This is a strange time to be literary.
I have an intrinsic desire to share all the amazing books I have read with absolutely everyone I know. Like Whitman, I want to “sound my barbaric yawp from the rooftops of the world” when I truly love a book.
But sometimes I feel like I shouldn’t.
I am not allowed.
We live in an over protective society that has built glass walls around our children. Of the many issues I have with this fact, the censorship of books is at the top of my list.
It is a struggle, as a teacher, to know how a student, a parent, or a colleague is going to react to my choice of reading material. I have been approached because The Call of the Wild is too difficult for a vegetarian to read, Peter Pan has the word “orgy” in it, and the concern that Harry Potter is not, in fact, appropriate literature for private school students. Everything is a touchy subject with someone. Luckily, I have not had to stop teaching a book. I am fortunate.
Recently, a third grade teacher in North Carolina resigned after receiving little support from his school board for his read aloud of King and King, a picture book addressing the presence of same-sex marriages in our contemporary society. In the same week, a college student and her parents asked for the “eradication” of seminal graphic novels: Fun Home, Persepolis and Sandman (in a graphic novel English course, by the way), because she found the content too sexually explicit and violent.
She said she was expecting Batman and Robin, she obviously hasn’t read The Killing Joke, but I digress…. She, and her parents, called the books garbage.
They are among three of my favourite books, and since I consider myself to be quite literary, I refuse to accept the undignified slander she and her parents impose upon them. A word of wisdom, one needn’t like everything, but one should not insult nor eradicate books that bring pleasure to others.
If only more people were so obliging.
There was a time when teaching was content oriented and teacher centric. This is no longer the case. I teach the kids I have in front of me, I decide the content once I know them. Since the 1960’s teachers have been introducing kids to books that speak to them, about their lives, feelings and pressing social concerns. We treat the students as people who should be heard, who have an opinion. Trust me, teaching them this way is much more enjoyable for them and for us as teachers. The discussion is rich and engaging, and if we can successfully address some metaphor and alliteration along the way, bonus! Teachers are yearning to give their students choices for reading and a platform to sound their voices in the hallways of their schools, but those academic institutions who are slow on this transition are letting books be banned, and worse, are letting good teachers go as a result.
We are no longer teaching our students to anticipate the adult lives of the middle-class European white man or woman. We are teaching them to be global citizens who are aware of the ever-shrinking world we live in; aware of the connectivity between countries, classes, regions, religions, and culture. Our North American countries are increasingly becoming multicultural. They are becoming more accepting of sexuality and gender equality. Why should our youth not be allowed to read books that address these contemporary issues?
Even in libraries, some school library technicians I know are putting books behind their counters and in the office off the floor because parents do not want their kids exposed to the gruesome realities of mummification or the busting bosoms of caricatures in comic books.
I look at the list of most banned books, scanning titles like, Of Mice and Men, I know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Catcher in the Rye, and Lord of the Flies, and I am disheartened, knowing that the opportunity for some youth to enjoy these books has vanished.
This year, Sherman Alexi’s book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, was the most banned book in North America. I love this book. I would teach this book. I recommend it to anyone who will listen to me talk about it. But many feel it is inappropriate because it deals with bullying, drugs and alcohol, and sexuality. It also addresses some racial tension between American aboriginal people and European descendants, an issue I suspect has more to do with it’s banning than the few passages about sex. The sad truth is that in the curriculum students do not get a real glimpse into the hardships suffered by the aboriginal people in North America. God forbid we should try to rectify that problem by reading a book about them by a member of their own community.
I feel bad for the kids growing up today. When I was a preteen I was fully immersed in overtly sexual films like Grease and Dirty Dancing. My parents bought me the movie, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, for Christmas when I was twelve. I understood Romeo and Juliet before the end of elementary school and loafed with Walt Whitman before I was old enough to legally drive. I read contentious material, and I grew up fine. Much better than my students who live in glass houses.
It is a strange time to be literary; the adults of our world are attacking so much of the quality literature available to us, to kids, for being too something-or-other. The adults are put off by the words in these books. The kids aren’t. The kids are excited by them, they long for them.
What are the adults so afraid of?
I hope I am always the teacher who shares these books with the students who need them.
I hope I can guide their understanding of the world around them when the other adults in their lives refuse to, and in the process, I hope these kids learn to love to read.
By Leigha Chiasson-Locke