Let's Talk: Book Censorship in Schools

Friday, May 25, 2012

Let's Talk is a new weekly feature here at i swim for oceans. I think it's important that we all have our say, and there's something to be said for raising our voices. Simply put, here on the little old blog, I like to host some of my very own discussion posts because, well, I like to converse with you all.

And so, Let's Talk will feature questions or prompts, which I will answer, too. Love it or hate it, weigh in or don't, it's my hope that Let's Talk will at least get you thinking...and maybe even get you discussing with the rest of us!
Question: What are your thoughts on book censorship in schools?

Hello, hot-button issue! When I started this feature, I knew I wanted to make it a mix of fun discussion topics and heavy-hitting, relevant issues that concern people beyond the book blogging and publishing world. What is a bigger discussion topic than censorship? Censorship, in and of itself, simply makes my skin crawl. I believe that there is merit to just about any written work, and to ban a book across the board, regardless of the content makes me want to pull up my soap box, stand with my head held high and preach to the world just why exactly I think book censorship in schools is wrong.

I'll state it right here and now: my opinions will rub some people the wrong way. I don't apologize for my opinions because they are really and truly my own. Just as I want people to respect my opinions, I truly respect opposing viewpoints. Simply put - I think that banning books across the board in schools is wrong. Many school boards like to gloss over the messiness and call their reading curriculum a "selection," rather than the blatant banning that I believe it is. I'm not going to lie and say that some of the banned books I've seen don't have messy content...because they do.

Consider Breathing Underwater by Alex Flinn. One of my all-time favourite authors takes a harrowing story of an abusive (both emotionally and physically) relationship between teens and creates a story that is startlingly realistic and relevant for the young adult crowd. Is it brutal? Heck yeah. There's no glossing over the violence and the drama. There shouldn't be. Abuse is abuse. There are no shades of gray, and a story like that is important for teens who might otherwise be scared into silence because they are the abused and ashamed, or they're the abuser and are afraid to seek the help they need to get better. A Washington school district banned this book due to the graphic nature of the content. Is it right to take this book out of schools just because it makes the parents uncomfortable that their children are reading it? It should make the kids uncomfortable. It should make them think.

Take, for another example, Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. Written about a young teen who is raped at a party, haunted by the memory, taunted by classmates and friends and damaged to the core, this book is harrowing. I'm not going to lie. It's not an easy read to stomach. Last year, it was referred to as "soft core porn." Needless to say, the bookish community was outraged. Such a comment says that we should ban this book because the victim brought it on herself. The rapist should be allowed to run free through the story. Should such a book truly be banned because it makes someone upset? It's not meant to be pretty, or easy, or simple. Real life is messy. Real pain is tangible and speaks volumes to someone who might otherwise be too afraid to speak up that they, too, were a victim. The same goes for another of the author's novels, Wintergirls. Tackling eating disorders and cutting, it's a hard-edged approach to an all-too common disease. Should it really be pushed under the rug?

There are so many books out there today that are banned because of their "offensive" content. Think of Catcher in the Rye, or the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Think of Bridge to Terabithia, or Harry Potter, or Lord of the Flies. Yes, books might offend people. Content speaks volumes to different people in different ways. That's a good thing. In my humble opinion, parents should read what their children are reading. If you have a problem with the material, discuss it with your child. Don't fight it. Embrace the challenge and open the communication. Speaking about it might just diminish the fear of those words, and children might actually stand to gain more from reading it.


  1. Thoughtful post! I'm currently getting my Master's degree in education with the ultimate goal of becoming a middle school language arts teacher, so this is a topic I think about a lot. I completely disagree with censorship; I intend to teach my students texts that deal with important issues that are relevant to them. However, when it comes to personally recommending books to students, I do wonder what would be considered "appropriate," and not for issues like those in the books you have mentioned (I actually haven't had a chance to read Speak yet, though I'll be reading it as part of my reading & teaching adolescent lit class next semester), but more along the lines of "would I have found this appropriate as a middle school student?" particularly when thinking about students who are reading above grade level and may reach for "adult" fiction that may contain graphic sex scenes. Just something I think about! Great prompt. :)

  2. Uncannily enough, I read other books by both of those authors. Alex Flinn isn't surprising, since A Kiss in Time already skirts the line. But I didn't know Laurie Halse Anderson, author of the historical fiction Chains, wrote such a book.

    I think she earned my respect even more.

    Personally, I think YA should push the lines more, without losing sight of what it is. For instance, my WIP would certainly be banned in several schools from its LGBT content--and even the fact it has spirits. 

    But I'm the sort of guy who prefers a slightly edgier view of life in his books, without taking it too far and having it too grimdark.

  3. I tend to be with you on the book censoring in schools. Personally, I think if parents thinks a book shouldn't be read by their child, then that's their right, but they should talk to their kids about it, not work to have the book banned from the school. After all, not every parent thinks the same way, and I believe that children shouldn't be denied access to a book just because a couple people might feel that it's inappropriate.

  4. We had a fairly large stir-up at a local school about TTYL by Lauren Myracle a few months ago. It was in a middle school library, and a mother was outraged that her daughter got her hands on it. It was on the local news every night for a few weeks. The library I work for took the stance that censorship was wrong, and it was the parents' job to monitor and supervise their children's reading choices. Luckily, the schools followed suit. Life isn't censored, so why should books?

    That being said, I think the schools here have forms that can be filled out requesting that a book be banned, but I'm under the impression that the worst that has ever happened is a book be moved to the restricted section. I don't necessarily have a problem with that because the parent can give permission for the kid to read the book. However, I feel that if a kid wants to read, give them a cereal box if that's what s/he is looking for.

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with you on this. Books shouldn't be banned because they make people uncomfortable, or offend them. The freedom of speech, and the written word, is a freedom that everyone deserves, and has a right to.

  6. THIS topic! I could bitch for hours. Ellen Hopkins being banned from a teen lit festival, then the Speak debacle...it makes me seething mad! What baffles me, is that censoring books does nothing in terms of preparing a child for life. Life will still be there - big, bad, and ugly - ready and waiting. Use the power as a parent / teacher and discuss these things! COMMUNICATION! That's the answer in a nutshell.  

  7. Great post, Melissa! I think part of the problem some parents/school districts/whatever have is that it's easier to ban than adequately address difficult issues. And in the US, given the litigius nature of our society, it's WAY safer to remove content that could offend one group or another than take a thoughtful stance on it. BUT it really is their, particularly the parents and I speak as a mother of 3, duty to address these issues. As difficult as these conversational topics may be for parents, burying one's head in the sand never ends well.

  8. As a future Reading teacher, I know this topic all too well.  I just finished a course that touched upon it and what we as teachers are responsible for.  What we ARE responsible for is giving the child choices to read.  Always be prepared there may be a parent who disagrees with the required reading, so when that happens - offer another choice for that particular student to read.  NEVER ban the entire class from reading a certain book because one parent has a problem with it.  That is NEVER ok.

    Laurie Halse Anderson is one of my favorite writers.  Both Speak and Wintergirls depicts a very, very hard topic - but she presents it in such a raw, emotional way that if anything you walk away from the book feeling even more empowered.   Books can teach us so many things.  It's one of the many reasons why I want to be a Reading teacher.  Just know your audience, educate them, and offer choices when something may be challenged.  Never take away a book because of someone's personal opinion about it.

  9. I believe that Young Adult literature is important because books are what shape a teenager's world outside of school and home. Hiding things like rape or abuse from teens because it's "too graphic" is the exact same thing as lying to them. Kids are smarter than people give them credit for and they can handle more than people let them. Speak is a VITAL book for High Schoolers, particularly girls, to read because it not only speaks to girls who have gone through that but speaks against things like slut shaming. The "graphic" books that people try to ban are books like Looking for Alaska that tell kids that they are not alone in wanting a way out of this labyrinth- everybody feels lost sometimes. I think that censorship in schools is just an adult's way of trying to bend a child's worldview to their own and it makes me sick.

  10. I took a YA Lit class at the beginning of my school year, since I'm going to be a high school english teacher, and my professor said she had a friend who wanted to teach Speak in her classroom. The teacher approached her principal for permission and he told her, "You can teach it, but be prepared for someone to come forth who's had the same experience as the girl in the book." And sure enough, one day after class a girl came up to the teacher in tears and told her about experiencing that same experience. In other words, that girl probably never would have come forth or talked to anyone about her experience if it weren't for reading that book.

    I think keeping books like this out of classrooms isn't helping students, it's harming them because without having the chance to read about such trauma they won't have the chance to learn about how you can overcome it. I'm sure there are plenty of girls who get involved with abusive boys or who get raped at parties, but they have no idea how to deal with it. Presenting them with stories of teens who deal with trauma and overcome it helps teens find their strength and I would never condone keeping such stories away from them.

    Great post, and as an avid reader I will never keep books out of my children's hands, no matter what the content is. As long as they're reading I'll be happy.

    Anna @ Literary Exploration

  11.  SPEAK!!!! I really can not believe all the terrible things that have been said about this book. I think censoring books, also makes kids feel like their issues are "dirty" too. Like "This book was banned because it was so ____, I related to it a lot. That must mean I'm ____." I don't like that at all. I agree with you that parents should take an active hand in helping their child pick books that work for them. Really though... LET THEM READ WHAT THEY WANT! Good kids are good kids, a book isn't going to change that.

  12. Great post!

    As a new parent book censorship takes on a whole new meaning for me. I have always read books that were out of my age range or that covered more adult topics as a kid.

    I don't think that ANYONE has a right to tell my son what he can and cannot read besides me! And I wouldn't tell me son he couldn't read something.

  13. You brought up some really good points here...a lot of books are censored for the completely wrong reasons. And totally agree...parents should read what their children are reading. Then they can have discussions with their kids about the content.

  14. This is such a great topic, and so important! I grew up in a religiously strict home with no Tv and reading was my escape. We didn't have much for YA back then so by middle school I was reading adult books. Luckily my parents pretty much let me read what I wanted. It was kind of a 'if they didn't see it they didn't say anything' sort of thing though. If I read a racy book in front of them they felt they should speak up and encourage me to do the right thing and not read it. Luckily I mostly read in my room and I don't recall any issues.
    I think teens NEED these books and we should not take them out of reach.


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