Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Banned Books Week 2015

It's the end of Banned Books Week, which celebrates reading challenged and banned books. I've written more extensive posts on this in the past (the archive is here), but I did want to revisit a few issues.

The most recent list of "Frequently Challenged or Banned Young Adult Fiction" features some familiar works:

1) The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

Reasons: anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence. Additional reasons: “depictions of bullying”

2) Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi

Reasons: gambling, offensive language, political viewpoint. Additional reasons: “politically, racially, and socially offensive,” “graphic depictions”

3) And Tango Makes Three, Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell

Reasons: Anti-family, homosexuality, political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “promotes the homosexual agenda”

4) The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison

Reasons: Sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “contains controversial issues”

5) It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris

Reasons: Nudity, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited to age group. Additional reasons: “alleges it child pornography”

6) Saga, by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Reasons: Anti-Family, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group. Additional reasons:

7) The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini Reasons: Offensive language, unsuited to age group, violence

8) The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, homosexuality, offensive language, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group. Additional reasons: “date rape and masturbation”

9) A Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard

Reasons: drugs/alcohol/smoking, offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited for age group

10) Drama, by Raina Telgemeier

Reasons: sexually explicit

A past post covered The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. The latest ban, from April, is troubling if also laughable and familiar. From the National Coalition Against Censorship:

According to recent press accounts, Alexie’s award-winning young adult novel was removed from the middle school curriculum in Waterloo, Iowa—a decision made based on one parent’s complaint and in blatant violation of the district’s own policies regarding challenged materials.

Today, NCAC’s Kids’ Right to Read Project (KRRP) sent a letter urging the district to reinstate the book. Alongside allies from the American Booksellers for Free Expression, National Council of Teachers of English, Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators, PEN American Center, and the Association of American Publishers, KRRP points out that the “decision to remove the book was made on an ad hoc basis without following the district’s policy for reviewing book challenges, and with no input from teachers.”

The Waterloo school district entirely disregarded its procedure for dealing with challenges, based on the specious argument that the parental objection—based on profanity and sexual references—was never a “formal” challenge.

The KRRP letter argues the decision “to remove a book with such strong literary and pedagogical merit not only disserves the educational interests of students but also raises constitutional questions…. the attempt to alter school curricula in response to individual objections means privileging the moral or religious beliefs of some families over others. It is precisely this form of viewpoint discrimination by government that our constitutional system is designed to prevent.”

The ban was issued by Debbie Lee, the "Waterloo School District’s executive director of K-12 curriculum." From the news article linked above:

The concern of the parent, Lee explained, did not constitute a “challenge,” so there was no need for the creation of a review committee.

That's a cute trick. Lee wanted to ban the book, so she issued an edict and bypassed her own district's policies. It's worth noting that Lee has allowed the book for high school, but not middle school. That doesn't make her decision any less dictatorial, though – she and a few administrations made this call, deliberately excluding teachers and dissenting parents.

And what was the reaction from teachers? (You know, the people who actually interact with students on this material?)

Kevin Roberts is a literacy teacher at George Washington Carver Academy, a middle school in Waterloo. He was leaving school for spring break when he got the email [from Lee banning the book].

Roberts had recently wrapped up a unit about “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” in his eighth-grade advanced literacy class. He knew how much his 13- to 14-year-old students had related to the novel’s depiction of adolescence and struggle against adversity. He said some students told him it was the only book they had ever read they actually liked.

On March 25, Roberts replied to Lee and all the other teachers and administrators included in the email thread.

“As one who has used this book in the classroom, navigated the references to masturbation and profanity and fostered rigorous dialogue about theme and action in our community, I disagree with the blanket censorship of this book,” Roberts wrote.

Deciding what books to use in class based on whether they were "controversial" was problematic in Roberts' eyes, but what troubled him most was how the Alexie novel was removed, and by whom.

“Allowing one person to deem a book inappropriate and require all copies of that book to be returned is a breach of those guidelines,” Roberts wrote in reference to district policy. “More importantly, the choice to put this decision in the hands of one person reflects poorly on our district’s teacher professionals who deserve a voice in this process.”

Roberts’ concerns about district policy were echoed by at least four other teachers and staff members over the last few weeks in the email thread, all of whom have asked not to be identified in this story. . . .

“Saying this book was not challenged, and therefore the district policy requiring a review process is not necessary goes against the spirit of the district policy," he wrote.

Relatedly, The Washington Post recently published a piece on by banned author Jacqueline Woodson. It's thoughtful, but has a lousy, clickbait title (likely an editor's choice), "It’s Banned Books Week again. Can we stop yelling at each other about it?"

Woodson, the mother of two children, 7 and 13, hopes for greater dialogue, less shouting.

“Everybody wants to believe that they’re in the right place,” she said. “And I think that’s the same way for people who are challenging books. These people see violence or something sexually explicit, and they think, ‘We don’t want our kids exposed to that because we want to protect them.’

“I definitely can understand parents having objections. As a mom, as someone who wants to protect my children in any way that I can, I can kind of get inside the heads of people who are saying, ‘This is not okay,’ only because they’re fearful. That’s where I can begin to have the conversation. I think people are willing to talk about anything if you come to it with kindness. But there are all these conversations that I fear are not being had, and as a result, we get banned and challenged.”

For Woodson, those conversations involve asking, “Are you really protecting your child, or are you keeping your child from the tools they’ll need to deal with these issues?”

If she hears a parent say, “I’m afraid that my daughter will see something sexually explicit and will want to do that,” Woodson responds, “Okay, but let’s talk about what it means to be a teenager. Let’s talk about what it means to have hormones.”

“We, as adults, are the gatekeepers,” she said, “and we have to check our own fears at the door because we want our children to be smarter than we are. We want them to be more fully human than we are.”

She sees books offering solace to kids who feel different or unaccepted. We never know when a young person will read something and think, “Wow, I’m not as alone as I thought I was.”

This is a fantastic approach. As we've explored in previous years, certain parents get very anxious about their teenagers regarding sex, and act in counterproductive ways. (The entirely predictable increase in teen pregnancies in regions dictating abstinence-only sex education is a prime example.) Humanizing these situations the way Woodson does can help cut through some of the resistance.

A few caveats are in order, though. Not all parents truly want their children to "be more fully alive" than they are. For some parents, fear and and the urge to control override all else. The authoritarian model preaches obedience, not giving someone 'the tools he or she needs to deal with these issues.' Likewise, the "yelling" and "shouting" is almost exclusively initiated by the pro-censorship crowd, who are picking these fights in the first place. Moreover, they don't want an honest discussion of issues or a fair fight. This isn't surprising, given that the entire point of censorship is to prevent engagement.

For instance, if Debbie Lee had actually formed a review committee, perhaps she still could have banned Alexie's book, but she did an end-around the process instead. Was it because she feared losing? Was it because she was in a position of power, could impose her will and felt she was unaccountable? Related to this, was it because she felt, by virtue of cultural demographics or something similar, that she and those like-minded were clearly correct (or even righteous), so fair process be damned?

Would-be censors often skip over a key dynamic this passage touches on:

And yet Woodson readily admits that she has removed books from her own children’s shelves — at least temporarily. She remembers one title in particular, but declines to name it, with a young narrator whose English was poor. “My kids were mimicking her language in a way that made me, as an English major, crazy. The character was also very, very rude to adults.” So she had “the conversation” with her daughter: “Is that kind, what she just did to that teacher?” And her daughter sagely responded, “No, but that’s fiction. You don’t do that in real life!”

The book went back on her shelf.

We've discussed this in previous years, but no one's ever really challenged the rights of a parent to make decisions about their kid's reading. (The wisdom of such decisions, perhaps, but not the right.) Would-be censors aren't merely saying, "I don't want my kid to read this, and my kid should be exempted." They're saying, "I don't want my kid to read this, and no other kids can be allowed to, either." These two actions are significantly different. In the context of school curricula, discussing whether a particular book has merit and whether it's age-appropriate is important, of course, but mechanisms exist for doing this (such as curriculum meetings among teachers, or the public review process Debbie Lee circumvented). There's a line misattributed to Mark Twain that nonetheless makes this point quite well: "Censorship is telling a man he can't have a steak just because a baby can't chew it."

Students can almost always handle material much better than their fearful parents believe, too. As it turns out, Woodson's daughter was assigned The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and she told her mother, “That book is so good I cannot believe it was assigned.” With a good curriculum, that shouldn't be a rarity. With a heavily censored curriculum, it's the rule.