“Why are we allowed to read this…?”

Pretty soon, I’ll post the final installment of my series on engagingly fallible first-person narrators, but in the wake of Banned Books Week last week, I wanted to post something else while it’s fresh in my mind.

After A.S. King visited my school last spring and gave three amazing presentations to grades 7-9, several students read one or more of her books. The other eighth grade English teacher and I love her novel Everybody Sees the Ants and wanted to capitalize on students’ excitement after the visit. We got permission to teach Everybody Sees the Ants in eighth grade English this year, and we just started the book at the end of last week.

Students are very enthusiastic about reading the book, but a couple of interesting comments from students have gotten me thinking. Yesterday, an eighth grader who is not in my class told me that she really likes Everybody Sees the Ants so far “even though it’s kind of inappropriate.” When I pressed her on what she meant by “inappropriate,” she referred to some curse words early in the novel. And then one student in my class came in today and asked, “Why are we allowed to read this when there are some curse words and stuff in it, but we get in trouble for swearing and we’re not allowed to play songs with curse words at school dances?”

That’s not an easy question to answer, but I think it’s an important one to address. So I ended up dropping part of the lesson I had planned today and asking the student to pose his question to the class. Here’s what my eighth grade students came up with:

  • Audience matters. Dances include 6th-8th graders, but our English class only includes 8th graders.

  • What you read is different from what you say. It’s not okay to direct curse words at other people, but when you’re reading a fictional story that includes curse words, that’s not the same as directing those words at other people, and that doesn’t encourage you to direct curse words at other people.

  • Most middle schoolers have seen and heard “worse” than what’s included in edgy YA novels.

  • The topic/message/theme matters. Some songs have negative messages that are demeaning to women, for example, but YA books usually have positive messages.

  • Language should match content. Certain stories are going to need curse words in order to be realistic. A.S. King couldn’t have believably written about Nader McMillan, the bully character in Everybody Sees the Ants, without including some swearing.

  • Context matters. You can’t take the curse words in a novel out of context; you need to look at why they’re there.

  • It’s different to read a book in English class, when the teacher has some control because he/she has read the book before assigning it and can lead discussions, than to play a song at a dance, because teachers wouldn’t have time to listen to each song beforehand and decide if each one is okay or not.

What do you think? Anything you’d add to my students’ list of reasons why they are allowed to read a book like Everybody Sees the Ants (or John Green’s Paper Towns or Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, both of which they’ll read later this year) when they aren’t allowed to use or play songs with curse words in other situations? Any other thoughts on the challenges of giving books with mature content or language to adolescent readers?

Also, my eighth grade students were primed for this discussion because last week, in honor of Banned Books Week, they read this article about Rainbow Rowell’s novel Eleanor and Park, which was challenged by a group of parents in Minnesota, and this report from the Parents’ Action League that was behind the challenge. I highly recommend checking out both links.

And, um…don’t get used to me updating this blog daily. I’m not sure what got into me, posting two days in a row! But I’ll soon get back to my every-other-week-ish schedule.

Responses to ““Why are we allowed to read this…?””

  1. sandranickel

    Along with your 5th point, I would say that stories are our windows to different worlds, our chance to understand others. If we want to see and understand how other people live, the glass needs to be perfectly transparent. No rose tint. No patches of paper taped here and there. I didn’t grow up on a reservation and I’ve never lived with an abusive stepfather, so if I am going to understand those worlds–understand them as best as I can–then I want and need to see them as they really are. That might mean hearing a character say words I don’t say. That might mean facing violence I haven’t personally endured. But to connect and understand, I will need to be exposed to that which is not part of my own world.

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  2. Nicole Valentine (@nicoleva)

    Excellent post, Laurie. It got me thinking. Words become part of a toolbox… of sorts. They can help you further define or clarify, amplify an emotion, and some words when used can be damaging. It’s important to have someone show you a tool, how it’s used and what damage it can do before you pick it up yourself.

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