Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Banned Books - The Controversy Continues

by Felicia Donovan

My guest today is Sandy Ratliff, a veteran English teacher who has "challenged the challenge" on books with her innovative "Intellectual Freedom in Literature" class.


bannedbooksNudity. Sexually explicit. Offensive language. Drugs. Unsuited to age group. Homosexuality. Racism. Anti-family. Religious viewpoint. According to the American Library Association (ALA), these are the reasons for the top ten most frequently challenged books of 2009. These works include classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Color Purple and Catcher in the Rye and contemporary works such as Twilight, My Sister’s Keeper, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. In 2009, the Office for Intellectual Freedom reported 460 challenges to novels and textbooks in schools and libraries, so the question herein is Why?

banned2 As a veteran English teacher I became intrigued with banned and challenged books, so in 2005 I researched the subject in the hopes of developing my own senior class dealing with this hot topic. I also began hanging posters all over my classroom, thus sparking the interest of my students. They could not understand why such works as Bridge to Terabithia and Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic were challenged, or banned, in some schools and libraries. As I discussed this issue with my then freshmen and seniors the fire inside me ignited further. Therefore, I approached my principal with the idea of a class called Intellectual Freedom in Literature. After I pleaded my case, she wholeheartedly agreed to let me try, and during the 2006-2007 school year 75 students enrolled.

banned3 Intellectual Freedom means the right to seek and receive information without restriction, but it also means the right to voice your opinion, however unpopular it might be. My students, who admitted they enrolled just to see what the class was like, were surprised at the number of challenges, the reasons for challenges, and the “arrogance” of people who try to force their own morals and values on others. During the semester, they were required to read four challenged/banned novels - Fahrenheit 451, The Color Purple, Ordinary People, and The Perks of Being a Wallflower - and read an additional challenged/banned novel from the list of top 100 banned books for a 45 minute class presentation. By the end of the semester, they were knowledgeable of 25 other novels challenged or banned, and they ranged from children’s books (And Tango Makes Three, on 2009’s top ten list again, and The Goosebump Series) to young adult novels like Slaughterhouse-Five, The Giver, Alice in Wonderland, Go Ask Alice, and the Harry Potter series.

colorpurple The class also delved into case studies of documented challenges, from the violent Kanawha County, West Virginia one to the Pico vs. Island Trees, NY classic that changed the way books are challenged today. Previous students sometimes couldn’t believe how school board meetings could become so incensed over a novel, so this year, 2010, I decided to make them feel it. With the help of a minister friend of mine, we set up a fake meeting with the students so my friend could discuss the class and “how he was concerned about what was being taught in my classroom.” His approach was to be nice to the students and express his concern about “What is considered ‘normal‘” in the classroom curriculum. Within ten minutes, the students began to “feel” what members of those communities felt, as they respectfully but vehemently defended The Color Purple and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. They admitted he could voice his own opinion, but that he had no right to tell them what they could or could not read, that he missed the themes of the novels, and that they face the issues in the novels and should not be sheltered from them in any way. At the end of class, my friend, who actually is a huge supporter of Intellectual Freedom, and I admitted we had “punked” them. Once the shock wore off, they understood why I did it. They knew I had wanted them to “feel” this issue, and now they did, and they left the classroom telling me they will never forget what I taught them, nor how I did it.

cagedbird The end of my first year teaching the class a student gave me a card. It read, “I can’t thank you enough for opening my eyes to the notion of censorship in literature. You taught me to question and to be aware of bias and motives of different groups. You made me want to read novels that normally I would never pick up.” Her favorite novel is now I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Five years later, I’m still teaching this class to incoming students who have now heard about it and can’t wait to “see what all the controversy is about.”

Just what right do individuals and groups have over other people’s children? What is considered acceptable or not in the classroom? In the library? And should the First Amendment be left at the Schoolhouse Gate? Intellectual Freedom is at least alive and well in my classroom, but not so for many other students who will never have the opportunity to read The Color Purple or I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Click here to read the complete list of ALA’s 2009 list of challenged books. That’s 2009, not 1950.

Think about it.

For more information, click here to visit the American Library Association's Banned & Challenged Books section.



Keith Raffel said...

Thought-provoking post (and class!), Felicia. Terrific.

jupiterbarb said...

It is 2010, right? How can there be so much unacceptance on these issues that people actually want to still ban books? Sounds like you had a terrific class and were able to teach some valuable/life-changing lessons!

Mark Baker said...

This is actually a topic that makes my blood boil, but from the other side.

According to the ALA's definitions, I am a book banner. Why? Because in high school I opted out of a couple of the required reading books and chose to do alternative assignments. I said nothing about the rest of the class reading the book, but that's still enough to get on their radar.

And the thing to remember is that there is a huge difference between a book not being taught in schools and a book being truly banned. Even if it isn't taught in school, it can be purchased in any book store in the country. And the day they (who ever they are) start to request books be taken out of bookstores, you can bet I'll be in the streets right next to you.

Frankly, I don't know where I fall on the schools issue, however. Parents have the ultimate responsibility for raising their kids, not the schools. So parents should be able to have some say in what their kids are exposed to, how, and when.

But many of the books that show up on the list are great books with important themes that kids should be exposed to and wrestle with.

I realize I've now hijacked the comments thread and opened myself up to some pretty big attacks. I'll just close by saying I think this topic needs cool heads on all sides to stop raising their own shields and think about what the other side is saying.

I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle (as it usually always does).

Felicia Donovan said...

Mark, thank you for your thought-provoking comments. All are welcome!

Way back when I was an English teacher, I respected my students' right to opt out of reading a particular book for whatever reason. The point is that they had a choice.

I taught in an area where many of my students never went to a bookstore nor a library other than the school one, so they didn't have the choice of what to read. Any parent could ask what the reading material for the curriculum was and would be told. Few did. Actually, none did.

The point of Sandy's class is to revere the freedom to choose and think individually. It sounds as if you would support that and I thank you for it. Her class is optional, not mandatory. The content is spelled out quite clearly to both students and parents prior to enrollment.

Sadly, schools and libraries are still the only place children will ever get exposure and access to great literary works like "To Kill a Mockingbird," or "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings."

I feel strongly that we must continue to protect the right for schools and libraries to provide thought-provoking content, choice and intellectual freedom. We're exercising that right now!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Thanks, Sandy, for educating today's kids on such an important issue...and showing them that these books (and books in general) shouldn't be banned.

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

Thank you Felica and Sandy for one of the best posts ever on Inkspot!

The operative word here is "choice." And it always is the key ingredient in most controversial topics - don't take away our right to decide for ourselves. Mark, you're not a book banner, you opted out, you made a choice.

And jupitbarb, you need to read or listen to the news more. It is 2010, yet people are still caught in a timewarp of prejudice and ignorance. Just read up on what is happening with regard to our 14th Amendment. It will make your blood boil as much as booking banning, if not more.

Sandy said...


Thank you for the post. You do not sound like a book banner to me; instead, you sound like an independent thinker, which is my main goal in class, and I applaud that!

A few key words stood out in your blog. First, you said you opted out, but said nothing to the rest of the class. Then, you mentioned parents have the right to know what their kids are exposed to, and I wholeheartedly agree. That's why on my syllabus for my elective senior class I require parental signature. Then, the parents will know, supposedly, what I'm teaching and why.

My problem lies with those parents who not only do not want their kids to read the books, but also try to censor what everyone else reads. Does a parent have the right to come into a classroom and tell the teacher the whole class can not read, for instance, a Harry Potter novel because it is "pagan and includes witchcraft?" That reading the novel will make children "want to turn their classmates into frogs?" (Yes, that is an actual documented complaint.) That parent has every right to ask for an alternative novel for her child, but the rest of the class deserves to read the novel.

Also, the censorship is not just in the classroom. In Lewisburg, Maine two years ago a woman removed two copies of "It's Perfectly Normal" - a guide to "growing up." It is for ages 10and up, and it is narrated by a bird and a bee, but it delves into every topic and has anatomically-correct cartoon pictures. Honestly, I would want my 7-year-old son to read this when he's OLDER than ten, but again I am censoring my own child, not others' children. However, this woman took it upon herself to remove the book and not return it, citing it was "pornographic." Does she have the right to remove that book? I think not, but she does have the right to not allow her child to read it.

You did not hijack the comment thread, but maybe I just did. I appreciate your view!

Barb - I am still teaching this class; I'm starting year five with it, and when my students complete their evaluation they all 'say" they love it and it taught them to think!

Sue - thank you for the nice compliment!

Jacqueline Vick said...

What a great discussion! I'm with Mark--that parents need the ultimate control for their OWN children. And it sounds as if you covered any possible concerns by allowing opt outs and alternatives.

I do wonder if those parents who opt out don't awaken a curiousity in their children that turns the subject matter into more of an issue than it would have been had they just read the book with the rest of the class.

Darrell James said...

A firend of mine would sit and read controversial books *with* his son. In this way he had the opportunity to discuss and guide his son's value's relative to what he (they) learned. If more parents took an "active" role in their children's learning there would be little need for banning at the library and school level.

Very thought provoking, Felicia.

Mark Baker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mark Baker said...

Thanks all. I hesitate to post, and now I've very glad I did.

I do want to clarify one thing. I realize that the majority of this post was about an elective class. Frankly, it sounds very interesting. And if I had signed up for an elective class like that when I was a student, you'd better believe I would be planning to read all the assigned books. It kind of goes with the territory.

Darrell, I like your friend's approach to controversy. That's a very involved parent whose son will be better off because of it.

Julia Buckley said...

Great topic. The key, as you say, is to get students thinking, and it sounds as though you've succeeded in doing that. If you're building critical thinkers, then we have less people in the world who will make irrational decisions--like demanding that Harry Potter be removed from library shelves.

On the other hand, I know that my own school librarians are firmly anti-censorship, but even they have balked at some YA novels which were extremely violent or contained extremely graphic sex, and in at least one case one of the librarians refused to put a book out. She's anti-censorhip, but she also feels motherly toward the students, and sometimes worries that the content will shock them.

So even with the anti-censorship crowd, there are some moments of admitted hypocrisy.

G.M. Malliet said...

It's a real poser, isn't it? You don't want the "State" raising your kids and telling them what they can read. On the other hand, if you're not doing it, someone's going to. Better hope it's someone you like and admire.

Beth Groundwater said...

What a wonderful interview! Sandy, bless you for what you are doing for the next generation!

In response to Mark, I agree that schools should offer parents and students the option to opt-out of books and movies and class segments that they may find offensive. This was done in my childrens' school system, with a note sent home telling parents what the upcoming book or movie or class segment was going to be about and how to opt out.

Choosing to opt out yourself or your own children, however, is very different from banning material altogether from a school or library.

I really agree with your post. And parents could do that with MANY school topics or issues. When my son had a conflict in high school where he couldn't fit in all his required PE classes due to his heavy class load of band and IB courses, I took the option of teaching him the sex-ed class myself. Many parents did this to exclude material from the class, but I did it to solve the credit problem and we covered ALL the material together. Though he found it embarrassing to talk about sex with his mom, it was a way for me to discuss my views with him about how men should treat women on a date and how to avoid date-rape. I'm confident now that my son will be courteous and careful on dates and never take advantage of a woman.

Mike Dennis said...

Great post, Felicia. The freedom to read is so often overlooked these days.

I would also add that the freedom to write is constantly under attack, too. I've seen

Mike Dennis said...

Great post, Felicia. The freedom to read is so often overlooked these days.

I would also add that the freedom to write is constantly under attack, too. I've seen authors in the blogosphere (not on InkSpot, though) bemoaning the plethora of serial killer novels or novels with female murder victims or some other out-of-favor topic, darkly hinting that someone should "do something" about it.

Remember when AMERICAN PSYCHO came out? Bret Easton Ellis was pilloried by the radical feminists for subjugating his female characters to such horrible deaths. Mind you, the book was fiction!

IMHO, authors such as Ellis or you or me have the absolute right to write anything we want. If it offends somebody, too bad. They don't have to read it.

That's what the marketplace is for.

If someone wants to write about any so-called taboo subject, maybe even glorify it, more power to him/her. The story line might disgust me, the writing might be dreadful, it might attack every sensitivity I have, but no one has the right to shut that author down.

Without the absolute freedom to write what we want, we have no freedom at all. We'll always be at the mercy of the whims of those who are "offended".

G.M. Malliet said...

OK, Beth, you have my vote for bravest mom on the planet. Possibly bravest person on earth, ever.

I tried to picture my own mom offering a sex ed class at home and I just blanked. Nope, nothing there. Total failure of imagination.

Alice Loweecey said...

Excellent, thought-provoking post. I'm amazed The Chocolate War is still on the "eeevil" list. (Let alone some of the others.) That one in particular was frowned upon in my Catholic school--and of course we all read it.

I always made sure to read whatever the kids were reading, so I could answer any questions. So far they've asked some pretty interesting questions, and we talk without barriers about any topic at all.

No more banned books!

(Although if the RCC could see their way to saying my book was a bad influence on their flock...cha-ching!)

Kathleen Ernst said...

I've written 15 juvenile/YA books, and have (in mild ways, compared to some of the stories that make the news) confronted this issue. I think one of the things that bothers me most is that kids dealing with a variety of gut-wrenching problems often feel they have no one to talk about them with. Finding a character in a novel who is experiencing similar things can literally save a life. I remember one young man who couldn't tell his peers that he was gay; finally he asked trusted friends to read a book with gay characters, which started a dialogue.

I also remember discussing this issue with some teens who said (and I'm summarizing, obviously) that some parents didn't want them to read books with any sexual content because it might give them ideas. The general consensus was that they had lots of questions about sexuality, drugs, etc; and that they could explore them in books, or they could experiment in real life.

I agree that the best situation of all is for parents to engage and talk with their kids, about whatever.

Excellent post, thought-provoking comments, and great work in the classroom!

Tracy M. said...

You don't have to like or agree with what is being written, but everyone should be able to make those opinions for themselves. Kudos to teachers, like Sandy Ratliff, who have taken on the responsibility of teaching our future generations about acceptance and thinking for themselves!