A Banned Books Week Discussion (or Rant?) on Censorship

I felt would be remiss if I didn’t talk about books and censorship, being that we’re smack-dab in the middle of Banned Books Week.  Reading the blogs of some of my favorite young adult authors today, I got a little fired up about censorship.

Banned Books Week (BBW) is the American Library Association’s controversial celebration of the First Amendment.  According to the ALA Web site, it “highlights the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings of books across the United States.”

I taught English at a Catholic school in the South for a few years, and they had adopted Junior Great Books as their reading program just prior to hiring me. At the time, I was teaching fifth and sixth graders, and the first short story in the sixth grade book was Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.”  Being new to the school and assuming I was allowed to teach from the books—the brand-new books, mind you—with which I’d been provided, I taught it.

Click here to read it, if you’re unfamiliar with it; it’s short.

There is nothing inherently inappropriate about the story.  It does feature two teenagers kissing and getting shot at the end for being different, and I acknowledge that the latter is an act of violence.  Furthermore, I can see that, if one took the story at face value and didn’t think critically about it, the story might not have any value at all.

However, this was not a short story intended for casual reading. We analyzed the hell out of this story for two weeks; we talked about what equality really means, if the idea of equality for all is really possible; what it means to be free; how difference are good and bad, etc.  We had some extremely philosophical conversations in that sixth grade class, and you know what?  All of them “got” it because kids are capable of thinking critically.  It’s just that most adults don’t believe they are and, therefore, don’t give them the chance to do so.

Anyway, several parents complained about the story, and the administration actually asked me if I could go through every copy of Junior Great Books and blacken out all the “inappropriate parts” with a black Sharpie marker.

Um, fo’ realz?

I asked my principal, “Did anyone even read these books?”

Silence.  Then, “No?”

Exactly.  In my experience, the sad fact is that most of the people who want to censor and ban literature have not even read said literature.

See?  Even Sharpie opposes censorship!

See? Even Sharpie opposes censorship!

I politely declined the Sharpie project, and counter-offered to write a letter, welcoming all parents to do go through the JGBs and blacken away, since what is inappropriate to one parent may not be to another.  However, I stressed to my principal that, when you put a big black mark over a word or passage, that only draws more attention to that word or passage and causes one to want to see what it is they’re not supposed to be seeing.  You might as well use highlighter instead of black marker.

In the end, she didn’t want me to write the letter.  And to avoid further conflict, I skipped some selections in the JGBs that were sure to invite more nasty e-mails. So, unfortunately, I did have to censor what I taught a bit; however, all of those short stories had some meat to them, and we continued to have insightful discussion that entire year.  (We read George Orwell’s Animal Farm that year, too—hee!—which was also a bit controversial, but a great thematic pairing with the Vonnegut piece.)

But this is such a huge part of the problem.  Most of these banned books are not inherently evil (when read in context) but it seems that the powers that be in schools rarely bother to actually read these things for themselves. Or, if they do, they read only the “bad” scene, which, as YA author John Green points out, misses the mark in terms of understanding the meaning behind it.

I thought even more about this after reading YA author Lauren Myracle’s post from today, which concerns one school’s decision to cancel her scheduled appearance based on this one scene in her latest book.

I mean, I get that talking about a pole dancer and dating an entire fraternity are advanced subjects for “tweens”; however, if you analyze the passage, I think you can see it’s relatively harmless:

First of all, these characters are talking about older kids. College kids. Not that I’m condoning college girls becoming pole dancers, but I don’t think Myracle is either.

My take on this conversation is that these “tweenagers” are gossiping, which is something that is definitely prone to embellishment and—hello—lies.

Kids at this age have no idea what happens in college, and they tend to go overboard when imagining all the crazy things that happen in the lives of older people.

Have you ever talked to an 11-12- or 13-year old?  They tend to exaggerate just a tad…

Digging even deeper, it sounds to me like these characters are somewhat appalled by these rumors; they aren’t aspiring to be “skanky.” In fact, by even referring to the girl in question as being “skanky,” one can infer that they are passing judgment on her. Hence, not idolizing her or condoning her behavior.

Admittedly, I suppose I’d need to read the rest of the book to determine if my analysis is correct, but I definitely would not ban Myracle from coming to my school based upon it either, if I were the principal.  Especially if I knew anything at all about Myracle and her books, which happen to promote positive self-images for young girls and good moral values in terms of being yourself, no matter what is considered popular.

Regardless, whether or not a book is a problem lies in the context, and in order to know the context, one must have read the book and thought critically about it.  And the sad truth is, many of the people who have been charged with this responsibility aren’t willing to do their homework because it’s easier to ban the book or make the teacher blacken out the naughty words with a black Sharpie.

What are your thoughts on the subject?

Here is a list of frequently banned classics. Did you read these in school?  Do they deserve to be banned?  (English teacher in me –>) Why or why not?

2 thoughts on “A Banned Books Week Discussion (or Rant?) on Censorship

  1. I agree with you. Students should have the opportunity to dive into rich, complicated themes. But I was upset when Hannah was able to get “The Notebook” in 6th grade from her school library. The love scenes are so graphic that she knew enough to hide the book from me. There are some books on that list that I’d like to see left out of the middle school library because I don’t think a sixth or seventh grader is ready for them yet. “Lolita” and “Catch-22” would be especially inappropriate. But by high school, many kids are ready to take even these on.

  2. Yes, middle school vs. high school is something to consider as well. I would classify “The Notebook” as kind of a romance novel, and therefore, not really fitting with middle school as well.

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