Category Archives: Books

More Than the Right to Read

This post is written by NCTE historian Jonna Perrillo.  It also appeared in Education Week’s Commentary Section on September 25.

September 25 marks the start of Banned Books Week, an annual celebration of academic freedom and students’ right to read. It is an important occasion to observe, as the Washington Post’s new motto, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” might remind us. But this year especially it should serve as an invitation to reflect on not just what young Americans read but also the ways in which they are encouraged to think and talk about books.

Students’ right to read was never in greater peril than during the 1950s. In an audacious display, parents in Oklahoma and Alabama took to burning “subversive” textbooks. Special interest groups across the nation effectively pressured schools and libraries to remove trade and textbooks that might poison students’ minds.
The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) waged its own battle in response. In 1953 it urged that during “a time of tension and fear” it was vital that teachers not become prey to “the rise of un-American tactics in public discussion and the violence of selfish interests.” Its primer for teachers on how to resist public pressure to ban books, Censorship and Controversy, set a clear, comprehensive argument for the importance of academic freedom.

In a Cold War culture that often prized conformity and opacity, teachers were in the frontlines of keeping American schools truly free.

NCTE’s attack on book banning was important but also obscured the larger problem at hand: teachers’ avoidance of anything controversial or “political” in the first place. Public education was supposed to offer students “a steadily developing understanding of life in their time, a reasonable and maturing response to this life, and full participation in it,” but too often, the organization found, teachers evaded anything potentially contentious. Parents might have called for books to be banned, but it is unclear that many teachers were assigning them anyway.

This was certainly the case with The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most contested books of the 1950s and 1960s. When NCTE endorsed it for the high school classroom in 1962, teachers roundly rejected the suggestion. “I would not consider teaching it regardless of the community’s feeling,” explained one Minnesota teacher, echoing others. “My students’ reaction would be one of embarrassment and bafflement.”

This problem is not unique to the Cold War era or to English teachers. Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson’s recent book, The Case for Contention, shows that teachers’ willingness to address controversial subjects has waxed and waned over time, but it has been consistently low since the 1980s. They argue that this is often the case because teachers are unsure how to help students work their way through questions that lack consensus or what the ends of democratic debate should be.

The problem, then, is not just a matter of the topics or texts we teach but with how we teach them. Even as reading lists and textbooks have become more inclusive, many classroom conversations remain stuck in the past.

Take, for example, the ever popular yet frequently contested To Kill a Mockingbird. How many teachers encourage students to debate the adequacy of Atticus’s moralism? How can students “walk in another person’s shoes” with schools more racially and economically segregated now than they have been in sixty years? How have the courts and criminal justice system changed and not changed in the eighty years since the novel was set? The book begs these questions precisely because it continues to be taught as a lesson in overcoming prejudice.

Instead, classroom work can often reduce potentially complex stories to easy truisms or didactic messages that compel little questioning or introspection. Students can learn to lionize Atticus without considering how privilege works in the novel and in the world. They accept his explanation that the KKK never took hold in Maycomb, even as other parts of the novel indicate that the town was ripe for organized white supremacy movements.

In missing out on more nuanced and complex conversations, students fail to learn that it is possible to question a book and still value it. And they lose an opportunity to develop a more multifaceted understanding of civic life and their role in it.

Our current political period shares several qualities with the early Cold War days, including a testing of democratic institutions, an embittered public discourse, and a regression in civil rights. Teachers know better than anyone how aware youth are of these developments and how potentially powerless they can feel in response. School, educators realized sixty years ago, should act as a counterweight, to draw students in, to teach them how to think through debates, and to empower them to participate in ways that are rational, intelligent, productive, and democratic.

Banned Books Week can and should provide educators with an opportunity to consider the books we teach and, even more, the important conversations we want them to spur. But we shouldn’t feel too comfortable or self-congratulatory. Celebrating academic freedom is about more than the right to teach texts that might offend some; it is about teachers’—and parents’—responsibility in helping students wrestle with difference and complexity without becoming offended.

Jonna Perrillo is associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and the author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity.

Words Have Power

This blog was written by Kristin Pekoll is the Assistant Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.

“The freedom to read is essential to our democracy. It is continuously under attack. Private groups and public authorities in various parts of the country are working to remove or limit access to reading materials, to censor content in schools, to label ‘controversial’ views, to distribute lists of ‘objectionable’ books or authors, and to purge libraries. These actions apparently rise from a view that our national tradition of free expression is no longer valid; that censorship and suppression are needed to counter threats to safety or national security, as well as to avoid the subversion of politics and the corruption of morals.” ALA Freedom to Read Statement

The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom tracks censorship and challenges in libraries and schools all over the country. We gather firsthand accounts of removed, restricted, or expurgated books, dismantled displays, applied warning labels, required permission slips, disinvited authors, canceled programs, and blocked internet resources.

Every year we compile the public cases into a Field Report that includes descriptions, locations, and resolutions. Most often, censorship is hidden from public awareness at all costs. With our new reporting form, there is a huge increase in the number of cases we can talk about even if they’re not reported in the news.

It’s during Banned Books Week that we highlight the value of free and open access to information and shed a light on censorship. We talk about these cases. We write about intellectual freedom. We raise our voices against restrictions on reading.

Censorship thrives in silence; silence is its aim.
—James LaRue

Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community—librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers—in shared support of the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

For Banned Books Week 2017, ALA is focusing on the power of words and the strength of voices that come together to defend books, ideas, and viewpoints. In April we released the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2016 with a few powerful infographics and an amazing video.

At least 50 percent of reported book challenges take place in school libraries and classrooms.

Paper Towns by John Green was challenged in Cumberland County School libraries in Tennessee but ultimately retained.

• In Kansas a parent requested that the Weenies series by David Lubar be removed from the middle school libraries in Lower Nazareth Township because “the chapter titles are sexually suggestive to middle-schoolers, contains anti-Christian concepts, and didn’t have happy endings.”

• Because of a complaint from a parent in Minnesota, This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki was removed from the K–12 school library. Later the school board voted to remove the book from general circulation and only provide access for tenth to twelfth graders.

• In Colorado the superintendent overruled the reconsideration committee and banned from the middle school libraries Perfect Chemistry by Simone Elkeles because of language and sexual explicitness.

• After the original Netflix series based on the novel aired, Thirteen Reasons Why was removed from the libraries of eight school districts. Three other school districts opted to retain the book despite the controversy.

George by Alex Gino has been challenged in multiple school libraries in Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, Virginia, and Maine. Most of these cases are confidential but include concerns related to the main character wishing to transition from male to female; one concern was about the use of the word porn.

• A principal in North Carolina requested that ttyl and ttfn by Lauren Myracle be removed from the school library because of “language and content.”

Each individual who demands censorship infringes on the First Amendment rights of readers. Even students. The Supreme Court held in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

Each request to remove a book eliminates the voices of storytellers and dismisses the needs of readers who find themselves in those pages. The majority of challenged and banned books include underrepresented populations. While “diversity” is seldom given as a reason for a challenge, it may in fact be an underlying and unspoken factor: the work is about people and issues others would prefer not to consider. Often, content addresses concerns of groups who have suffered historic and ongoing discrimination.

Now more than ever people are standing up against the silencing of storytellers. Most threats are unsuccessful thanks to the teachers, librarians, authors, and even kids who rise up against censorship. Their words have power. These resilient readers know that banned books benefit our worldview, our empathy, and our democracy.

Kristin Pekoll is the Assistant Director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom supporting teachers and librarians who are facing censorship. You can reach her on Twitter @kpekoll, @OIF, LinkedIn, or email kpekoll@ala.org.  

Students Have a Right and a Need to Read Diverse Books

We know our classrooms should be rich with diverse books, but we may need explanations to share with colleagues about why we choose a diverse book over an old standard and, perhaps, recommendations on which books to select and a few ideas for how we might use those texts in our classrooms. NCTE, its members, and friends offer the following.

Author Tytianna N. M. Wells Smith says, “Books must mirror the lives of readers…many students related to the stories as they reflected on their lived experiences that connect their home and school identities.”

Author and Illustrator Duncan Tunatiuh notes, “The United States is such a diverse country, and we need diverse books to reflect the different cultural experiences that children have…we need multicultural books so that different kinds of children can see themselves reflected in the books they read, and so that children can learn about people from diverse backgrounds and cultures.”

Violet Harris says, ““inclusive diversity matters.” And I use the term “inclusive” because I don’t want to push some groups to the forefront and push other groups to the back”

 

Ezra Hyland notes, “When you have children in school and the literature doesn’t look like them, it doesn’t sound like them, it does not deal with their issues, you’re pushing them out rather than inviting them in…We need diverse books because diverse books reflect the world as it is, not the way the world never was and the way the world never will be….Literature and language are life, you know.” Amiri Baraka, I heard him say one time – he was quoting someone else, paraphrasing someone else – that human beings don’t make up stories, but it’s our stories that make us human. And so literature is the repository of our stories and the repository of our humanity, a reminder of our humanity.”

Robert Needlman, a pediatrician in Cleveland, Ohio and cofounder of Reach Out and Read, talked about his approach to primary care, which puts literacy front and center by having literacy-rich waiting rooms and demonstrating to parents how to read to their children. He pointed out new evidence that literacy acquisition and listening to stories changes the structure of the human brain, contributes to the brain’s health, strengthens a child’s attachment to his or her parents, and increases overall emotional health and resilience. His concern, however, is the lack of diversity in the books he collects for his patients, who are predominantly African American.

Ellen Oh, author and CEO of We Need Diverse Books, stresses the importance of diverse literature for children of color.

 

Sybil E Durand writes, “To resist “the danger of the single story,” as Chimamanda Adichie discusses in her 2009 TED talk, we need books that tell many different kinds of stories about a particular cultural community.”

“Those of us from minority backgrounds,” note Christina V. Cedillo, “often fail to see ourselves in our school texts, let alone have opportunities to engage with the kinds of knowledge that meaningful representation makes possible. By that we mean representation that transcends mere depiction to encourage meaningful engagement with and reflection on diverse experiences and ways of knowing. As educators we must provide students with texts that reflect their respective backgrounds and engage the perspectives they bring to the classroomCoauthor Kimberly S. Covert adds, “In fostering students’ appreciation for the unique worldviews and practices integral to their home cultures, teachers can show respect for students’ “home places” and recognize their own positionality as members of cross-cultural communities (Royster, 1996). They can also advance rhetorical awareness that makes transcultural repositioning possible. Transcultural repositioning involves being able to “move back and forth with ease and comfort between and among different languages and dialects, different social classes, different cultural and artistic forms” in order to “open the door to different ways of seeing and thinking about the increasingly fluid and hybridized world that is emerging all around us” (Guerra, 2004, p. 8). Inviting Ethnic Studies into the classroom helps educators foster respectful learning environments while promoting vital communication skills.”

“I didn’t always know all of the places that I was from until I encountered them in books. I think that we can and should be intentional about including diverse lit as a matter of course whenever we discuss lit in different genres, styles, and so forth.” Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich writes.

Latrisse Johnson points out, “ In the predominantly Black high school where I am Professor in Residence and sponsor of the writing club, ELA teachers continue to teach books from the canon like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, and Of Mice and Men. And although they are great stories, they do very little when it comes to inspiring the lives of youth of color. Nor do these texts reflect the lived experiences of the students who attend the school. My issue with teaching these texts is not necessarily that they are culturally irrelevant for our students. In fact, I do not propose teaching texts just because they are diverse. Instead, as teachers and teacher educators, our selection of diverse texts must be intentional and must play a role in eradicating racial and social injustice and inequality…Teachers must choose texts with the students in mind.”

Mollie Blackburn points out, “I am one among many who have called for bringing LGBTQ-themed literature into English language arts classrooms and queering literature already there. By queering I mean interrogating the notion of normal, particularly relative to sexual identities and gender expressions, but also related to broader notions like family and friendships. Oftentimes these two suggestions get pulled apart, as if teachers can or even should do one or the other, but I think they go hand-in-hand.” U

Bring your students a little “bookjoy,” as Pat Mora calls it, not only on El día de los niños/El día de los libros but all year long