Saturday, September 26, 2009

Would You Ever Challenge a Book?

It's Banned Books Week, the week when bloggers and teachers and librarians and so on bemoan attempts to ban classic literature (and sometimes less than classic literature) from our classrooms and libraries.

I'm not going to lie, Banned Books Week kind of gets me annoyed every year, for two main reasons, both of which I've probably mentioned before. One: "reading banned books" and wearing banned books jewelry and whatnot seems to make some people feel like they're actually doing something wicked and progressive. Are they? And are they just freaking out the reactionaries? Two: a lot of our objections, a lot of our shock, goes to the book challenges and the reasons for those challenges and how dare anyone try to challenge this book. But wait--isn't that any parent's right, to file a challenge? Isn't that why the schools and libraries have the system in place? Should we really object to parents exercising the right to show their opinion and displeasure? There's a difference between filing a complaint and actually going and stealing the books or coercing a librarian or principal to give them up (not that that doesn't happen sometimes). Hooray for parents taking an interest in education, even if we think it's a misplaced interest. Because what if disturbing material--say, history books with a distinct anti-immigrant or anti-Arabic bias--started creeping into our schools, and we didn't have any way of objecting? It's not like it hasn't happened before.

(In fact, it almost happened in my lifetime. When I was in eighth grade, Oregon had a ballot measure up that would have required schools to teach actively that homosexuality was abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse. 43.53% of Oregon voters voted "yes" to that in 1992. That isn't hyperbolic fear-mongering language. That's the actual text of the ballot measure. I was thirteen and my childhood probably would have ended that year anyway, but it was a profoundly scary time.)

Banned Books Week has taken on a new urgency this year that I actually share, though. The uproar over Obama's speech, Juliana Baggott's experience with a planned school visit, and Ellen Hopkins's canceled school visit are all disturbing things. This summer has been bad, and this fall may be beyond imagining--as far as lies and fear go. So I'm not just going to grumble and leave. I'm going to ask you that question I put as my post title: would you ever challenge a book?

It's easy to think "no, books are powerful learning tools, I would never be so ignorant". I'm not a parent, or a teacher, or a librarian, so my perspective is sort of detached and maybe not worth much. But to be honest? Yes, I would.

Go Ask Alice is my favorite example of the most-challenged-books. It's brought up frequently in discussion, maybe because so many people have read it. ALA says that Go Ask Alice has been challenged because it has drugs, offensive language, and sexually explicit content. I've got no issue with any of those things. Go for it. No, I'd challenge Go Ask Alice for sheer stupidity.

I've said it before: unless Go Ask Alice was being used as a cautionary tale about how authors and publishers can manipulate readers, yup. I might file a complaint if it was being used in my kid's classroom. Go Ask Alice tells lies about drug use that can be totally counter-productive. It's unrepentantly anti-gay. The writing is TERRIBLE. It claims to be a real diary, which it isn't. Why is it being used in ANY classroom? I would never, ever want it banned from the library, including the school library, or tell any kid they shouldn't read it (in fact, I'd want them to, so we could have a good laugh over it). But I think classroom time could be better used on other books, and to be honest, the idea of a teacher-sanctioned homophobic book makes me uncomfortable. (Are teachers addressing this aspect of the book? Do they even notice?) So I'd make a complaint, and mine would be added to the others on the ALA list.

A Child Called It? Amos Fortune, Free Man? The Girl Who Owned a City? Is there any book you might object to seeing in your kid's classroom, for any reason? Intellectual freedom is a more complicated concept than being A-OK with And Tango Makes Three.

Take a minute, this Banned Books Week, to consider whether you fall completely on the other side of the fence. And take a minute to be glad that we're allowed to challenge books.


Lynn said...

Love your post. It's easy for me to say I'm against banning books, period. Particularly when the books banned are often targeted for homosexuality (not a concern of mine) or magic (non-issue here). But it's more difficult when you talk about books with racial bias or other things that are commonly viewed as hateful and unwanted in today's literature. And banning books from a school library adds that extra layer of complication. You balance these issues well. The same sort of thought process led to my recent post (sorry, I do love my banned books bracelet, though, lol):

mamster said...

This is a good question.

Without stating it, I think you've identified a continuum of "book challenges." The mildest is asking that one's own child be allowed to read a substitute book. The strongest is asking that all copies of a book be destroyed and the author punished. There are lots and lots of nuances in between.

Books assigned in class are represent an especially tricky ethical morass, because they cease to be simply books and become "curriculum." I would strongly object to my daughter's teacher teaching that dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time or that homosexuality was unnatural and wrong, whether the lesson were offered in the form of a lecture, a book, or performance art.

At the same time, though, it is extremely important to me that her school library contain books that I personally find repugnant. The library is not the curriculum. At my daughter's school, there is a sign under the library window that says "a window to the world." Sentimental, maybe, but true.

Challenges to library books--even hateful, stupid library books--are challenges to the librarian's job and to basic principles of liberty and literacy. Forcing the librarian to defend their collection against your particular prejudice is a phenomenal waste of their time. It's not good that there's a process to do that. It's bad. Someone needs to step between the disgruntled parent and the librarian and say, look, you don't seem to understand the concept of this "library" thing; let me explain it to you and let the librarian get back to work.

I have no sense of how book challenges break down between curriculum and library books. Do you have any idea?

Wendy said...

Interesting points, Matthew; I think I might have sort of a distrust of librarians that could be misplaced. I don't tend to feel that they're all working from a high-ground concept-of-libraries standpoint (like the librarian who wouldn't buy the Newbery book with the word "scrotum" in it). Plus I think--especially considering how overworked they are--there may be books in any collection that don't belong there that the librarian simply hasn't noticed. Probably Laurie showed you the website with the challenges to Brooklyn Public Library books--there was one case where the library agreed that a book was placed in the wrong section and decided to change it. I myself know that most librarians have not read all the Newbery books and probably don't realize how despicable Amos Fortune, Free Man is, not that I've decided what I think should be done with it.

But anyway, regarding your question about challenges to curriculum vs. library books: ALA states that from 2001-2008, 31% of all challenges were to curriculum books, 37% to school libraries, 24% to public libraries. Now, considering that I think often a parent will freak out about a book being taught in class and demand its removal from the classroom AND the school library, those statistics are probably skewed one way or another.

mamster said...

Ah, the scrotum book. No insights, I just wanted to say that. And thanks for the stats.

I'm not saying all librarians are jumpsuited defenders of freedom, though the ones I know are. Collection development is a hard problem. Of course there should be public input into it. But the book challenge process is a poor protocol for public input. It's more like a denial of service attack on the library.

What would I do with _Amos Fortune, Free Man_ or the Tintin book in the BPL? I don't know. It's a hard question. I wouldn't hand them out and say, hey, kids, read these racist books. But I think the BPL probably made the wrong decision. I think kids should have the opportunity to come across books that are scary and offensive.

Wendy said...

"I think kids should have the opportunity to come across books that are scary and offensive"--I do, too, and (again with the not being a parent thing so I don't really know what I'm talking about) I tend to think kids should be given the opportunity to make up their own minds about them, and not always be told straight off what's wrong with a book. But I also have a sense of discomfort about Amos Fortune being shelved with the other juvenile biographies, when it's so racist (in an insidious way that I don't think most kids would recognize) and is actually almost entirely fiction. I think its shelving there lends it a sense of credibility. And as I've said before, I'm sure that if it hadn't won the Newbery, it would have disappeared from schools and libraries long ago with similar racist books. Maybe if I were a librarian (discounting for the moment that if I were I'd know a lot more about weeding and collection development and so on and might think totally differently) I would push for Amos Fortune to be shelved with the fiction.

Also... hmm. I was thinking that it's easy enough for me to repeat your last sentence, coming as I do from a place of privilege, and then I remember what it was like to come across anti-gay literature when I was a kid, and I don't know whether that was good for me or not. Sure, it helped me develop a thicker skin and know there were people in the world who thought I was evil, but it was also... sad, and made me feel extra-bad about myself.

Ellen Hopkins said...

Have to jump in here. And thanks for the opportunity. In Norman Oklahoma, the parent who challenged my book (and ME!)went to the librarian and said (this is a quote), "I don't want ANY child to read [my] books." And the school visit, which allowed an opt-out, was canceled because ONE PERSON said, "I don't want ANY children to see her speak." Um, really? Who has the right to decide that NO children should read a book or see an author speak?

The thing is, rarely are challenges about Tintin. Almost always, they're about language or sexual content. I agree GO ASK ALICE is not particularly well-written or accurate. But most teens can discern that. They are more sophisticated than most people want to give them credit for. Read with them. Discuss with them. Or let them come to that decision on their own. A book will not make someone anti-gay if they're not that way already.

Wendy said...

Thanks for chiming in, Ellen. My concern is not so much with a book "making" someone anti-gay, but rather with a book reinforcing that and legitimizing it, which I do think happens, especially when it's presented by a teacher; and also with the gay students who have to read that, who may notice things the straight kids and teachers don't even realize is in there but makes that kid feel really, really bad.

I've known too many teenagers who got sucked in by books like Go Ask Alice to think it isn't problematic--and again, my question is about using it as class literature, not about reading it or having access to it.

Your story is genuinely frightening, in large part because I know it's going on across the country and most of the time we don't even hear about it.

Kathleen McDade said...

Yes, there should be a challenge process available for schools. But that certainly isn't going to prevent me from thinking some people are STOOPID in the way they use it. As Ellen mentioned, there's a difference between "I don't want MY child to read it" and "I don't want ANY children to read it." I think there are very few, if any, books that I would really want to put in the latter category. But there are many people who will automatically put books they disapprove of in that category, and that I strongly disagree with.

And as Matthew says, there's a difference between teaching a book in class and just having it available in the library, too. I would certainly be against anti-gay material being taught in classes, and while I could presumably opt my children out of that, I probably would feel that NO child should be taught that homosexuality is abnormal, wrong, unnatural and perverse. And some people would probably not thank me for wanting to make that decision for their children.

Sandy D. said...

Well, I really don't want *any* child to read James Daugherty's Daniel Boone. Like "Amos Fortune", it is classified as biography but is just bad fiction.

When I was writing my review of it, I saw several homeschooling parents recommending it, which truly shocked me.

If my child's school was using it, I would definitely protest, though not ask that it be removed from the school library. I did seriously think about asking that it be re-classified in my local library (or put in the reserve section, as it is in Ann Arbor), but I think few enough kids will go to read it on their own that leaving it there isn't terrible.

I'm not sure, but it may be on the reserve list because it is out-of-print and valuable to collectors. If a book is rare enough, does it get put in a separate section and not get checked out? I think so. I could actually tell myself I'd be doing my local library a favor by telling them DB was valuable and shouldn't circulate. But I'd be lying, because what I really want it for no children to read it.

But then I wouldn't have been able to review it so easily. I suppose I could have sat and read it in the Ann Arbor library.

I guess I'm leaning towards saying (loudly, and publicly) why you think a book is so utterly horrible, instead of trying to keep others from reading it. But I definitely wouldn't let my own younger kid read it, and I would be pointing out the racism and gratuitous violence in great detail to my older kid, explaining why I find it so revolting.

Unknown said...

Great thoughts here!! What gets me about "banned books week" is the fact that just because a book has been challenged doesn't mean it's been banned. It could just not be age-appropriate for a specific school library. I don't know if I'd ever go to that length. I prefer to deal with my 11-year-old's reading list in my home, and not telling the parents of other children what they can and cannot read.

(I'm visiting around to "meet" my fellow judges for Cybils MG/YA Nonfiction -- I also write at

Caroline said...

What I object to about banning books is that fact that people think they can decide what other people read. It's fine to say, "I don't like this book, I think that these parts of it are inappropriate for this age group." But to say "This age group should not be allowed to read this book" is too strong. If parents are so concerned about what's in a book and the impact it will have on their kids, why don't they try reading it, having their kids read it, and then discussing it with them? Wouldn't it be better to make their kids aware of the issue than to hide it from them?

Liz said...

@Caroline I think where the high number of book challenges in schools comes from is that parents feel that their ability to time when they have those discussions with their kids has been undermined.

And some books you just can't explain enough to stop the nightmares. To use an extreme example, I read about one chapter of "A Child Called It" over five years ago and I still have uncomfortable associations with things that appeared in that chapter. What sort of discussion could I possibly have with my daughter about that? "Hey, at least you get to eat!"? "Ah, it's not *that* bad, lots of kids in Rwanda have worse food, bad water, *and* they're in a war."? "Yes, Mommy wants to beat up the mean mother too, but we can't. Besides, she was probably mentally ill and not truly in control of herself."?