Category Archives: Intellectual Freedom

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 These actions apparently rise from a view that our national tradition of free expression is no longer valid; that censorship and suppression are needed to counter threats to safety or national security, as well as to avoid the subversion of politics and the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  

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

Students’ Right to Read Challenged Books

This blog was written by member Michelle Bulla.

Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc and destruction in the Caribbean and battered the Southeast, where my in-laws, cousins, and millions of others sheltered like so many sitting ducks, directly in the line of an unstoppable leviathan. Feeling powerless as it happened, we held our breath against the wrath of Mother Nature’s terrifying aggression.

Teachers may feel a comparable sense of helplessness in the face of rising challenges and complaints against our work.

Case in point: I presumed that by now—actually, by the point I started teaching in the late 1990s—banned books would be a thing of the past. Unfortunately, they’re not.

While in my district we’re fortunate to have a supportive administration and a progressive approach toward selection and access to a wide range of material, that doesn’t mean parents have ceased to request different titles when they perceive inappropriateness in the match between text and student.

Luckily, the rate of such requests is low. However, rather than decreasing over time, requests are holding steady. I suspect it has something to do with recent shifts in pedagogy to increase the relevancy of texts to our students’ lives and to our increasing desire to dramatically raise the level of student choice in text selection.

These are only two pieces of the puzzle, in my opinion, but they can be rather sticky. In many districts, educators have worked hard to expand their literary repertoire beyond the classics of the past. Catcher in the Rye, The Crucible, Night, and Romeo and Juliet are alive and well still; however, they are no longer the only texts students may be reading. Teachers are exposing students to a diversity of recently published works and giving them choice in what they read. In fact, it’s common in my high school for students to be reading multiple texts for English class, one as a whole-class text and another as an independent, student-chosen text.

This expansion is a result of the dedication to increase the volume of student reading and is inspired by pedagogues such as Penny Kittle, Kylene Beers, Ernest Morrell, and others. At my high school, we’ve employed several tactics to achieve this goal, three in particular: engage in and encourage independent reading, build classroom libraries to increase exposure and access, and facilitate choice in text selection.

So far these strategies are working well. However, we do still experience parental requests for alternatives. Some recently offending titles include Angela’s Ashes, Night, Radiance of Tomorrow, and Go Ask Alice. Reasons for opposition range from offensive language to sexual explicitness to foreign content to raw descriptions of drug use. In some cases, teachers have been able to convince parents that the scenes and offending components in question ground the stories in reality and create relevance for our teenagers; in other cases, teachers have not been able to persuade parents and instead assigned a different title to that student.

Books are challenged all the time. The American Library Association (ALA) recently published a list of the Top Ten Challenged Books of 2016, 50 percent of which were challenged because they contained LGBT characters, themes, and viewpoints. Previous lists reveal similarities and a penchant for challenge in the name of sexually explicit material or scenes.

Defending free expression and access in the classroom may not be isolated to books. These materials may now include films, social media, websites, political speeches, and any other “text” one might imagine, including teaching methods. If you find yourself in a position of defense, NCTE can help. The organization’s Intellectual Freedom Center has resources to equip educators with tools to defend and advocate for choices and pedagogy designed to generate critical and informed thinkers.

English teachers are not alone in this. As political tensions continue to rise, across the country people are exercising their right to freedom of expression by advocating for everything from alternative texts to teaching materials, pedagogical decisions, and school policies, including who can or cannot use a particular bathroom. If our goal is to create an informed, intelligent, democratic, and globally minded society, we must continue to explore topics, ideologies, and texts that challenge us all to see beyond our own lives.

Additionally, the fact that our students are experiencing anxiety and depression at record rates may perhaps be connected to shielding them from some of life’s difficulties and from silencing them. Diverse texts act as mirrors for students who frequently are not represented in mainstream texts, as well as opportunities to help create empathy for others, letting students “practice” hard choices safely as they face a diverse society.

Thus, we work to create citizens who, having processed complex materials and harnessed that power, are empowered to build a better society. We do that by giving them the tools to understand the world they come from and the world they have yet to see. We do that by challenging them, stretching minds and hearts and spirits outside their comfort zones, outside safe havens, and into the maelstrom of their lives. We do that by arming them with sophisticated ideas, a broad understanding of differing ideologies, and an ability to make critical and complex decisions by thinking carefully about what is right and why.

In the face of strife, human made or otherwise, the human spirit always rises up, preparing us to weather the storms of our lives and then to plod on. We hold fast to hope, as more is always on the horizon; our changing world continues to challenge us each day. We must face it together, courageously, resisting the desire to shield ourselves or our students from knowledge and experiences that enable us all to grow.

Michelle G.Bulla  has been an English teacher at Monroe-Woodbury High School at the foot of the Catskills in New York for over 20 years, where she also serves as 9-12 Department Chair. She is Past President of NYSEC, the NY affiliate of NCTE, where she continues to serve on the Executive Board. Find her on Twitter @china93doll

Be Part of the Conversation

This blog is written by Aaron Wiles to share how he introduced to parents a unit he does with his middle schoolers during Banned Books Week .

I sent this letter out to students and parents in an effort to educate, to build awareness, and to invite everyone in our school community to be part of an ongoing global conversation. My hope with the unit is to create positive change and to expose my students to new worlds and new perspectives.

Dear Parents and/or Guardians,

I would like to take this time to inform you about our next unit and encourage you to participate with our school in celebrating the right to read. This year, the American Library Association along with the National Council of Teachers of English and the Banned Books Week Coalition are continuing their efforts to celebrate our right to read and speak out against censorship. As 8th graders, students will be reading literature from the banned and challenged reading lists provided by the ALA, as well as participating in activities that promote freedom of speech, the right to read, and the importance of free thought.

The practice of challenging and banning literature is an ongoing struggle in our society. Part of my purpose in teaching this topic is to bring awareness to the issue for my students and allow them the opportunity to form their own opinions about the subject. Students will have their own free choice as to which book they select from the list to read in class. These books are pieces of literature that can be found here at school, at our local booksellers, and our local libraries. Once the books are selected, students will be participating in rich discussion and activities surrounding the ideas of freedom of speech, the importance of the written word, and the impact that reading, writing and communicating have on the world.

Our hope is that you will engage in open conversation with your students about what they are learning, so that we can continue to grow together as a community of learners. Also, please have conversation with your students about which books on the list would be appropriate for them. The list is posted on our Google Classroom page. We will be working, discussing, and celebrating here at school, so we would love it if that would continue at home as well.

I have attached links below that can provide you with more information about Banned Books Week and the Celebration of Our Right to Read. Please do not hesitate to email me if you have any questions or need further clarification about the unit.


Aaron Wiles
Teacher- 8th Grade ELA
Southridge Middle School

Useful and informative links:

Grade Level Booklist
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Call of the Wild by Jack London
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
Go Ask Alice by Anonymous
My Brother Sam Is Dead by James Lincoln Collier
The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler
Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging by Louise Rennison
Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher
Athletic Shorts by Chris Crutcher
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes by Chris Crutcher
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissenger
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
Cujo by Stephen King
Forever by Judy Blume
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
I Am Jazz  by Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings
George by Alex Gino
Looking for Alaska by John Green
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Advanced Booklist
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
1984 by George Orwell
Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Native Son by Richard Wright
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Black Boy by Richard Wright
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot


Aaron Wiles is an 8th grade ELA teacher at Southridge Middle School in Huntingburg, Indiana. He loves teaching, learning, reading, nature, rock climbing, his girlfriend, and his dog (noting not in order of importance) 🙂

Banned Books Week 2017: Resources from NCTE

“Censorship is like the monster
under the bed. You never know what
will trigger it, and you’ve got to be
ready.” —ReLeah Cossett Lent

Banned Books Week, which runs September 24-September 30 this year, is the annual celebration of the freedom to read. For this year’s celebration, NCTE and the coalition of organizations that sponsors Banned Books Week will emphasize the importance of the First Amendment, which guarantees our inherent right to read . NCTE’s Intellectual Freedom Center offers advice, helpful documents, and other support to teachers and schools faced with challenges to texts or teaching methods used in their classrooms and schools.

The NCTE Principles for Intellectual Freedom in Education were approved by the NCTE Executive Committee in February 2014. These state, “All students have the right to materials and educational experiences that promote open inquiry, critical thinking, diversity in thought and expression, and respect for others. Denial or restriction of this right is an infringement of intellectual freedom.” NCTE encourages school communities to generate, implement, and follow policies and procedures for defending intellectual freedom at the classroom, institution, and system/campus levels to limit and/or address attacks on free expression. The following principles support the inclusion of agency, fairness, and multiple perspectives in the process of defending intellectual freedom in education. Each of these principles has been linked with resources that may help in your classroom.

The preservation of intellectual freedom in education depends upon the fostering of democratic values in the classroom, critical thinking stances and practices among teachers and students, open inquiry methods and access to information, and the exploration of multiple points of view.
The lesson plan A Case for Reading—Examining Challenged and Banned Books introduces students to censorship and then invites them to read a challenged book and decide for themselves what should be done with the book at their school.

As trained professionals, educators are qualified to select appropriate classroom materials and resources from a variety of sources given their teaching goals and the needs and interests of the students they serve.
The Language Arts article “Focus on Policy: Intellectual Freedom” outlines details on banning incidents from this decade, the importance of selection, and suggestions for overcoming text challenges. The article includes sidebars that list additional resources.

The Guidelines for Selection of Materials in English Language Arts Programs presents criteria and procedures that ensure thoughtful teacher selection of novels and other materials.

Professional educators, drawing upon their training and content knowledge, should play an integral role in the curriculum design process at the district and school levels.
NCTE crafted a Resolution on the “Critical Role of Teachers in the Selection and Implementation of Reading Programs and Policies.” This resolution reasserts the authority of teachers as professionals who make substantive decisions regarding literacy materials and instruction.

Educational communities should prepare for challenges to intellectual freedom with clearly defined policies and procedures that guide the review of classroom materials and resources called into question. In the creation and enactment of these policies and procedures, educators’ knowledge and expertise should be solicited as integral, valuable, and necessary.
As defenders of the right to read, today’s teachers find themselves navigating both new and old challenges to the intellectual choices available to this generation. “Defending the Right to Read: A Modern Tale” shares a contemporary story of two educators who put their students’ freedoms first.

“Any book with any ideas of value
is probably going to be challenged
because somebody doesn’t like what’s
being said.”
—Kim Chism Jasper