This post is in response to a book challenge at a local public school. Here’s the introduction to blog post written by a parent of a child in the AP Literature class under scrutiny:
The following letter was written in response to a situation unfolding at my high-school-age daughter’s school. In short, a group of parents are trying to remove several books from an Advanced Placement Literature class, despite the class being voluntary and parents being provided with a detailed syllabus prior to the start of the year. After a few outspoken parents protested, a committee meeting was held, at which the parents protesting had the opportunity to speak. This meeting, held at the curious time of 5:00PM (prohibitively early for me to attend, and, I assume, many other working parents), did not allow parents with opposing viewpoints to address the committee. Teachers were allowed the opportunity to defend their curricula, however, and other parents were allowed to submit written opinions.
Sadly, this drama is all-too familiar. Books such as Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse-Five,” Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” and Orwell’s “1984″ faced similar such efforts over the years… and have rightfully, in time, become classics of American literature. But even now, there remain those who would rather choose censorship rather than expose their high-school-age adolescents to new ideas, challenging views, and the latest generations’ emerging classics. (Yancy)
As a homeschooling parent, all curriculum has to pass through just one set of eyes: mine. No committees, no superintendents, no teachers. Just me. Like many homeschooling parents, I make dozens of bigger curriculum choices a year, often including mid-course corrections when my carefully laid plans bomb by December. I’ve rejected curriculum because it was too boring, not challenging enough, too challenging, or not helping us enough to bother. I’ve let curriculum go that didn’t include what I’d like it to (evolution, for example) and that included too much of what wasn’t well-edited and well-researched.
What I’ve never done in fourteen years of parenting and eight years of homeschooling is ban a piece of fiction. Now, that may not be a big deal in a house where nonfiction was the preferred reading material for much of their (to date) reading experience. And no, I don’t present them with exceptionally racy or violent fiction, prodding them to read it. (That would, however assure they’d reject it on the spot.)
I did hand my older son Judy Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t when he was eleven or twelve, recalling that was the age I devoured whatever titles Blume had to offer. (Adult titles were yet to come.) He’d delighted in Fudge books when much younger, but didn’t care for this coming of age title, starting it then soon stopping. Between ten and twelve, he also rejected My Brother Sam is Dead and Johnny Tremain based on the back cover summary alone, while managing to finish Call of the Wild with my support and guidance. He’s a sensitive child, and violence especially wasn’t palatable for him. In contrast, my younger was ready for such material far younger, seeing the book as a whole far younger than his brother good. Temperaments vary, and I respect that.
By thirteen, my older was no less sensitive but had grown more able to read fiction without it consuming him. He read To Kill a Mockingbird. So did his brother, then nine. I discussed rape and racism to the levels each was able to comprehend it. It was similar to how their father and I handled Tom Sawyer (age 6 for each) and Huckleberry Finn, many years earlier: we put the language and situations in the context of the times of the book. As my boys mature, so do the themes in their reading. Both pick their own fiction have yet to have their values overturned by the process. Over the years, they’ll continue to run into the sometimes ugly underside of humanity. At least when it happens in fiction, events can be set at some distance, discussed, and thought over in the safety of one’s own home with one’s family. Unfortunately, much of what scares us is at a much closer distance.
Fiction is the ideal venue for exploring the world of ideas, places, and happening that aren’t part of our everyday lives. Good literature transports us to another time, another world, or at least another set of shoes. Literature either removes the mundane allowing us to focus on the extraordinary or brings the mundane into focus, forcing us to see what commonalities we all as human hold.
So what place violence, sex, difficult ideas, and four-letter words in our literature, much less our children’s literature? Because they are part of our lives. I’m not talking about gratuitous sex and violence, the kind that fills so much of prime time and the movies (and I do censor that). But sex and violence are part of the human condition. So are hunger, fear, pain, loneliness, and a host of painful experiences. Love, too, falls on the continuum of our experience, as does courage, tenacity, bravery, and compassion. Literature brings us all of this, while taking us to places that our pocketbooks cannot afford and to times that physics will not allow. Literature brings us beyond our singular human experience and shows us what was, what is, and what could be.
So when I hear a local, generally well-regarded public high school in the area is holding meetings regarding removal of two of the books in their AP Literature course for high school juniors and seniors, I worry. This school provided a list of books for the course before the course began, giving time for parents to voice concerns beforehand rather than midway through a rigorous class where each book was selected to demonstrate a particular literary element or theme. (Let me add that if a child was deeply disturbed by an element in a book, I’d back allowing the child to skip that element, if putting it into context didn’t reduce the tension.)
Why does a homeschooling parent care about banning books in public school? Heck, I can choose anything I want for my kids, meaning I can leaving anything out, too. I don’t have to let them in on racism, genocide, rape, environmental disasters, political ideas that differ from mine, or the like. It is, after all, an approval committee of one.
I care because my children are better served by exposure to ideas that don’t just come from me. They’re better, more completely educated by hearing and reading about more than what I believe, for that would be limiting indeed. Challenged with ideas within the safety of literature is an ideal place to start this pondering. Reading allows time for reflection — putting a book down to think for a moment, a day, a week is a luxury we do not have in the immediacy of live interaction or even the movie theater. Reading knowing you have parents, friends, mentors, or teachers available with whom to ponder aloud provides opportunities to sort through the difficult or even upsetting material most quality literature presents. I can’t think of a better way than through reading literature for most challenging materials to be presented.
I care what the public schools do because those kids are part of the world in which my children will life. They are my sons’ future colleagues and companions, as well as their generation’s leaders. They should start now, in the safety of their youth, exploring what is hard, what discomforts them and turns the warmth of their world on its head. They should read what they wouldn’t have discovered on their own, what might take guidance to understand, even what makes their parents a bit uncomfortable. That’s what starts making their world bigger. That’s what leads to understanding more than what they see in their homes, their community, their church. It leads to a better understanding of humanity.
That’s what I want for my children. I want them to know the world they live in, not just the sanitized parts that make me the most comfortable. I want their beliefs in compassion, kindness, and inclusiveness to be stretched to include those who are hard to love and include. I want them to read the literature of the past and of today, where sometimes the elements of it are disturbing, where characters are imperfect, and where not all endings are happy. By the time they head to college, they’ll have begun to grapple with all of this, and they’ll be better prepared to deal with the literature — and world — that confronts them in academia and beyond.