in the sixties. The complaint of profanity spurred heated debate before the school board, which told the minister that board procedure required a formal written complaint.
For three weeks after the formal complaint came, two committees of twenty respected educators read (a key word here) these two books, discussed them, and found them appropriate for high school students. Nonetheless, when the minister returned to the board, its members ignored the recommendation of the committees and voted unanimously to take the books out of the classroom.
Suddenly and insidiously, into the controversy came another book, Brave New World. This classic had been added to the list in a daytime meeting while I and most people were working. A deluge of calls came from parents.
“How did Brave New World get on their list? I want my child to study this book,” the parents said.
“If I give permission, it’ll be fine, right?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I’ll go ask.”
On November 5, I approached the board for clarification and was told I could teach any of the books if I had 100 per cent parental permission. Back at school, my senior college preparatory class, many of which are already eighteen--old enough to fight for this country, to get into R rated movies, etc.--prepared to read Brave New World. They brought me parental permission forms and enthusiasm. Before we actually started reading the book, the ministers struck again, and on November 19, this same board took away the parents’ rights to decide for their children. They summarily dismissed the fact that one hundred per cent of the parents said, “Yes.” The school board said, “No.”
When the discussions first began, the ministers unwaveringly insisted that parents be given more responsibility, more input. Now a mere six months later and on the advice of two ministers who have not read the books and who have no children in school, the board has usurped parental authority
No longer can Appling County college prep students study in the classroom these three classics which appear on national exams such as the Advanced Placement Exam and the SAT. These classics are no longer available to our Honors English students or even to our most advanced students, the AP British Literature Class. Already our students leave home at a disadvantage because so few advanced classes are available to them in this small rural area; the board just saddled them with another handicap.
Granted, the students can still check out the books, but without help, most of them cannot understand the multiple levels of meaning. These books require good teaching to help the students discover their underlying meanings and to prepare them to apply that skill to other books. The students need my expertise, which the board forbade me to give. Ironically enough, I was hired for that very expertise, which has served my students well for the last twenty-three years...
There's more, but that's really an appalling situation. Parents have every right to raise concerns, but how do outside parties have standing to do so? Why should any Board of Education ignore teachers (sadly too common) but also the parents as well? It seems to be a case of painfully bad judgment, but also abuse of power. It demontrates a lack of understanding of what teachers do and a lack of respect for their expertise. It also shows that "Banned Books Week" is hardly some abstract or irrelevant concept.
Here's the second author I wanted to discuss:
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
In 2008, school officials in Crook County, OR, removed the book from ninth grade English classes at Crook County High School after one parent complained about a passage that discussed masturbation. The Kids Right to Read Project sent a letter to the Crook County superintendent and the school board, offering resources and support to school officials who objected to the book's removal. The superintendent removed the book in violation of district policy, but a committee review board voted to reinstate it. While the book was returned to the library, it was suspended from classroom use while the superintendent, school board, and a committee reviewed the district's policy on instructional materials.
In April 2010, the Stockton (MO) School District voted to ban the book after a parent protested its use in high school English classes. The District says it voted to ban the book due to violence, language and some sexual content.
Alexie's own site lists the many awards the book has won, as well as this description:
In his first book for young adults, bestselling author Sherman Alexie tells the story of Junior, a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Determined to take his future into his own hands, Junior leaves his troubled school on the rez to attend an all-white farm town high school where the only other Indian is the school mascot. Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author's own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by acclaimed artist Ellen Forney, that reflect the character's art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.
I haven't read this particular Alexie book yet, but I'm quite fond of his book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, it's a collection of interconnected short stories. A character that might be a minor player in one story may be the central player in another. As it happens, during my brief teaching stints, I used two of its short stories in class. And as it happens, a parent raised concerns about one of them.
I'll back up for a moment to discuss pedagogy. (In this instance, I was teaching at a private high school, so I had more leeway than some teachers.) This may come as a shock to some people, but many teenagers are not the most, um, diligent students. This doesn't mean they're necessarily bad kids, but they've got a great deal going on. Many are battling a cocktail of hormones (and sometimes medications, prescribed or otherwise), they're testing boundaries, they're trying out identities and what it means to be a young adult, and they're usually more intrigued or tormented over their social lives or lack thereof than anything going on in class. In their eyes at least, their lives can be dramatic and chaotic. Many are capable of depth and insight that would shock a number of adults, and they can connect powerfully, deeply and personally with certain works of art. They can make the classroom a lively, wonderful and impressive place. However, it can be a battle to get them to that state, to win and keep their attention.
Winning that attention sometimes requires an "by any means necessary" approach. The trick is often to meet students where they are – then take them someplace else. For instance, show a cool film clip for an opening activity, have students discuss its dynamics and theme, and then discuss how it connects to last night's Shakespeare reading, which suddenly doesn't feel quite so foreign. Many older teenagers try to adopt an air of studied disaffection and worldly cynicism, and in some areas, the teen culture dictates that school or even learning itself just ain't cool. However, it is possible to get teenagers to show passion and enjoy themselves in the classroom. Provocative material helps (age-appropriate, of course). I had a colleague who routinely used "A Modest Proposal" in classes, and would occasionally get students who were appalled because they took it seriously. The piece always lead to lively discussions. Introductory material the students connect with also helps, and anything perceived to be somewhat risqué or forbidden (such as a banned or challenged book) can seem adult and enticing. Now, obviously, educators have to pick age-appropriate material, but teachers have always discussed such matters. In any case, when it comes to teenagers, teachers may fare better selling a classic through its scandalous rep than its position in the canon. (Hey, if it gets them to actually read the book and remember some of it later, it's energy well spent.)
In my case, I taught one Alexie story to 12th graders. It was the start of the year, and the other section teacher and I wanted to grab the students' attention, so we picked three well-written, diverse and somewhat provocative short stories. The kids wound up having a very strong (positive) reaction to the Alexie piece, "Jesus Christ's Half-Brother Is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation." (It's still my personal favorite from the book.)
In the other instance, I was teaching a summer session with no-credit classes at the same school. The idea was really just to engage the kids (by any means necessary). A fair number of them in this case were coming out of rehab programs, had had substance abuse problems, or other behavioral issues in the past. We wanted them to get back into the habit of being students again, or, in many cases, teaching them how to be students in the first place. I used another story by Alexie, recommended by my department head. This one was about reconnecting with tradition and finding yourself, and the kids (grades 9-12 in this case) responded strongly to this one, too. The thing is, it takes place on the Spokane Indian Reservation, it depicts drug use and the resulting visions, and it doesn't explicitly say that drugs are bad. Later on, the department head fielded a concern by a parent, who thought the story encouraged drug use, and was thus inappropriate. When the department head told me this, I apologized if I'd caused any trouble, but he was actually rather enthused over the incident. When this father had raised his concern, the department head pulled his copy of the book off the shelf, showed it to the dad, and explained its context more. Oddly enough, this man had actually done some work with reservations, but hadn't heard of Alexie. In any case, they wound up having a decent discussion.
I'm sorry my story isn't more dramatic. But I suppose that's part of the point. When concerns exist, these sorts of discussions can, do, and should go on all the time, without someone taking the drastic step of challenging or banning a book, and thus denying others that chance to read and discuss it in class. In my experience, teachers often know more about what's going in students' lives than the students' parents do. Many parental anxieties stem from adults' extreme discomfort in discussing certain topics with their teens (sex and drugs being the most prominent). I'm sympathetic, especially when parents try to work through this. That said, when a good teacher is at the helm, tough and personal issues can be discussed in a productive and more safe manner in the classroom. Merely telling kids to "just say no" to sex and drugs tends to be laughably ineffective, especially with kids who have been drinking, having sex, or may be full-blown recovering addicts. It's more productive to invite them to reflect on their choices and their consequences. Again – meet them where they are, and then maybe you take them someplace else.
Neither teaching nor parenting is easy to do well. I want to stress that this particular father had every right to raise his concerns, silly or wise though they may have been. And he was heard out. It's much better he went that route than some other one. In Oregon, Alexie's work was banned because of a passage about masturbation -- a subject the overwhelming majority of teenagers are well acquainted with. Ultimately, good teaching and parenting has to involve preparing teenagers to deal with the world rather than denying to them that it exists. Reading a good book is a joy that should not be denied anybody, and reading some works, particularly in the case of students tackling difficult or complex ones, can be a much richer, more meaningful experience in a good classroom. (Interested parents can even sit in.)
Once again, if you write a post celebrating Banned Books Week or intellectual freedom this week, write me an e-mail or leave a comment below, and I'll link it here. Thanks, and happy reading!
Banned Books Week Roundup
Mister Tristan is giving away a book (The God Delusion) to celebrate Banned Books Week. Head over and tell him why you deserve it.
Blue Gal promotes Banned Books Week at Crooks and Liars.
Wonkette contributes "Banned Books Week Is the Wingnut Cue to Panic Over Gay Penguin Sex."
The ACLU examines "Protecting Internet Access in Public Schools."
Donna D. at Buzzfeed looks at "17 Banned Books You Read As A Child."
Thers at Whiskey Fire has an interesting take.
Scholastic puts together a slideshow of titles they distribute that have been challenged or banned.
Over at P3, nothsine is doing a series of posts for Banned Books Week with a local angle (in the case, Oregon). Check out the great Kurt Vonnegut quotation in the first post, then scroll through the rest. (The "newer post" link is at the bottom.)
Mental Floss details the surprising complaints against six books.
The Daily Mail (UK) highlights some bizarre bans and challenges in Texas.
Will Unwound offers his final thoughts on Banned Books Week.
The National Coalition Against Censorship posts readout videos from the Brooklyn Book Festival.
Nathan at RainTown Press has a post giving valuable perspective on The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which he deems a great pick for eighth-graders. (RainTown has some other Banned Books Week posts up, too.)