Monday, September 2, 2013

Banning Books vs. Curating Them

by R.C. Lewis

Banned Books Week is coming up later this month, and I found myself thinking about it months early. First off, I suggest you take a look at this post by author Robison Wells.

Like Mr. Wells, I live in a Land of Much Conservatism and Religiosity. (Wait, spell-check says "religiosity" is really a word? Cool.) Sometimes I love it, and sometimes I find myself throwing little "hey, let's think outside the box" ideas into the mix. When I got my publishing deal, I paused. I consider my work "relatively clean," but I know no religion-based publisher would touch my books with a ten-foot bookshelf.

Not like my characters cuss up a storm—just doesn't fit for me. But I've used all the words Mr. Wells rattled off for Variant at one time or another, plus a couple more. No sex, and the violence isn't super-gory/graphic. I'd consider the bulk of my work to be on the light side of PG-13, at most.

I know there are parents who would be horrified to have their children read it.

That's their prerogative. I don't get to say how they should or shouldn't raise their kids. When my students find out I have a book coming out next year, many get excited and swear they'll read it. Since one of the English teachers last year had their classes read Divergent without difficulty, I figure it'll mostly be okay.

Where the "book appropriateness" issue gets sticky for me isn't as an author—it's as a teacher.

As a math teacher, I don't typically have to worry about it much. Not like I regularly assign a whole class to read a book and get irate parents protesting what their child is being forced to read. But this year we've re-instituted DEAR time (Drop Everything And Read), and to keep mobs of "forgetful" students from flooding the media center every day, each teacher has set up a small classroom library for students to pull from as needed.

We had a book drive with a ton of donations to help stock everyone up, but I didn't bother with the donations. I have enough MG and YA books to stock several such classroom libraries, and once I've read them myself, I don't mind them diving into the rough-and-tumble of junior high students.

But I have a problem. My own literary tastes and tolerances are very liberal by local standards. My mother always trusted me to choose my own reading material. When the high school English teacher sent a permission slip home to determine whether I'd read the assigned book or a provided alternative, Mom's response was, "Why wouldn't I let you read that? *signs*"

There are things that happen even in our happy community that I often feel don't get acknowledged/discussed enough. Poverty, racism, bullying, and abuse are some of the first that come to mind. Some parents may say, "We know terrible things are in the world. That doesn't mean our children should be hit in the face with it gratuitously." To which I would say, I guarantee their child is sitting in a classroom with several people who are hit in the face with it every day. It's not gratuitous; it's their reality. And we often don't know it because who would want to admit to their own darkness in setting where such things are only acknowledged in the very-abstract?

On the other hand, I wouldn't want anyone to be blindsided by an F-bomb or sex scene if they weren't comfortable reading such things.

Because lugging books from my house to the second floor of the school is a pain, I've been doing it in installments anyway. So far, I've only brought books that our school library carries. They've already been vetted, so I know I'm "safe" there.

Part of me says I could just stick with that. It's more than enough books for just a little classroom library.

But guess what's not in our school library? The Fault in Our Stars. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Want to Go Private?

Those three books were in my classroom when I previously taught high school at a school for the deaf. The first became an instant favorite for a girl whose pretty much defying her life expectancy since the day she was born. The second I got into the hands of one of my Native American boys who had a hard time pushing himself to read novels. The third made one of my senior girls give up Facebook for over a month and sparked discussions about how smart people can still do stupid things.

Those books and others in my personal collection could be of value to students. Not necessarily the obvious "life-changing" type books, either. The Perfect Chemistry series by Simone Elkeles? Devoured by a girl who hated reading (because it's difficult for her). And plenty of students either don't belong to the majority culture or are more flexible in the media they take in.

So what do I do as I curate my classroom's library? Honestly, when it comes to a lot of my books, I can't remember whether there are any "potentially offensive" bits in there. These kids are 14-15 years old, so I believe they can be responsible for their own reading choices.

I'm considering a color-coding system. Green for books that are duplicated in the school library. Yellow for books that aren't in the school library, but I feel are likely fine by the library's standards. And red for books I know have definite "red-flag" content for the very conservative or sensitive among us.

(You know, those red-tag books will probably get some of the most reluctant readers to dive in, looking for the "bad" stuff. Ulterior motives, Ms. Lewis?)

Like I said, I don't want anyone blindsided by something they'd rather not see.

I also don't want to deny students access to a wide variety of books.

Nor do I want the headache of facing irate parents. But of the three, I'd rather handle this last one, if I have to choose.

Do you have any ideas or advice for me in keeping the balance ... and the peace?

R.C. Lewis teaches math to teenagers—sometimes in sign language, sometimes not—so whether she's a science geek or a bookworm depends on when you look. She also moonlights as a rabble-rouser in her spare time. Her debut novel Stitching Snow is coming from Disney-Hyperion in 2014. You can find R.C. on Twitter (@RC_Lewis) and at her website.


Jemi Fraser said...

It's a dilemma for sure. I've taught several grades, but for the last few years I've taught grades 5/6. I kept my class library from when I taught grade 8 and never had a problem. I have a few book bins with the more intense YA books that I ask the kids to check with me before they read but I pretty much leave the access open and I've never had any issues with parents. For the most part if it's too much for them they drop it quickly anyway. Good luck with your system - bet those reds get lots of picks :)

Mindy McGinnis said...

Great post... yeah it's not easy. Knowing your students is the first step. Just by already knowing them you are pretty aware of what they can handle and don't want to be exposed to. I find in my librarian-ship the best thing to do is to be up front and say, "Hey, just so you know, there's this, that, or the other in here." Usually it doesn't matter, but sometimes a kid will be like, "Oh. I totally don't want this book then." And that's fine - I'll find them something. As with most things, I've found that honesty is pretty much the best policy.

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Gina Gao said...

This post brings up many good points! There are many parents who would ban books because they're not age appropriate.