Overall, I’m not a fan of censorship. You’ll rarely find me supporting the conservative parent who’s questioning the contents of a book. Four years ago an author’s free verse young adult series was questioned in the school’s library where I taught, but no one who had concerns about the book had actually read the book cover to cover. Nonetheless, teachers who had this same author’s work on their classroom library shelves were asked to remove them from our classrooms and I obliged only because I like having a salary that allows me to afford food, clothing, and shelter for my family. It was my first year in a new school district; I just did it and didn’t argue.
Unless the book is pornographic, I say keep it. Swearing – fine. You should listen to the students in my hallway. They are familiar with cuss words, I’m not teaching them anything new or taking them down with me to “the dark side”. Drugs? Well, they do exist. I have never read a story (with drugs, violence, etc, embedded in the plot line) that actually promoted the illegal activity. It simply proved that controversial topics exist, these situations are happening RIGHT NOW and many of my students come from complicated life experiences. If you want them to read, they need characters and situations they can relate to. More and more young adults are turning to realistic-fiction nationally (I’ve seen this in my classroom as well) and this does not surprise me at all. If they’re going to read, they don’t want to waste their time with fairy-tale endings, and imaginary worlds. They want to keep it real and find solutions and/or be able to cope with text-to-self or text-to-world connections while they read.
What prompted this blog post? On my Twitter account, I follow Laurie Halse Anderson, a young adult author who wrote the historical-fiction novel Fever 1793 that I read with my 7th grade students the four years I was a middle school English teacher. Anderson had posted a tweet about how a school board in Muhlenberg, Pennsylvania wants to remove any books on any shelf in the school that possess, “violence, sexual content, or language.” My first reaction was: They’ll have nothing left on the shelves. I think the parents’ and school board’s motivation is they feel they’re protecting their children, but educating them on the possible negative scenarios their child could encounter in his/her future and using a piece of literature as an example of how best to handle those scenarios is far better than the shield/avoidance strategy.
I do a censorship lesson with my students when we practice being critical and analyzing literature and we use children’s books as examples. If you really want to pick a book apart, you could find “something wrong” with every book ever written. Another pet peeve of mine? People telling me how to think/feel. Fahrenheit 451 should remain a book of fiction. There’s no need for us to bring it to life.
The irony of censorship is that when a book is given a lot of negative attention, it typically draws more readers to that work. The free verse series I mentioned earlier? After the student body got wind that they no longer had access to the literature at school, they (many were students who weren’t readers or did not have previous intentions of reading poetry for pleasure) marched on over to the public library and the waiting list to check out these titles was 10-20 names deep.
At my first teaching job, a particular “classic” novel was deemed only appropriate for upperclassman (even though age is really a number, maturity is not consistent merely by grade level) and the book was put on a shelf behind the school’s library circulation desk via administration request. Again, students’ interest in the book was peeked once it was deemed “forbidden”. More students had checked out and read the novel than all the others years the school had owned the novel combined.
When deeming a novel “acceptable” let’s focus on the quality of the writing and not just on one cuss word or one scene. From cover to cover, is the story worth it? Right now I’m reviewing an early edition reader’s copy of an upcoming novel and I don’t like it. I’d have no desire to put it on my shelves. Why? It’s poorly written and I have yet to detect a worthy theme from the story line. I also find the protagonist almost impossible to relate to by most teenagers today.
If the book in question is not required reading, but a choice for students to pick from, then the student can simply choose a different book if his/her parents do not approve. The last thing I’d want as a parent and English teacher is for another parent to have the power to decided what MY child has access to. Frankly, leave that up to me.