8 Reasons Why I Teach Banned Books… and You Should Too

8 Reasons Why I Teach Banned Books

It seems like every year a new book makes the news for being challenged or banned by a school. Books that have been banned run the gamut from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn to The Holy Bible. While some parents and teachers have legitimate concerns, others have less valid reasons (a library patron in Toronto, Canada wanted to ban Hop on Pop because it encouraged children to use violence against their fathers). Regardless of whether books contain controversial content, they should still be accessible to students. Here are eight reasons why banned books should be accessible to students.

They Challenge Students to Consider Alternate Viewpoints

As a parent, your first instinct is often to shield your children from things you don’t want them to see, but you can’t hide the world from your children forever. Banned books are often challenged because they contain controversial content or don’t mesh with adults’ beliefs, but that doesn’t always mean they’re bad. Instead of simply banning a book that contains an alternate viewpoint, use the book as an opportunity to safely expose students to that viewpoint. While reading the book, use reading response activities to discuss what’s controversial about it and why people might disagree with the actions or viewpoints held in the book. If you’re a parent whose child has to read a book for school that you don’t agree with, read the book with your child and talk to him/her about the content. Explain to your child why you don’t agree with it and encourage your child to share his/her thoughts too.

They Introduce Students to Diverse Characters

Often children live in their own little world where their friends and family members largely think and act like they do. While there are some exceptions to this rule, most children don’t get the opportunity to experience people and places that aren’t familiar to them. Many books have been banned throughout history because they contain diverse characters that children may not have encountered before. For example, the book Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story from Afghanistan was challenged because the main character says a prayer to Allah in the book and the picture book And Tango Makes Three was challenged because the main characters are two male penguins who raise a chick together.

It’s important to remember that reading a book with diverse characters doesn’t mean you support those characters’ lifestyles or thoughts. Reading books with diverse characters can help students understand the different types of people that exist in the world and help them better prepare to interact with those people when they encounter them.

They Take Students Out of their Comfort Zone

Why are most books banned? Some of the most common reasons are because they include:

  • racial themes
  • alternative lifestyles
  • inappropriate language
  • unpopular religious views
  • sexual or violent content
  • unpopular political views
  • references to witchcraft or the occult
  • characters doing drugs or smoking

All of these reasons for banning books have one thing in common: they make people uncomfortable. It’s not fun to feel uncomfortable. It’s not fun to read something that takes you out of your comfort zone or challenges you to look at a situation differently, but it happens a lot in life and it’s bound to happen to children at one point or another. Should third graders be required to read books that contain excessive violence or sexual references? No. Should an eleventh or twelfth grader? Maybe. Because the eleventh or twelfth grader is about to enter a world where these issues will appear and what better place to practice being taken out of your comfort zone than in the safety of the classroom or your own home?

They Teach Valuable Lessons

In addition to taking children out of their comfort zones, banned books can often teach valuable lessons about identity, tolerance, or even freedom. For example, the book The Art of Racing in the Rain teaches readers a valuable lesson about the grieving process. The book The Working Poor: Invisible in America teaches a lesson about the real problems the working poor in America face. Brave New World teaches students about the extremes of passion and offers a bleak view of the future that students can connect to the future of the world. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has been banned numerous times its use of the n word, despite being regarded as one of the most valuable pieces of American literature.

They Can Be Interpreted in Multiple Ways

A book that is banned in one school or district may be perfectly acceptable in another. Take the case of Hop on Pop. One person in Toronto thought it advocated violence against fathers, but how many others have read the book and seen something completely different. What about the book And Tango Makes Three? Are children likely to see it as more than a story about a family of penguins? You could write a book with nothing offensive in it and, as a adults, we are often more likely to find offensive content than children.

They May Be Banned for Silly Reasons

Sometimes this also leads to books being banned for silly reasons. Did you know Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic was once banned in an elementary school because it encouraged children to break dishes instead of dry them? The popular Harriet the Spy was once banned because Harriet is a spy and being a spy means that she occasionally lies and gets into mischief. Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret was banned because it talked about a girl getting her period. Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Bill Martin was banned because an author with the same name wrote a book about Marxism. Before you turn down a book because it has been banned, consider the reason it was banned. You may realize you were avoiding a book for no good reason at all.

They Are Often Great Books

Frankly, no one takes the time to ban a bad book. Not usually anyway. Books become banned because they become popular and fall into the hands of a diverse group of people. At some point, they’re bound to offend one of those people. Some of history’s greatest authors – Toni Morrison, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Judy Blume – have written books that have been banned. By refusing to teach or let children read banned books, you’re often causing them to miss out on great writing.

They Promote Free Speech

But at the end of the day, the main reason to teach banned books is because books should never be banned in the first place. If you live in the United States, you know that one of the greatest freedoms you have is the right to free speech. Banning a book suppresses the author’s right to free speech and also suppresses students’ right to access media. Yes, a book may be inappropriate for a particular age group or it may contain controversial content, but banning books is a form of a censorship, the same censorship people decry in third world countries, the same censorship that is warned against in books like Fahrenheit 451:

“Black people don’t like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead he’s on his way to the Big Flute, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country. Ten minutes after a man’s speck of black dust. Let’s not quibble over individuals with memoriams. Forget them. Burn all, burn everything. Fire is bright and fire is clean.”

The solution to handling books that contain content someone doesn’t like isn’t to ban them. Instead, teachers and parents can use these books as a learning tool and discuss them with children in a safe environment. That doesn’t mean you have to read all controversial books, but it does mean you shouldn’t avoid everything just because someone says it’s no good.

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8 Responses to “8 Reasons Why I Teach Banned Books… and You Should Too”

  1. Gail says:

    I completely agree with this article. I once taught in a school system where the superintendent pulled the book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” because it talked about “body parts”. An excerpt of this book was in our 9th grade anthology, that had been adopted by the school board. After much to do, we finally were able to teach the book again. Just one small person’s perception almost denied our students’ right to read an awesome book.

    • StacyZeiger says:

      As educators, particularly English educators, our job is largely to teach students how to think critically, and that means exposing to different information and viewpoints. Does a parent have a right to say, “I don’t think this book is appropriate for my child”? Certainly, but we’d also hope that decision would be made based on a critical analysis, not just something “they heard” and as educators, we’d encourage them to see the merits of the text beyond the issue.

    • Dorothy says:

      All kidding aside (and that is very difficult for me) I ordinarily don’t enjoy first person narrative. But I am reading a zombie novel entitled Feed that is first person and I am enjoying it very much.

  2. Zayda Miranda says:

    I definitely agree with your comment, we need to go beyond the opinion of others and see for ourselves. Thanks.

    • StacyZeiger says:

      And teach our students to do that too! It’s a little harder when they’re younger and we just want to “protect” them, but by high school we should be encouraging that in healthy ways. They’re old enough to read something and form an opinion of “that’s inappropriate” or “I don’t agree with that” once they read it.

  3. Vickie Bullins says:

    Don’t forget Harry Potter what would the world have missed if it had been banned as some wanted. I couldn’t begin to count all the Readers these books created.

  4. Lisa says:

    Essentially what we are teaching is EMPATHY for one another. Call it viewpoint or perspective, it is essential being able to think out side of the box.

  5. Gary Archibeck says:

    The issue is not the book. The issue is the relationship between the teacher, students, and parents. Some battles are worth fighting while others are not. Our jobs as teachers, especially English teachers, is to value the young person in the class and, by extension, their parents. If we can maintain and honor these relationships, we can challenge any fear, any mores. If we move beyond the relationship for the sake of, perhaps, indoctrination, we fail in our task. Our profession must be centered on the building and encouraging of young minds. Critical thinking is a subsidiary.

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