It’s Banned Books Week, a time to celebrate the freedom to read! For the past few years, I’ve talked with my students about book banning at some point in the year, but this is the first time I’ve remembered the official week and commemorated it on time.
Yesterday, I introduced Banned Books Week to my eighth grade students by telling them that Lord of the Flies, the book we are currently reading as a class, is on the American Library Association’s list of frequently banned classics. I asked them which aspects of the book they thought people might find objectionable, and they said the violence between the boys, the way the boys pick on each other, and what the book suggests about human nature. When I asked them why those elements of the novel might worry some people, they said people might be concerned that students who read the book would see the characters in the book as role models and act in some of the ways that the characters do.
I then showed them John Green’s video “I am Not a Pornographer,” his funny and insightful response to some adults’ attempts to remove his novel Looking for Alaska from an eleventh grade English curriculum in the Depew School District. I asked my students to figure out what John Green’s main points were, and they realized that a.) John Green was saying people shouldn’t assume that teenagers will read uncritically and go out and try everything they read about, and b.) Green was objecting to the fact that adults who didn’t even have children in eleventh grade in the Depew school district were trying to prevent all of the eleventh graders in the district from reading the book, whether the students and their parents were okay with the book or not.
The first point fit right into our discussion of why people might object to Lord of the Flies (in case adolescents might go out and act like the boys on the island), and the second point illuminated an important distinction, especially in a middle school class. The thing is, there are some books that middle school students might not be ready to handle or that their parents might not be comfortable with, and that’s okay; the “freedom to read” we celebrate during Banned Books Week doesn’t mean that every reader is developmentally ready for every book. But it does mean that young people (with the help of their parents and teachers, sometimes) should have the freedom to figure out which books they are and are not ready to read.
After we watched the video, I showed students the full list of frequently challenged classics as well as the most frequently challenged books from 2000-2009 and from 2011 so that they could take note of any books they had read and think about why people might object to those books. (They were surprised and rather tickled to see that two more of the books we’ll read in eighth grade English, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and To Kill a Mockingbird, made the top ten for 2011.) I will also quickly booktalk one frequently challenged book that I think students might enjoy at the beginning of each class this week. After recommending Looking for Alaska and John Green’s other novels on Monday, I told students about Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson today. I will booktalk The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky tomorrow (good timing with the movie out) and then The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Carolyn Mackler on Thursday.
What, if anything, are you doing to celebrate the freedom to read during Banned Books Week? What are your thoughts on how young people (and their parents and teachers) should figure out which books they are ready to read?