Banned Books Week (Sept. 24 – Sept. 30) was founded in 1982 by the American Library Association and Amnesty International to celebrate the freedom to read through highlighting banned or challenged works, and the authors who have been persecuted for writing them.
For school librarians, Banned Books Week has evolved into an awareness campaign that provides information about attempts to prevent students from accessing a variety of books and websites that could have a meaningful impact on their education.
Books featured during Banned Books Week have been scrutinized for a variety of reasons, including racist or offensive language, sexual content, or political views that challenge the establishment of the time.
- The Harry Potter series, a staple of many school classrooms and a favorite of even the most reluctant readers, offended some Christians because of its use of sorcery and witchcraft.
- Classic children’s author Roald Dahl has faced international bans of The Witches over claims of misogyny.
- Controversy stirs around William Stieg’s Sylvester and the Magic Pebble for the depiction of animals wearing clothing, including pigs dressed as policemen.
The list of challenged books, and the reasons for their status, is as long and varied as the number of communities in which these books appear. Defenders of these works, including school librarians, provide several reasons why access to these books should not be restricted for our students.
Bibliotherapy, the use of books to provide support for social and emotional development, is one of the most effective and efficient uses of literature as it allows teachers to provide cross-curricular instruction. Many banned books provide examples of powerful life lessons on love, acceptance, and overcoming adversity. They allow readers to investigate issues facing their community within the safety of a clinical classroom space, with emotional support from teachers and peers. And perhaps most importantly, these books provide access points for expanding the reader’s knowledge of the history and values of other cultures.
Critics of Banned Books Week point out that many of the books in question were not banned, just removed or restricted within the classroom. These books are still readily available in other public spaces, including public libraries and book stores. While this is true, availability in other spaces does not guarantee access, especially to students who face a variety of socio-economic barriers. Removing many of these titles from classrooms has the same effect as banning them.
Responsibility of Teachers
As teachers, working with and for our young, impressionable youth is an equally exciting and frightening prospect that comes with great responsibility. Teachers should be prepared for a challenge to all instructional materials, taking the necessary steps beforehand to alleviate or minimize parent and community concerns.
Know your students. Teachers should know the needs and challenges of the students in their classroom. They should know what is age- and grade-level appropriate for their kids and what supports their students need to be successful. The choice of learning materials in every classroom should reflect the culture, needs, and emotional context of the students. Is being uncomfortable with something enough to make it dangerous and worthy of removal? Not to me. Uncomfortable makes you think and grow. It challenges your beliefs and makes you defend or revise them. It can be a valuable teaching moment for you and your students if done correctly.
Take a look at how Jo Paraiso uses controversial texts and topics to engage students in conversation.
Know what you’re teaching and why. Teachers should not teach to the state standards or curriculum guide blindly. All learning materials, regardless of their origin, should be reviewed by the teacher before being introduced into the classroom. This is especially true of books used for read-alouds, where the words and ideas introduced in the book are above the students’ instructional level.
Work with your school librarian. School librarians are prepared to protect intellectual freedom, and are a strong ally for teachers that want to do the same. Highly trained school librarians have access to resources for objective reviews, the history and context of the challenged material in other communities, and knowledge of the rights and laws of the individuals and school personnel involved. They can also locate alternative books and resources for assignments when necessary. If you don’t have a school librarian, you can find a variety of resources from the American Association of School Librarians.
Support intellectual freedom through a transparent dialogue. Recently, a local school faced a challenge to K.L. Going’s The Liberation of Gabriel King, a book in which a young girl is described as using the N-word. In discussing the situation with my own son, we talked about how the author could have told the story without the racial slur and still would have likely made her point. However, I also told him there’s power in that particular word as it relates to our history, which I believe amplifies the emotional impact of its use, and paints a picture of the user which could not be done as efficiently or effectively. You may even begin a conversation that is tough, but essential. When reviewing materials, context matters just as much as content.
Consider if this is the hill you want to die on. Most teachers will face pushback from a parent on what they’re teaching at some point. Some challenges to learning materials are more predictable than others, including offensive language or sexual content; some come seemingly from left field. Required reading is rarely required, and an outside challenge to curriculum could take the attention away from the classroom learning objective. Is the material you want to use so crucial to your curriculum that you’re willing to face the scrutiny of parents and administrators? I’m not advocating self-censorship, just the acknowledgement that the teacher is in charge of the classroom and must act accordingly.
Modern school and classroom libraries provide access to our history and our future. What was, is, and could be through seemingly endless fiction and non-fiction resources. That information is the cornerstone to ensuring a democratic society. Teachers and parents have a social responsibility to present age-appropriate information to students in ways that respect and protect their humanity. We can accomplish all of this with some proactive planning that puts the needs of students first.
What are you doing with your students during Banned Books Week? How do you approach sensitive curriculum materials with your students and their parents? Let us know in the comments below.
- Advocacy, Legislation & Issues. “The Freedom to Read Statement.” Advocacy, Legislation & Issues. 26 Jul. 2006. Web. 12 Sept. 2017.
- Going, K.l.. “Kirkus Reviews.” Kirkus Reviews. 20 May 2010. Web. 12 Sept. 2017.
- The Christian Science Monitor. “20 banned books that may surprise you.” The Christian Science Monitor. 28 Sept. 2011. Web. 12 Sept. 2017.
- Wikipedia Contributors. “Banned Books Week.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 5 Sept. 2017. Web. 12 Sept. 2017.