Reading may unite us, but there are more and more people who believe literature is dangerous and books should be banned, which I think is a good reason to celebrate Banned Books Week in mid-September every year.
A case in my own story occurred at my first job out of college, teaching 7th grade language and social studies at a junior high school in New Jersey. Incorporating literature into our study of the American Revolution, I included a poem about William Dawes, an obscure shoemaker who was out on the night of April 18, 1775 on the same mission as Paul Revere to find Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and to warn other patriots that the British were headed toward Lexington, Massachusetts, to arrest them.
Indeed, Paul Revere, William Dawes, and Samuel Prescott, along with forty other men on horseback, spread the word of the oncoming Red Coats. Temporarily held by the British, Revere never actually reached Concord, and Dawes became lost after falling from his horse. The only one who alerted the people of Concord to the impending arrival of the British was Prescott, a young doctor who died in the Revolution a few years later.
After using the poem with my seventh graders to spark a discussion about the reliable and unreliable ways we learn history, I was approached by a parent who questioned my patriotism because “everyone knows” that Paul Revere was the hero of the midnight ride of April 18, 1775. To appease his anger and save my job, I presented accurate information and careful documentation and tactfully pointed out that the reason so many believe Revere to be the man who Hour, the ever-popular Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” ”
Despite evidence to the contrary, the angry father still left believing he was absolutely right, and I left public school as a teacher to work at AT&T.
So pity today’s poor English teachers as they struggle with fears that fuel the fires of censorship and book bans. The public looks on, waiting to pounce on the teacher when whispers of sex, gender, race, religion, or some other sensitive topic arise in the classroom.
“Controversy comes up with almost every title,” said 10th grade English teacher TJ VanDyke after recently attending a workshop at Murray State University on dealing with controversial issues in English class.
Despite the inherent risks, VanDyke asserted, “But I like to look for reading that grabs students’ attention because I want them to compare and discuss.”
He mentioned a popular title, The Hate U Give, as one that might appeal to his students in Dyersburg, Tennessee.
“I’m hoping to put it on rotation,” he said, referring to the process teachers must follow to get permission to include a book to be read in English class.
Angie Thomas’ controversial novel appears on many banned book lists because it is perceived as obscene, violent and, by some, who insist it encourages anti-law enforcement sentiment.
VanDyke added, “In my district we are blessed to teach some things that are not allowed to be taught in other places.”
He specifically mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird. “A lot of districts block it because they think it’s offensive, but not when it’s taught properly,” he explained.
Amara Stroud, a Muhlenburg County high school English teacher who attended the same MSU workshop as VanDyke, found the sessions, facilitated by English professors, helpful and encouraging.
“I’ve learned not to be afraid to teach controversial lyrics,” she said. “I just have to make sure what I’m doing is worth it.”
She explained that her lesson plans for the next two weeks will be dedicated to the Harlem Renaissance, which obviously contains racist content. “So the students have to understand why it is worth studying,” explains Stroud.
Courting controversy is a regular part of teaching young people literature, she added, but claimed the challenges “remind me why I’m a teacher.”
dr MSU’s Shimikqua Ellis reflected on her eight years teaching middle and high school English and how that experience led her to a PhD and her position at MSU, where she teaches future English teachers. She quoted award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates as saying, “English teachers should be librarians of justice, hope and awareness. English classes should offer something more complex than grammar, something deeper than the classics and something far more meaningful than writing between the lines.”
She also defined three ways books can function in the classroom: as mirrors, allowing us to see ourselves; as a window through which to see different experiences; and as sliding glass doors that open to another location.
“The standard curriculum,” she said, “does not live up to those expectations.”
According to the ALA, frequently banned classics include:
• “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee
• “The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger
• “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck
• “The Color Purple” by Alice Walker
• “1984” by George Orwell
• “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley
• “Native Son” by Richard Wright
• “Slaughterhouse Five” by Kurt Vonnegut
• “A Divided Peace”, by John Knowles
• “The Lord of the Flies” by William Golding
A recent analysis by PEN America found that many challenged books focus on communities of color, the history of racism in America, and LGBTQ characters. In fact, one in three books restricted by school districts last year contained LGBTQ themes or characters.
Here are the 10 most challenged books of 2021, according to the ALA:
1. “Gender Queer” by Maia Kobabe
2. “Lawn Boy” by Jonathan Evison
3. “All Boys Ain’t Blue” by George M. Johnson
4. “Out of Darkness” by Ashley Hope Perez
5. “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas
6. “The Absolutely True Journal of a Part-Time Native American” by Sherman Alexie
7. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews
8. “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison
9. “This Book Is Gay” by Juno Dawson
10. “Beyond Magenta” by Susan Kuklin
The irony, of course, is that banning a book can increase its appeal to young readers. A recent article in The New York Times lists banned books that children should read, including Are You There God? it’s me margaret
One way to celebrate banned book week is to eat some of the banned literary fruit and find out what all the fuss is about. Which unite us, which separate us?