Banned Books Week 3: Context

Part of my continuing series of posts on Banned Books Week, which calls attention to information access, censorship, and other related issues.

Today, I want to talk about context – in two different ways. One is about what the resource is used for, and the other is what the resource is about.

Use:

I’ve been seeing a trend in recent challenges – a number of recent ones are challenges to a book as a required reading (class assignment), reading list selection (where students pick a book off a list and read it) or a suggest reading list (like over the summer.)

In the first choice, students don’t have much option in the assigned title. In the other two, they do – but you’ve got a few other challenges.

But, at the same time, when you’re teaching it in a class situation, you;ve got a lot of potential opportunities for conversation about the book – including any disturbing parts of the book – and a chance to put them into appropriate context.

To highlight a recent challenge: a recent one to Huckleberry Finn in a Twin Cities suburb kept the book, but they’re carefully revamping some of the surrounding teaching material to give better understanding to the issues of racism and to better support students who find it distressing. I think that’s a very reasonable response (though I do tend to think there should be ways to start that discussion without formally challenging the book!)

Personally, I think the point of choosing from a list is to provide choice – as long as there are options there that avoid the likely reasons that someone might be particularly uncomfortable (graphic sex, violence, etc.) and as long as the other choices are appropriate to the reason you’re doing this in class.

The other kind of context:

One really common reason for challenge is that bad and undesireable things happen in the book. However, the protagonist(s) or other major approaches in the book make it clear that these things are not desireable.

There are many examples. Lois Lowry’s The Giver, which is dystopian, has a number of scenes that are very uncomfortable – euthanasia shots given to the elderly and to infants who fail to thrive in accordance with the society’s guidelines being just one of them.

But here’s the thing. The main character is also disturbed by these things. (And increasingly so, as the book goes on, and he becomes more and more aware of what they mean.) The entire book is, so to speak, about how that’s not a good way to run a society.

Another example is books about bullying – The Chocolate War, Chris Crutcher’s Whale Talk, and many others. Bullying is a horrible thing. But how do you get the emotional impact across, how do you portray it in a reasonable way, if you leave out all the nasty words and insults? Obviously, this depends somewhat on the writer’s style and structure of the story – but chances are, you’re going to need to have some uncomfortable stuff in there. And yet, you need that stuff to have a story that talks about coming out on the other side of bullying as a whole person.

The last major category is historical – a number of books are challenged because they portray historical events… well, accurately. While this is disturbing, isn’t it even more disturbing to avoid talking about things that actually happened to people because they might be upsetting.

(And if you look at the stats, a sizeable percentage of these challenges relate to African American experiences, which is a whole added issue. The fact that Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is challenged for including descriptions of sexual abuse, racism, and other horrible things appalls me. If someone has to live through it, shouldn’t they get to decide how to tell that story?)

Why was this thing challenged?

There are books in the library I’m sitting in right now (about 12,000 items – and about 1,500 of those are videos and DVDs, and 1,000 or so are fiction) that talk about genocide. About rape. About incest. About brutality. About sexuality – both postive and negative experiences. About racism. About violence. And about pretty much every other horrible thing that human beings have done and continue to do.

We also have books about love. About tenderness. About healthy communities. About making the world a better place. About learning. About creating change. About art and music and dance and pottery. About dreams.

Some of the books in the first list are also in the second list.

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