Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Banning Books - Still?

Book banning is nothing new.  Since the public school system came in to being, literature has been scrutinized by committees of scholars hoping to make the best choice for adolescents in their reading journeys.  From the Bible to Blubber, by Judy Blume, decisions have been made about what is best for our adolescent reading lists.  A teacher in Indianapolis was suspended for teaching The Freedom http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=inthreewovele-20&o=1&p=8&l=bpl&asins=B001IAJ8MW&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&m=amazon&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifrWriters Diary and this is a story that turned the nation upside down with joy when it hit the press. Today's choices often consist of classic pieces of literature that committees accept as appropriate because they've always been allowed.  However; is book banning, of any kind, a necessary evil in the public school system? 

Historically Banned Books

Books are usually banned because of opinion of content.  Four main categories tend to spark the debates:  religion, politics, sex, and social standards.  Any one of these concepts can be a ticking time bomb for a book in an educational format.  From the time when our nation was governed by a theocracy where the Bible ruled supreme to a nation now governed by a democracy where choice is supposed to be at the forefront of literary masterpieces, popular choices often find their way to the banned shelf.  A few classics that often appear on required lists now but were once banned are:
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain) - banned for the use of  the "n" word by the NAACP in 1985
  • As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner) - banned for religious references and the discussion of controversial topics such as abortion and foul language
  • Catcher in the Rye (J. D. Salinger) - banned for sexual content and language
  • Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury) - banned for language and ironically is a book about censorship and book banning
  • The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck) - banned for vulgar language
  • Lord of the Flies (William Golding) - banned for its use of the "n" word and language
Each of these classics now appear on high school reading lists all over the nation, being removed from what was once a banned list.  As noted, each of these bans hinges on one of the four principles of religion, politics, sex or social standing.  Why the change now?  Tolerance, plain and simple.  Much of American Literature written in the south hinges on the social aspects of the time period openly discussing the issues of slavery and the African American race as 2nd class citizens.  Is slavery wrong?  Absolutely!  Should America pretend it never happened and avoid literature that discusses it?  No!  Books that were once banned find their way back on high school reading lists across the country because as a society, most of us now accept the need to learn from the past and tolerate the literature that comes with it.

Currently Banned Books

While the list of banned books has changed, it has not gone away.  Books such as those above are now labeled as classic pieces of literature and a new list has appeared.  The most commonly banned books according the the American Library Association as recently as 2008 are:
  • And Tango Makes Three (Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell) - banned for anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
  • His Dark Materials trilogy, (Philip Pullmam) -  banned for political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence
  • TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), (Lauren Myracle) - banned for offensive language, sexually explicit information, and unsuited to age group
  • Scary Stories (series), (Alvin Schwartz) banned for occult/satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence
  • Bless Me, Ultima, (Rudolfo Anaya) banned for occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, (Stephen Chbosky) banned for drugs, homosexuality, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, suicide, and unsuited to age group
  • Gossip Girl (series), (Cecily von Ziegesar) banned for offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  • Uncle Bobby's Wedding, (Sarah S. Brannen) banned for homosexuality and unsuited to age group
  • The Kite Runner, (Khaled Hosseini) banned for offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  • Flashcards of My Life, (Charise Mericle) Harper banned for sexually explicit and unsuited to age group

Each of these books was contested for the same four principles, much like the earlier list which begs the question:  In a few years time, will tolerance again be the name of the game?  In a time of altruism, how is it that literature keeps taking a "hit" for expression and communication?  Is it the school system's place to ban these books, or is there an appropriate middle of road format that could be implemented to keep books from landing on the "naughty" list and students interested in reading?

Meeting in the Middle

Many school districts across the nation have begun to use of literature rationales.  This is a district created form that provides teachers the opportunity to express their desire to teach a specific novel and subsequently defend the right to teach it with whole group instruction.  This form takes into consideration the book's approach on religion, politics, sex, and social status - hitting all four of the red flag areas for book banning. Rationales also give teachers an opportunity to relate to administration, parents, and students the objectives and standards that align with the novel of choice and what activities will be completed to enhance the learning.  It offers a space for questionable material and how the teacher will handle this, as well as providing a section for comparable reading material of equal literary merit should a parent or student object to the chosen novel's content.  The rationale is an opportunity to seize reading by the horns and limit the novel's chances of landing on a list of banned work.  All written literature has merit, but what a teacher does with the book in a classroom setting makes a difference.  Learning the right way to teach novels, and working to complete the educational plan prior to releasing the book to students can limit public objection.  Book banning doesn't have to continue in public schools, but wise choices on the part of the educator does.


  1. I'm supprised to see "the Kite Runner" on the list only because I read it this year in AP lit and it was an option for use on the free response portion of the test.

  2. Yep - there are a lot of good books that I teach that are often on the 'banned list'. The American Library Association puts out a new list every year with a top 10...