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Books That Get Backs Up

convention bookmarkIt’s no mystery that certain books are challenged more often than others. But what’s interesting to contemplate is why. Are they books that represent issues that are too challenging for some? Are they books that have appeared on someone’s “hit list”? Are they books that just get taught more? Truth is all these reasons are possible and probably a few more.

What is certain is that nearly all challenged books are good literature that draws readers in through the gut-gripping humanity of the characters and the issues they face. Take, for instance, The Catcher in the Rye, anything Judy Blume, Walter Dean Myers, or John Green. Or how about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Beloved, anything Chris Crutcher, and Fun Home.

These books that get some adults’ backs up are also books that are extremely meaningful to kids.

In 1986, Judy Blume gathered Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You. She wrote in the Introduction:

“…In 1971 I received my first letter from a young reader. She was 13 and she wrote to tell me that she was exactly like the character of Margaret in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret…Somehow between then and now [1986], the number of kids who write to me has grown to nearly two thousand each month.”

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was the most censored book of 2014 for “anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence… depictions of bullying,” yet a 17-year-old reviewer on Common Sense Media says the following:

“…Bullying and racism come together in the story because Arnold gets bullied in the Rez because of his brain damage and his lisp, while at Reardan, he gets bullied because he is the only Indian boy at the school. Where I can relate to this book is because I have been bullied once due to how I look. It was just looks in general, I am still made fun of because of how I look every now and then but I ignore that and try not to make a scene out of the situation. I also relate to how he feels when losing someone special to you can take a toll on your life and make you really depressed, knowing that someone in your family, or a friend of yours is gone…”

A parent reviewer of the same book notes:

“Some educational value does not compensate for a low reading level crass and vulgar book. I read this book because it was on my son’s school required reading list. I felt it was incredibly juvenile for a 10th grade honors English class. The swearing was bothersome but not a deal-killer. Then I got to the masturbation discussion that went on for over a page. Flipping through it I found a variety of sexually related musings. This is like handing my son an R-rated movie with sexual detail and saying it’s okay because the historical aspect is good. Students could learn the cultural and social aspects without reading the vulgarity.”

How do we negotiate these differences of opinion so young readers can read books that prove important to them? Here are a few rules of the road:

• Know your school’s policy – you can usually find this on the district website under school board policies on instruction and curriculum.
• Let parents know how you feel about literacy – see Why Penny Kittle Won’t Censor Books.
• Have a rationale for the text you’re teaching.
• Remember that parents can object to a text for their own student but not for everyone else’s.
• Take time to listen to the parent—often that’s all they want—and to assuage their fears about the power of words over their student—help them see this as a positive.
• Be prepared to offer an alternative if necessary and warranted (e.g. IB and AP texts probably should stand).