If you want people to do something, forbid them from doing it.
As a middle school language arts teacher, that’s always worked for me.
Many of my students are reluctant readers.
If a text is longer than a Tweet or a YouTube description, most of them would rather skip it.
And when it comes to books, many of them wouldn’t intentionally crack one open under any circumstances.
Unless you tell them not to.
Unless you point out a specific book on the shelf and say it’s off limits.
Unless you open it up right in front of them before quickly snatching it away and saying, “Oops! I forgot! We can’t read that one!”
So most of my curriculum is made up of banned books.
The Giver, Silent to the Bone, The Diary of Anne Frank, To Kill a Mockingbird – all forbidden in one place or another.
Just not in my district.
In fact, my school board has included each of these books on the approved reading list.
That doesn’t mean I have to use them.
Language Arts teachers like me have a few different options at each grade level. And some of us actively avoid the more controversial texts to keep out of trouble.
I go right for these taboo, prohibited, and oh so naughty books – for very good reasons.
Take “The Giver” by Lois Lowry.
It’s almost the poster child for why we shouldn’t ban books in the first place. The story is set in a dystopian society where everyone is raised to be the same and people are discouraged from questioning things or having deep feelings.
The book is most often challenged because parents don’t want their children to have to wrestle with its deep social criticism.
When it first came under fire, Lowry responded thusly:
”Submitting to censorship is to enter the seductive world of ‘The Giver’: the world where there are no bad words and no bad deeds. But it is also the world where choice has been taken away and reality distorted. And that is the most dangerous world of all.”
However, not everyone is willing to let children think through these issues themselves – and what a bundle of issues Lowry presents!
In the plot, she mentions sex, infanticide, suicide, starvation, and euthanasia.
Nothing is graphic or developmentally inappropriate for middle schoolers, but the very idea of children thinking about S-E-X and challenging authority is enough to put it afoul of some censors.
Which is exactly why my students love it.
Too often teachers give students short passages taken from standardized tests where the only reason to read is to hunt for multiple choice answers. It’s dry, boring and meaningless to their everyday lives.
That’s why they enjoy books like “The Giver” so much. This isn’t just for a grade. It’s reading something worth taking the time to consider, something that gets under their skin and makes them want to think.
They’re at an age (12-14) when they’re starting to find their own place in society and struggling to understand adult issues like reproduction and romantic attachment. Making these topics explicit and being able to talk through them in the safety of the classroom can be liberating – and worth the effort to decode.
That is – if you accept that children are little human beings who deserve the chance to consider these things aloud.
Silent to the Bone
And speaking of adult issues, there’s the other comprehensive novel I teach in 7th grade – “Silent to the Bone” by E. L. Konigsburg.
It’s a classic detective story where the characters try to discover why a young teen, Branwell, refuses to speak after his baby sister suffers a potentially life threatening injury.
The plot grabs readers from the beginning and students find themselves really invested in unraveling the mystery. But to do so they come face-to-face with topics ranging from family, divorce, death, bigotry, sexuality and exploitation.
It’s not about finding textual details to satisfy the number crunchers at Data Recognition Corp. or NCS Pearson Inc. It’s about getting textual to better understand what happened in the plot and why.
Again the narrative is written for middle school readers but the concepts get them thinking and enthusiastic.
As we come to the big reveal, I’ve had students turn to me with huge smiles saying they can’t believe we’re actually reading about this stuff in school.
In an age where they usually communicate with emojis, I’m just glad that they’re reading.
It can get uncomfortable, but by the end I definitely feel like I’ve reached them.
The Diary of Anne Frank
Speaking of uncomfortable, one of the hardest books I teach in 8th grade is “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
It’s not that the text is so difficult, but as a person of Jewish ancestry, I find it personally harrowing to relive this story every year.
The plot centers on Anne, a historical Jewish girl in 1940s Amsterdam who with her family and others hid from the Nazis before eventually being captured and dying in a concentration camp.
Like most teachers, I eschew the actual diary for the play version by Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.
At first glance, it’s hard to imagine why this book would be banned. After all, it’s a true story of the Holocaust written by one of the people who lived it.
However, there are an increasing number of people in this country these days who want to deny that the Holocaust even happened or claim that it was exaggerated. It’s hard to do that with a witness staring you in the face – even if that witness is just the book she left behind.
Usually the text is challenged not on the basis of its plot so much as its sexual frankness. Not that there is much sex going on with people hiding above a factory in WWII. But the character of Anne is so real, she writes about everything including what it’s like to become a mature woman.
For example, in Act II, scene 1, she mentions getting her period for the first time:
“There is one great change, however. A change within myself. I read somewhere that girls of my age don’t feel quite certain of themselves. That they become quiet within and begin to think of the miracle that is taking place in their bodies. I think what is happening to me is so wonderful… not only what can be seen, but what is taking place inside. Each time it has happened I have the feeling that I have a sweet secret… and in spite of any pain, I long for that time when I shall feel that secret within me again.”
My students often read over this passage without comment. I usually have to draw their attention to it and ask them what Anne is talking about before someone gets it.
You might be surprised at how freeing this kind of discourse is. Menstruation is a natural part of life for nearly half the population, but it’s something we don’t often talk about.
It’s not central to the story and Anne certainly goes into greater detail in her actual diary. However, even this little digression goes to further humanize her and make her relatable, especially to people like my students who are nearly the same age she was when she wrote it.
She becomes so much more than a victim. She’s someone we know – inside and out.
To Kill a Mockingbird
The most challenged book I teach is “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.
It tells the story of Atticus Finch, a white lawyer in the 1930s Alabama who defends Tom Robinson, a black man, of a crime he did not commit. The story is told from the point of view of the lawyer’s children who go from blissful naivety to uncomfortable understanding.
In the past, people used to object most often to the book’s language since it makes liberal use of the N-word.
It’s still an issue, and I make sure not to have myself or any of the students read these parts aloud. We only hear it on an audiobook as we follow along in the text. And even this only comes after we discuss how hurtful that word is.
However, the language isn’t the book’s biggest sticking point today. It’s more often objected to these days on the basis of white saviorism. Critics complain that the narrative should be centered on Tom, the black man accused of the crime, and not Atticus, the defense attorney and his children.
What makes this particularly troubling is the critics have a point. If the story is about racism, wouldn’t it be better to focus on the target of that racism?
They suggest the book be replaced by more modern novels that center such a narrative appropriately – something like “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas (itself, a frequently challenged book).
However, in the final analysis, I disagree.
As good a book as Thomas’s is, it just isn’t as well-written or multifarious as Lee’s.
Thomas reveals a lot about racism and the fight against it in today’s world, and her book is certainly worth reading. But it is a mistake to think that racism is only about people of color. White people are the cause of racism. White people have a responsibility to tear down the systems of white supremacy.
By the end of the book, my whole class – regardless of race – is devastated by what happens to Tom and furious at the injustice he experiences. To be honest, that might not happen to the same degree in a book that signals its message right from the beginning.
“Mockingbird” starts quietly. It doesn’t even appear to have anything to do with racism at the beginning. We slowly get acclimated to this world, this time and place before prejudice creeps into view and surprises us.
In my classroom, the book allows us to discuss so many intersectional issues – gender, economics, belief systems, etc. Plus it gives my students more cultural capital than other texts would. Having read “Mockingbird” allows them to understand more and talk to more people than other more modern books.
If they haven’t already, when they go to the high school, they’ll read novels centered on blackness. Their education and discussion of this issue would be incomplete without them. But I don’t think we need to stop reading such a classic as “Mockingbird” that was, itself, part of the civil rights movement.
In any case, the school board has not approved any similar texts at that grade level. If I put aside “Mockingbird,” it would mean not discussing the issue at all. I think that would be much worse.
So this is how I teach.
I know there are some adults out there who would rather my students not read these books.
I know some grownups would rather my kids not think about these things and not come to their own conclusions.
They’d rather children be seen and not heard – like furniture.
But my students know it, too. And they’d rather be treated like actual human beings – even if that means… yuck… reading.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’d much rather decision makers put no restrictions on which books students can and cannot read. Even trash like Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” shouldn’t be forbidden. I make sure to tell my students that it’s readily available in the library but not recommended.
Children should not be restricted to only some ideas. They will come into contact with all kinds as they grow older. They need the skill to sort through them and decide for themselves their value.
In my experience the bigger threat isn’t prohibition, it’s indifference.
As Ray Bradbury famously said, “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.”
Focusing on banned books helps me keep reading real and relevant in my classroom.
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