Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Banned Book Week

It's banned book week, where once again the librarians and book lovers make people aware about the challenges to reading that go on in libraries and schools.

I think we can all agree that books banning = bad.
And that censorship = bad.

And when I see that someone wants to remove A Wrinkle in Time or Adventures of Tom Sawyer from a school or public library, I'm troubled by that.

But, I'm going to go against the tide here. Sometimes what is lumped under book banning includes requests to remove a book from a required reading list.

I see it this way:
To tell someone else they may not read or have access to a book is bad. But it is not quite the same as saying that they are not required to read it.

Now there are times when a book is an integral part of the curriculum and the reason someone wants it removed is based on some bias or other and it doesn't really seem fair to make a school adjust a curriculum based on one biased individual.

But removing a book from the curriculum does not mean that a child is forbidden to read that book, it simply means they are not required to. And sometimes these challenges are to have a book removed from a "recommended" reading list. While it is true that fewer people may be aware of the book that way, all it is really doing is ending a school's endorsement of a book. It does not prevent anyone from reading it or accessing it.

Once again - to prevent someone else from having access to a book is bad.

But is it fair to call 'not requiring' someone to read a book censorship?

I don't think this is always a completely cut-and-dried issue.

Looking at the reasons why some books are challenged. I often see that one of the reasons is "not age appropriate." But it doesn't include any more details. Because I think there are some books that are not appropriate for all ages. Most people agree that it's a good thing for places that sell magazines to keep the ones with "adult" content away from kids. And most people don't call that censorship.

And if you are talking about a book written for teens, one that if made into a movie would have an R 0r even PG-13-rating, maybe that book shouldn't be in an elementary school library. I also think that most elementary school librarians take their jobs very seriously and are not in the habit of ordering books for their school that would not appeal to the age group there.

As far as I'm concerned "age appropriate" should be a non-issue in middle school or high schools. I wish those lists were a little more clear. Because if someone wants a book that has "sexually explicit content" removed from an elementary school (and by this I am thinking of a school that goes up to 5th grade) I think they may have a legitimate point - and without more details it's hard to get riled up about it.

It's very difficult to pinpoint what book is appropriate for what children at what age, etc. But I think that most people (including the authors of the books) will agree that books written for teens are not intended to be appropriate for elementary school children.

Here's my personal dilemma:

When my daughter was in 5th grade (three years ago) she was in a 7th-grade language arts program. There were six children in the class (all 5th graders). It was a novel-based program, meaning that the class read a novel, answered questions about it, had literature circle where they discussed it and did a project on it before moving on to the next novel. (I give the details to show that while reading an alternate book is an option, it's not really practical under the circumstances.) The books were chosen (from a selection offered by the teacher) by the students in a majority-rules vote (based on back-cover description of book.)

Some of the books she didn't like. Too boring. Not realistic. Not my type of book. Yeah, that happens. Not all books are for all people. You deal with it and you move on. But then they read two books that my daughter (and some of her classmates) didn't like for another reason: they were age inappropriate. This was partly due to subject matter, but mostly due to the fact that these books were YA books. They were absolutely, positively written with a teen audience in mind. These kids were ten.

She read the books, and moved on, but not only couldn't relate to most of the story, it also made her uncomfortable. If it was a book she had picked up at the library she would have stopped reading way before she got to the end. (Please note here, I would have let her pick it up. I also would have let her put it down - which she couldn't do as part of the classroom assignment.) I wondered if I should have mentioned something to the teacher, but didn't.

Fast forward three years. My son is now in 5th grade and in the same program, with the same teacher. Those two books are on the list of books they can chose from. He's told his classmates not to vote for them, that his sister thinks they are too old for them - and maybe they won't. But I'm thinking maybe I ought to say something.

But if I do, do I then become a poster child for banning books? I don't want these books banned. I have no problem with them being in a school library, or even used as part of the curriculum for older students. But I do have an objection to my ten-year-old reading them if it will make him uncomfortable. They were not written for ten-year-olds.

I'll even take that one step further. If a ten-year-old could relate to these books, because her life experiences were such that she had been exposed to the issues involved and these books helped her deal with it, I have no problem with a ten-year-old reading them. But it seems to me that there are plenty of books for advanced readers that aren't geared so specifically to teens that could be used as classroom reading.

And no, I won't say what books they are, because that really doesn't matter. I've never seen either on a list of challenged or banned books. They are not controversial. They are simply books geared toward older teens. I will say that these two books were not chosen because they were integral to any curriculum issue. They looked interesting to the teacher and that is why she offered them - at least one of them she had not read before the children started to read it. And agreed with their assessment at the time that maybe it was too old for them - which of course makes me wonder why it's still on the list of choices.

Another thing - there are books on their list that do appear on lists of challenged or banned books. Books like The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time. And right now their class is reading Fever 1793 by Laure Halse Anderson. And I'm delighted with all of those selections.

So, now I pose the question to you. Is it ever appropriate to question the book choices in a school? And more specifically, should I say something to this teacher?

And if you are a YA author, would you feel comfortable with ten-year-olds being assigned to read your books?


  1. It's like some other YA authors stated last weekend. I believe a parent has the right to have a say on what book their child reads. I don't think that same parent should enforce his belief on other parents.

    It's like this one time someone in my church circulated this email telling us not to go watch THE GOLDEN COMPASS as it was anti-religious and against God. I read the books and totally disagreed. I later confronted this woman who admited she'd never read the books and 'assumed' the source where she'd got this knew his stuff.

    That's what I hate about the whole banning thing. When a few end up making a decision that affect the majority.

  2. Kim,
    I completely agree that a parent shouldn't enforce their beliefs on someone else's child. But, at the same time, are there ever times when it is okay to question the books that are being used. As in books that are very clearly YA used as a class assignment for 10 year olds? Can a distinction be made between not being allowed to read something and not being required to read something? Or am I drawing too fine a line here?

  3. You make some great points, Christine. I once told one of my 5th grade students, a gifted and talented girl, very smart, that she couldn't read a certain book from my shelves because of the language in it. Well, her mother came to school and said she had no objections to her daughter reading the book. (It was a Newbery winner years ago.) So, I'm thinking it's a family thing, personal. A parent knows what their child is capable of understanding.

    I do not think a child should be required to read material too mature for them. But if they want to read it on their own, and their parents agree, then that's okay too. Not for a grade or an assignment though. I think parents need to let the teacher know how they feel. Kindly, of course. :)

  4. I know if there was a book I objected my son reading, I'd comment on it. I also know that at son's former school they did have a paper you could sign opting out of reading a book. With homeschooling I don't have to worry about that.

    I do have parents from our church email me asking which books their teens should read and avoid. I comment on what I thought about the book and highly recommend parent make that choice--whether child should read or not-on their own. I've even had people tell me it was my responsiblity as a writer and Christian to only write material that was uplifting. I told her it wasn't my job but it was her job as a parent to decide what her child should read.

  5. There's a difference between banning and being age appropriate. Above a child's reading or comprehension level is another reason not to let a child read a book, AT THAT PARTICULAR TIME in their lives. Banning means NEVER.

    It's like choosing books for the library collection. The ALA code of ethics says I cannot make decisions about acquisitions based on MY personal beliefs. I can't stock the shelves with only books I like or think are appropriate. I can't NOT choose books about subjects I find icky, for example. But in a school library or a children's section of a public library, I have to make choices based on their audience appropriateness.

    I once had a girl in class whose parents didn't want her to read CORALINE. They had never read the book, but the movie was about to come out in theaters. They based their entire opinion of the book on the thirty-second commercial for the movie. THAT I object to. If you can reasonably argue that you've read the material and disapprove of it for your child (which is still not banning - that's taking the choice away from everyone's child) that's fine. At least make an informed choice.

  6. I agree, Chris. The same thing goes with being a teacher. I had to make decisions based on the reading comprehension level of my students. And even then I tried to make sure I had a big enough selection for the student.

    Banning means never. Very true. I also feel a parent or person should know about a book they feel should be banned and not rely on someone else's opinion.

  7. Some great points here! I agree that banning is forever - which is why when it seems that books being removed from 'required' reading are being lumped in with books that are banned, I get a little concerned.

    I'd hate to water down the seriousness of book banning by including things in the practical definition that aren't really about 'banning' a book.

    As far as the books in my particular case. I don't actually I have a problem with kids reading them. I find that kids self-censor and books they don't feel comfortable with, they put down. In this case, my daughter (and her classmates) felt uncomfortable, but needed to continue because of the assignment. That is why I'd prefer the book not be assigned.

    Librarians and teachers try very hard to get the right books into the libraries and I really respect that.

  8. This one vendor at Costco told me his 8th grade daughter was assigned THE HUNGRY GAMES to read. He was very unsure about the books. Of course, I love them all. He admited because of this assignment he went out and read the first book and realy liked it.