Saturday, April 17, 2010

Challenged Books

The American Library Association (ALA) published their annual list of most frequently challenged books last week. As this past year was the last one in the decade, they also posted their Top 100 most frequently challenged books of the decade. I use these lists every year when I'm teaching Fahrenheit 451, which, ironically, is on the Top 100 list. As always, these lists make me shake my head in dismay.

The ALA defines a challenge as a written, formal complaint requesting that materials in a library or school be removed or restricted. A challenge does not include a parent asking that their student not read a particular book. I've encountered both of these situations, and although I found both disheartening, there is a distinct difference.

Early in my career, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (#5 on the Top 100) was required reading for freshmen on the pre-AP English track. One parent decided that not only was her daughter not going to read it, nobody else's child should either. She sent a long letter to the school in which she had a list of every curse word in the novel and how many times it appeared. The "shits," "hells," "damns, " and "son-of-a-bitches" were all neatly listed in a table with a number next to them to show how many occurrences there were in the book. Underneath the table, several passages were quoted to show the profanity in context.

I'll never forget that moment with the English department as we read the letter together and were rendered speechless. Steinbeck's masterpiece on loyalty, loneliness, power vs powerlessness, dreams, and most importantly, friendship was reduced to a list of four letter words. Kids are moved by this book. They remember it long after they've put it down, and it has nothing to do with the 42 (I made that number up. I don't know how many times it's in there.)occurrences of the word "shit." It has everything to do with that final tragic scene between George and Lennie. Discussion as to whether George's final act was selfish or selfless continues over multiple class periods. Kids think critically, form an argument and then articulate it, and challenge their own pre-conceived notions of friendship. It's good stuff.

In the end, the parent backed down with an agreement to give her daughter an alternative assignment. The girl wasn't in my section of the class, and I don't even remember what the alternative assignment was. I do know her daughter missed out on a rich educational opportunity. What really hacked me off was the parent's attempt to deprive every other child in the pre-AP program of that opportunity. I respect a parent's right to make decisions for her own child, but I don't believe she has the right to make decisions for mine or anyone else.

Just this school year, I had a parent insist her son not read Paul Volponi's young adult novel Black and White. I blogged about it, and you can read the whole story here. The incident made me ill, but it didn't outrage me in the same way as the Of Mice and Men challenge. This parent took the book out of her own son's hands, but she wasn't trying to take it out of any other child's hands. I don't like it, but I can live with it.

At the beginning of every school year, I do a reading survey with the kids to get a sense of their reading habits and to discover what books they've read and loved. Many leisure activities compete with reading for a kid's time and interest, but I've discovered that most of them will still give a book a chance if it captures their imagination. The list below represents books on one of the two ALA lists that one or more my kids has named as his/her favorite book ever.

The Perks of Being A Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
Twilight (series) by Stephenie Meyer
My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult
Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Meyers
Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
The Giver, by Lois Lowry
Killing Mr. Griffen, by Lois Duncan
The Face on the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney
The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
Harris and Me, by Gary Paulsen
The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
Cut, by Patricia McCormick
Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissenger
A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle

What was your favorite book as a teenager? Did the experience of reading that book affect your subsequent reading habits? I wonder how the kids who listed these books would have been changed if someone had deprived them of their favorite book ever.


  1. I think parents who censor books are doing a big disservice to their kids and missing out on a wonderful opportunity to discuss the parts of the book they disapprove of with their children.

    I can’t think of a favorite book off hand, but I do know as I child I enjoyed reading everything I could. Fortunately my parents and teachers encouraged this behavior.

  2. I do believe that parents who object to the reading of classic literature are actually saying that the Bible is the only book their children should be read. In my opinion, however, if violence and sex is what banning is all about, then the Bible should be the first book to be banned as it contains everything about which parents usually object.

  3. Actually, religion didn't come up in the Of Mice and Men challenge. The parent just couldn't get past the profanity. Bless her heart. She would go into cardiac arrest if she walked down the hall during class change.