Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Banned Book Week: An English Teacher's Perspective

Banned Book Week runs from September 25th through October 2nd, and is a great chance to think about and consider the power of books.  Most oppressed societies at one time or another have either banned reading altogether, or have banned the reading of certain books.  It's interesting to consider why, and what it is that books bring to the table for us to consider. Essentially, books challenge us all to look at someone's life and see it through their eyes, right?  Here are just a few of my own thoughts on book banning from my experience as a teacher.

  As an English teacher, I am painfully aware of book content as I read and prepare lessons for my classes.  The frequency that I hear complaints is not as high as one might think, but I do hear from parents and students alike about offensive content.  Obviously, I'm respectful of an individual's right to choose their reading material and have worked with students who have a legitimate claim to not be able to read a text.  We simply choose something different for them to read.

I have also found myself in the unique position of validating a lot of books that people have found unreadable.  These people rarely wish the book to be removed permanently from the school library, but wish me to know and see their opinions, which I acknowledge.  In fact, I really respect when a parent or guardian comes to me with questions about a novel that we can discuss.  I consider it an essential part of my job to be able to explain the rationale behind a novel I've chosen to teach or suggested on my reading list.  Once again, I can absolutely understand a person's right to choose the reading material of their child or to voice concerns.

While I haven't ever worked at a school where they have "banned" books, we have been asked not to teach certain novels for their content.  Actually, I should say we haven't been asked not to, but discouraged.  For instance, because of a pivotal scene in The Kite Runner that is deemed graphic and disturbing, we've been warned that it might be a bad idea to teach it to a class because of the complaints that might arise.  Interestingly enough, many of my students have read this book, and Hosseini's other novel A Thousand Splendid Suns, both excellent novels that I have have read and loved. Rarely have I heard a complaint, but have had many students attest to the power of the message in these novels.

Experience has taught me that students will approach a book if they feel ready.  Students that I thought would struggle with the content of a book have surprised me with their ability to reach greater meaning from stories I had to warn them about before reading.  Does that mean a student or reader is not "savvy" or "smart" if they don't wish to expose themselves to a book with questionable content?  I say no, because I respect their opinions as I would hope they would respect those who do want to read a challenged novel.  As with any conflict of interest, it seems to boil down to a respect for the beliefs and thoughts of others.

For this English teacher, I believe that reading is an amazing freedom of the mind!  I would hope that people would push themselves to explore good books, and to challenge themselves when the time is right.

Here is a list of Banned or Challenged Classics posted by the ALA (American Library Association).  Their site also offers other suggestions for learning more about banned books.


  1. There are some things I wouldn't want my (hypothetical) high school students to be exposed to, but something like Kite Runner would be fine. There's a big difference between a scene like the one you mention and a standard sex/sensual scene that are common in a lot of adult AND YA books...those bug me.

  2. Kids really do censor themselves and know what they're ready for better than anyone else does. I noticed this with my little brother.

  3. Ronnica--Agreed. It seems that it's best for the individual or parent to counsel with their child. Thankfully, I haven't had any other parents counsel against someone else reading something.

    Heidenkind--Yes, you're right. They also seem to figure out what they like, regardless of what we push at them! :) Yes, that's coming from a teacher who has tried to get them to like books that I think are great. Never works.

  4. This is a really great post, Becky! I think you bring up a lot of really great points--banning books is not the same as choosing not to read them because of beliefs or thoughts. The latter does make me sad when people close off, but I agree that we should be mutually respectful. I honestly don't know if there were any BANNED books in my school growing up. I'm very grateful that I didn't have to wonder why there were certain books we could read and others not--I love how you put it, that "reading is an amazing freedom of the mind."

  5. Trish -- Thanks so much! It seems like banning is so often aimed at teens. Although I support a parent's right to guide their own child, banning books to other children just feels scary. It would be interesting to know just what books have been challenged locally, as they seem to differ from school to school.