I’m participating in a Banned Book Blog pile-up pretty soon (Banned Book Week, Sept 25-Oct 2), done by one of my favorite bloggers, Nikki. As I’ve said before, I read a lot of challenged books, primarily to try to see 1)what the big deal is, 2) what I can learn from the book, and 3) the importance of teaching it to a child. Some things that can color my view include 1) I am a Christian (not a super-conservative one, i.e. “God hates you” etc.) and 2) I’m a teacher (and may get called on the carpet for my book choices). Most of the time, my love of reading a great story trumps everything when it comes to my books.
I know I have said before I only stopped reading four books ever, but I realized this should be amended to say “after getting significantly into the book.” Frankly, I feel that if I stop reading after chapter one or two, I can’t count it one way or the other. I assume it wasn’t meant to be. But on my attempt to read up on some challenged books that may or may not have hit my bookshelf before, I realized… I may be more particular in my taste than I thought.
I tried to read Lois Duncan’s Killing Mr. Griffin. As an English teacher. When I was subbing. In a high school class.
If you need to know the basics of the book (from the back), seniors plot to scare their English teacher, but it goes wrong. I was almost immediately repulsed by the book, and by the end of chapter 2 when a kid remembered setting a cat on fire I was kinda done. I loved Duncan as a middle schooler. I want to have many of her books in my classroom, because I figure lots of middle schoolers are into Duncan’s suspense, drama, and super-natural. My personal favorite of hers is Locked in Time; of course you can’t find it anywhere. She’s mostly known for her two “thrillers” I Know What You Did Last Summer that went on to become a movie WITH A SEQUEL (because really, why would you forget what you knew in the first place?) and Killing Mr. Griffin.
When looking at the challenged book list, I want to weep. Nikki had someone comment about Banned Book Week that it was hogwash because “it wasn’t like you could stop someone from reading or putting books on the shelf.” While this is somewhat true (public libraries hear complaints I’m sure, but nothing to prevent them from placing it on the shelf), challenging books totally happens; my friend can no longer teach a unit because last year a non-custodial parent complained about teaching The Misfits. Another friend got into it with a parent because of Catcher in the Rye.
Will someone complain about my nephew’s class reading Twain or Harper Lee? Probably. Does controversial stuff make it less worthy of reading? Usually, the controversy makes it worth more.
With that said, I understand why books are “challenged” from libraries and such. No, I’d rather not have my kid find Madonna’s Sex book. Other than that, if you’re an adult wanting to read that, I have no right to say boo to you. I totally get the “inappropriate for age group.” Something may be worthy to read, but if they gear a book to elementary age with high school content, there’s a problem. However, I feel that often we over- and under-estimate kids’ maturity level all the time. As always, it depends on the child.
There’s a difference between censorship and selection. For the classroom, the selection of what to include on your bookshelf is way more important than what you exclude. You have to include things that are age appropriate with a variety of reading levels. I’m a little on the liberal side with what’s appropriate. Someone once told me to simply watch what the kids are reading, and I intend to do that. But I also want to stretch them by providing more than the hip author at the moment. Now, what will I not select for my classroom? Obviously, my choices will be different for fifth grade and eighth grade. For now, we’ll discuss eighth.
Do I want to include books with murder plots, especially those to kill the hated English teacher?
Do I want to include books that include language that I would flip if I heard a student use “those words” in my classroom?
Do I want my bookshelf chock full of books so obnoxiously sunny that my kids would gag?
What about books with sex? Books with fantasy? Books that I would be embarrassed if I saw my kids reading it?
I’m allowed to not like books. Nobody likes everything they read. But should my prejudices color what books I include? If so, how should my class library be affected?
I understand that the world is violent and sexual. I understand that I can’t protect every single kid from this, and in fact, it’s probably better for them to realize these things from books than from experience. (Or, if they can relate to a book because of bad experience, they know they’re not alone.) So where do I draw the line between protection and providing knowledge?
My personal preference: I don’t like peoples’/books’ vocabulary being a cuss word every other word. (Then again, I don’t like every other word being a cliche OR a made-up fantasy word, Eragon.) If the words are used to tell the story, make the dialogue more believable, and the words aren’t distracting, I’m okay with it and I’m okay with putting it in my classroom.
Again with the personal choices, if a kid was reading a book like Judy Blume’s Forever during SSR I’d be totally embarrassed. I know kids are getting interested in sex towards the end of middle school, but I don’t want to know how interested they are. That said, I’d probably limit my book choices in the drama/romance department where it’s not so explicit.
I’ve said before that as a teacher, I am “an evangelist for reading.” This may mean that despite the fact that I personally hate a book, a child may have a new world opened because that book was available for them. Once their appetite has been whetted, they’ll want to read more (hopefully). Beyond my personal taste in language and sexual content, I should put books on the shelf with perspectives that I don’t agree with, plot lines that I dislike, and genres that I detest. It would be a grave disservice to my students if I chose to ignore books that don’t appeal to me; it’s just not fair.
But I probably wouldn’t put any ideas in their heads about killing the English teacher…