Censorship Story Conclusion & Censorship Discussion (Part 2)

When it comes to banning and censoring things, it’s a tough issue (duh).

I just listened to the most banned YA author in the country, Lauren Myracle, in an interview she did yesterday on Louisville’s NPR station (click here for the interview—it’s the edition titled “Is your government doing enough in the recession?“, and the part on book banning is 2/3 into the podcast), where she went head-to-head with a school board member trying to get Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian banned from his school system for vulgarity.  Exciting stuff.

Yesterday, I told this story of censorship from my teaching days. Go check it out, and then come back!


My principal saw my point and didn’t have too much else to say on the matter.  I knew she still wanted me to do it, but I went back to my classroom asserting I would not.

I was never asked to write the letter I offered to draft, the subject was never brought up again, and no one ever blackened out anything in the books.

As for my part, I did my best not to choose stories with certain four-letter words in them (but, as I mentioned in my previous post, the point of the Great Books program was to stir the pot a bit, so it’s not like the stories from which I had to choose were about unicorns and teddy bears), and no parent ever complained to me about any of my choices.

This told me was that it was probably only one parent who’d complained in the first place.


I think you, as a parent, reserve the right to decide what books you introduce to your children, but I also think you should trust schools to know what, developmentally, your kids are ready to handle.  They are supposed to be experts in the field of teaching kids.  Not to diminish your mad skillz, but schools aren’t full of a bunch of rabble-rousers who want to corrupt your kids.

You must agree, right?  That’s why you’re sending them to school and not homeschooling them, right?

Going along with that, you should also trust that teachers know how to handle these subjects in their classrooms, should they come up, in a thoughtful way.  They are professionals.  And if you don’t feel that way about the school . . . then I say MOVE to a different school district.

But I’d be willing to bet the parents of my class of sixth graders—the ones who’d complained anyway—had no idea their kids were capable of such maturity and insight with regard to Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and the countless other selections in those Junior Great Books.  We really had fantastic discussions—regardless of whether or not the kids always wore deodorant.  (While we’re at it, could you have that discussion with your kids??)  We got to the core of why the authors had made the choices they did in terms of putting something in and what that meant—it was never gratuitous language or violence.

To me, when you hide words with a Sharpie or cover a kids’ ears (earmuffs!) or ban books, it’s probably going to work against you.  It highlights that there’s something “naughty” or “bad” about whatever you’re censoring—and that’s going to pique interest.

Look at how this situation in Missouri has escalated. It has prompted many people to start giving away the books this professor spoke against—just to get the word out about them.  About half the people I follow on Twitter have put “Speak Loudly” on their gravatars in support of Laurie Halse Anderson and her 2000 Printz Honor book Speak as well as the two other books being protested: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Fivepoor Vonnegut just couldn’t catch a break, could he?—and Sarah Ockler’s Twenty Boy Summer.

Also?  I’m pretty sure, by the time your kid is in the fifth grade, unless you don’t allow him to ever watch TV, your kid is going to know what kissing is.  And that people get shot.  And swear.  I’d be willing to bet your kid knew who Snooki was before you did.

It’s if you’re not there to discuss it with him—if he’s watching Jersey Shore unsupervised—that’s the time to panic.  (Not that I think 5th and 6th graders should be watching that show, but I bet there are kids who do . . . )

What I’m saying is, communication is key in all of this.


Also, a few words, taken out of context, don’t necessarily give an accurate picture of author intent or even reader perception.

I mean, at one point in that BBC interview, the school board member sparring with Myracle asked if it should be okay for Hustler magazine to be in schools then, if we are to have books like Alexie’s book.

Taken out of context, he sounds like quite a lunatic, doesn’t he? Within the context?  Well, that’s for you to decide.

But that’s my argument.  You miss the point of what someone is saying when you take out the most “offensive” or outrageous passages and use them to serve your agenda.  Without looking at something as a whole, there can’t be intelligent discussion—nor can informed decisions be made.


When school boards try to get books banned, how many of those people do you think have read the whole book?  Or even more than the page the “offensive” part is on?  I would be willing to bet zero.

So, this is why I think banning books is wrong.  I think, as parents, you have the right to decide what your children will read—particularly outside the classroom.  You don’t need to be a democracy at home—I totally get that.  Although I don’t think you should go along with it if your school puts Hustler in its summer reading, I highly doubt that would ever happen.

It's not that hard, people. And if you start young, it won't be so awkward to keep having these discussions when they're older.

At the same time, I don’t think it’s right to get a book banned from a school library or any library for that matter.  Myracle makes the point in the interview very similar to the one I made above: school media specialists are trained and hired to make good choices.

If there’s a particular book your child is reading in school that gets you a bit fired up, I would urge you to read it yourself.  Have discussions with your kids about it.  This is where learning and growth take place.

And if there’s no discussion about these things?  If you just put a black mark over the bad words?  Well, I’m sure your kids will find out what’s under there eventually and they WILL discuss it with someone.

Wouldn’t you rather they discussed it with you first?

*gets down off her soapbox*

Myracle & me last year, after I interviewed her in Cleveland. 🙂

A Censorship Tale from My Teaching Days (Part 1)

In honor of Banned Books Week, I thought I’d tell an insane-o censorship story from my teaching days.

In one of the schools where I taught—this was the year I taught 5th and 6th grade Language Arts—the English department had adopted a brand-new lit program for its 5th-8th graders called Great Books (which is, in short, a series of anthologies containing short stories and book excerpts from prominent and not-so prominent authors from all over the map).  It’s very much like the lit books we were used to using when we were all in school, except the pieces are a little more contemporary than some of those we grew up reading.

The very first selection in the book I was given for the 6th graders was Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron(a short story about a dystopian society that keeps all its citizens the same by assigning certain handicaps to combat people’s individual strengths/talents—and *spoiler alert* it ends with the 13-year-old main character getting shot).

I thought it was a little . . . mature for my sixth graders—many of whom (boys *and* girls) still needed me to remind them:

  • It’s not OK to pick your nose—especially not if you’re this old and not if you don’t want me to vomit at the front of the room.
  • And that smell in here?  That’s all of you who aren’t wearing deodorant.*

But I digress.**

So, we read Vonnegut’s piece and discussed it—and they actually had some very insightful things to say about the themes (the media, individualism, etc.).  It was actually really great. I was mucho impressed by my new school and new students.  Go education!

We moved on to the next story.  I don’t remember what it was, but there was swearing in it.  They still handled it OK—I shook my head when they snickered and told them to “grow up,” and they did.  And we had intelligent conversations about that story as well.  Same with the next.  And the next.

Somewhere toward the end of the first quarter, I was called into the principal’s office.  (Insert “ooooooohh” here.)  My principal at the time—a very nice woman and probably my favorite principal I’ve ever worked for—said she’d been getting some complaints from parents about the selections we were reading, and could I go through all the books and blacken out all the inappropriate parts in both the 5th and 6th grade books?

Uh.  What?

At the time, I had about 60 students.  Out of the four 5th/6th grade teachers, I was *the* Language Arts teacher (when I moved to the upper school the following year, they replaced me with *two* teachers, BTW) and had four preps to everyone else’s two.  Which *also* meant I had two planning periods a week (if I was lucky) when everyone else had at least one a day.

That said, I felt a little taken advantage of that year.  It was my first year in a new school and a new state.  Plus, I was dealing with a program no one else had used before.  Regardless of my stance on the issue, I had plenty on my plate, and now I was asked to do this??

Feeling all the pressure, I realized that, if I didn’t start standing up for myself, I was quite literally going to be taking 60 books home and going through them with a Sharpie.

So . . .

I respectfully declined, saying: 

  • I simply did not have the time to perform a task like that.
  • While I could certainly decide which stories might be a little more “hot button” for some parents and try to avoid those, I was only using the literature book I was given to do my job. I had opened the book to the first selection of the lit series they’d *just adopted* and asked the students to read it.  Was that wrong?
  • I knew I was the first teacher to be using these books since they were new, but someone—probably a lot of someones—had to have been responsible for choosing the program, right?  So, had anyone actually READ any of these books? Because, from my flipping through them, I’d deduced that pretty much *all* the stories were a bit controversial in some way—that was kind of the point of the program. (My principal said she didn’t know if anyone had.)
  • I also asked: How could I alone be responsible for knowing what one parent deemed inappropriate? Other than curse words, I mean.

For example, we had read a fantastic book for summer reading that year—Cynthia Kadohata’s 2005 Newbery Award winner Kira-Kira—and I’d received hate mail from one parent about it before school had even begun (a book that had been chosen before I’d even been hired for the position, by the way) because the one female character *talked about* kissing a boy. It was not actually even *on* the page—it was merely mentioned in conversation, amounted to about one sentence, and had absolutely nothing to do with the book as a whole.

That didn’t seem inappropriate to me at all—I was shocked at the e-mail—so what the heck did I know?

Furthermore, I told my principal that blackening out words and passages is not only impractical and wrong, but that it would serve as a “highlighter.” If my students were reading and then were, all of a sudden, faced with a big black mark, don’t you think they would to try to see what was so “bad” that it needed to be censored?

I told her I would be happy to draft a letter to go out to all parents inviting them to blacken out what they deemed “inappropriate” . . . even if that meant defacing a bunch of brand-new books.  That way, parents would actually have to read the selections themselves and think critically about each.  And perhaps discuss them with their kids.

To be continued . . .

*Yes, I did actually say these things, and they actually loved me.  They STILL do.

**Note to teachers: Kids like when you’re mean to them.

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?