Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Black and White

Today marks the end of Banned Books Week...the the ALA's celebration of our freedom to read. I make note of the week every year, if for no other reason, to spark a student's interest in reading. The forbidden fruit of a challenged book appeals to some kids. My pre-AP class takes note of the week because they read Fahrenheit 451 over the summer, and the tie-in is obvious. Honestly, a brief conversation on library day is all the mention Banned Books Week usually gets from me. This year it was a little more poignant.

A couple of weeks ago, I had to take a book out of a student's hand for the first time in my career.

My principal came to me after school one day. "Kathy, has the English department added a book called Black and White to the curriculum?"


"Have you specifically assigned this book to a student?"

"No, but I have recommended it to several. I require each student to read one book independently each 9 weeks. They choose the book. My only requirement is that they choose a novel, a biography, or narrative non-fiction."

"Okay, so if a student has that book for your class, then it's because they chose it themselves in the library."


My principal went on his way, and that was that...or so I thought. The next afternoon he was back.

"Mom wants her son to select a different book. She was offended by the content of Black and White."

I shrugged, "I'll help him find something different the next time we go to the library."

I didn't get too bent out of shape in that moment. I completely respect the right of parents to help their kids make choices that are in line with their values. This mom wasn't challenging the book's placement in our library, so she wasn't trying to make choices for my kid and every other kid that patronizes the library. She was simply concerned about her own son. Fine.

Several days later, we went to the library. I was surprised to see the boy with Black and White in his hand. I was even more surprised to see him go to the desk and renew it. I had assumed (yes, I know all about assuming) he would immediately turn it back in when his mom told him to because teenage boys always do what their moms tell them...right?


The librarian raised her eyebrows at me. The principal told her about the situation in case the mom decided to challenge the book's placement in the library. When the line at the checkout desk dwindled, we put our heads together. Neither of us wanted to tell him to hand over the book. Finally, I sucked it up. I'm the teacher. I pulled the boy aside, and the librarian started scanning the sports section for something different he might like.

"Um...student...weren't you supposed to turn this book back in?"

His face turned beet red. "Yeah."


"I want to know how it ends."

Well crap on a stick. The kid liked the book...was about 50 pages from the end and wanted to know what happened...and I had to take it away from him. As an English teacher, an avid reader, a writer, and a lifelong bibliophile, it made me truly ill. Instead of throwing up, I smiled ruefully, put my arm around him, and walked him to the desk where the librarian had several basketball themed novels artfully arranged.

In a surprising turn of events, he opted not to choose a sports book, going instead for a science fiction novel. The librarian suggested The Dead and the Gone, and he checked it out. I sincerely hope he likes it. I hope he gets to finish it.

I still support a parent's right to make choices for her child. I don't know what this parent found offensive about Black and White, but I can't imagine anything in a young adult novel that would override a boy's enthusiasm for reading it.

I wish she could have seen the look on her son's face when he dropped the book into the book return. I saw it, and I never want to be the cause of that expression again.


  1. ARGH!!! What a horrible moment. That should NOT have been your job, or the librarian's job. If the mom didn't want the son reading the book, then THE MOM should have made him turn it in.

    As long as the book was not required, and, if necessary, you gave the boy extra time to finish the assignment since his mom requested that he start over, then your job should have been done. But maybe I'm just cranky

  2. Oh Kathy, I'm woefully behind in reading your blog. Sort of glad I didn't read this one during Banned Books Week. I truly felt your nausea. But your conviction, as usual, is so beautifully expressed. Thank you for being such an awesome teacher.

  3.'re absolutely right. The mom should have handled it herself, but it's been my experience that teachers often handle things the parent should have already taken care of.

    Thanks for the kind words, Becky. :)

  4. SaltShaker says: Criss L. Cox is right. The parent should have dealt with the matter and the parent definitely should not have challenged the book's placement in the school's library. Even if she were the perfect censor, are we to believe that once she had exercised her censorship that others would be prevented from doing the same?

  5. Yesterday in tutoring one of the kids showed us the book he picked from the library for his book report (due a week from whe he got the book). It was 400+ pages, so the girl sitting at our table asked him why he hadn't picked a shorter book, but he was fascinated with the fact that the book had cuss words in it (all over it, actually). In the hour we were there, even though he spent most of his time talking or looking at his buddies out the window, he read from page 24 to page 61, even though when I challenged him to read to page 50 he said he couldn't do it. And he promised me he'd get to page 75 last night.

    Whatever gets them reading, says I...

  6. Yep. I often highlight the "questionable" content in a book just to generate interest. I'm actually trying to decide whether or not to post an incident where one of my students got a hold of an adult romance book. It was hysterically funny from my point of view, but I'm not sure her mom would agree.