Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Are Book Challenges Always a Bad Thing?

I've greatly appreciated Leila's posts over at Bookshelves of Doom covering a wide variety of book protests, book challenges, attempts at book-banning, and the like. Without her posts I would miss most of these stories, and it is so important to be aware.

Some of the attacks on books outrage me. But other book challenges... not so much.

I'm going to list a few examples below, with some of my thoughts. (As a note, this is just a small selection of the great posts on book challenges and such at Bookshelves of Doom. The rest are equally worth reading -- both the outrageous and the thought-provoking.) For each example below, I encourage you to go read the Bookshelves of Doom post, and read the newspaper article linked there too. Get all the info you can.

Then I'd like to hear your thoughts here. If you are a parent, a teacher, a librarian, a reader... tell me what you think about these cases.

Am I off my rocker?

A Few Outrageous Cases

A Mississippi woman bullied, badgered, and threatened legal action against Walden Books because they were selling a book about (say it in a whisper now) sex. The woman wasn't even happy when they moved the book to a high shelf to keep it out of view of children. Finally, Walden Books caved and moved all the books from the Relationship section to a back room, so that customers could only buy them by asking for them. This move seems to me both cowardly and stupid. Welcome to Oz.

A Missouri woman asked that two books be removed from the public library. Not a school library. And not shelved elsewhere. Public library. Removed. Who is she to limit what her neighbors can read? Ugh.

A Georgia woman filed a complaint to have the Harry Potter books removed from school library shelves because the books promote witchcraft. I'm fine if she wants to tell her children not to read Harry Potter. Heck, she can even tell them not to be friends with anyone who reads Harry Potter for all I care. But it's not okay for her to keep me from letting my kids read the Harry Potter books just because she doesn't like the books.

Okay, now here's where the issue gets blurry for me:

A Texas man filed a complaint with his daughter's school because he was unhappy with the language and themes in her assigned reading, Fahrenheit 451. Oh, and he hadn't read the book himself, so was judging it based on what he'd heard is in it, or based on a few excerpts that he'd seen. Now I love Fahrenheit 451. And I can't imagine how it would be inappropriate for a 15-year-old to read it. But as I read this article closely, I am struggling to condemn this guy.

His daughter was uncomfortable with the book. Based on what he'd seen or heard, he felt the book had language, images and/or values that he did not believe his daughter should have to read about. He filed the appropriate form/complaint to address the issue. And the teacher provided an alternate reading assignment for the daughter and one other student.

Do we condemn the man for being so close-minded that he would challenge a book he's not even read, and keep his daughter from (getting past her discomfort and) reading one of the best books there is?

Do we applaud the man for believing strongly in the values he's determined to raise his family with, for paying attention to what his child is being taught, and for standing up for those values?

Who was harmed? The other students in the class still got to read Fahrenheit 451 -- their rights and the rights of their parents were never impinged upon. We could say the daughter was harmed because she was allowed to continue in her closed world, but that's a judgment I'm not prepared to make. Who's to say her closed world, where bad language, smoking, drinking, etc have no place in what she reads, is wrong for her?

On this one, as much as I love the book in question, and think it is a shame the daughter missed out, I have to side with the dad.

Another note here - from the daughter's quote, I really do think she's missing out and living a very closed life; hopefully she'll grow out of it, but given the path she's on, it's quite likely she never will. I'm sad for that, but again, my sadness is based on my conception of a "good path," not hers.

Another one of the (for me) blurry cases:

A New Jersey woman (okay, a Texas woman living in NJ) complained to her daughter's school about the sexually explicit part of Gilgamesh which her daughter was assigned to read. The school provided an alternate translation of the same book; said translation apparently was not sexually explicit.

My argument here is similar to the last. The 15-year-old girl was uncomfortable with the sexually explicit part of the book, and mentioned this to her mother. Her mother looked at the material in question and agreed. The mother then took the appropriate steps to get her daughter a different version of the book.

The mother did not ask that the book not be taught at all, or that all children get the sexless version. She fought on behalf of her daughter. She did express concern that other parents should be aware of what their children were reading.

Should the mother's complaint and actions be seen as censorship (as characterized by one person cited in the newspaper article)?

Should the mother have the right to object to material she or her daugher finds objectionable?

I'm coming down on the side of the parent again here.

UPDATE: There is an interesting dialogue taking place in the comments of the post linked just above too.

And one I won't even comment on, but will leave you to read and ponder.

A California school board produces a list of things that will make a book inappropriate for school libraries. They even go so far as to suggest they can use white-out if there are just a couple of infractions, to keep a specific book in.

Please read carefully, especially the list of things that are "out."

What do you think about this one?


Douglas Twitchell said...

I agree with you on your "blurry" ones - I think parents should take an active role in the things their kids read. Granted, if I had kids, I would probably choose to let them read F451, and discuss it with them. But I don't think that privilege should be taken from parents.


Regarding the "inappropriate for school libraries", this is just a sneaky trick to get the Bible out of libraries, since it contains just about all of those inappropriate items. ;)


leila said...

Nice post. It's an interesting issue. (Duh. OBVIOUSLY I find it interesting. Anyway.)

The Farenheit 451 guy didn't just want his daughter exempter -- he actually wanted the book pulled from the curriculum. From the article: "He wants the district to remove the book from the curriculum." The school didn't pull it, but offered Ella Minnow Pea (which is a super-fun book that deals with the same issues) instead.

The lady who originally objected to Gilgamesh didn't ask for the book to be pulled, but another parent is. He's the guy that I have the problem with. Like I said in the comments over at BoD, the Texas bit was a cheap shot, but sometimes I get a tad frustrated.

I agree that it's a parent's right to decide what their kids read. But, yeesh, where does it end? There are parents who are trying to get their college-aged kids exempted from required reading. College! What happens when the kid grows up? It just seems so crazy to me.

leila said...

That would be "exempted".

Liz B said...

Re college/university kids: the problem is that they are no longer kids, except in the eyes of their parents. When that "kid" starts a job, will Mom & Dad complain to bosses about the work? About the langauge of coworkers?

Re high school: Most schools have a policy allowing alternate materials. The problem is when parents don't accept that; they don't want the book taught, period. I see no gray in the F451 case; the father says its filth and should be removed from the school; he's gone from making a decision for his child to making that decision for others. And that's a problem. I cannot applaud someone for making that decision for other people.

Nancy said...


Yeah, I'm a bit swayed on the F451 case. You're right that he did say he wanted the book removed. But his actions -- filing what looks like a standardized form to have the material "reconsidered" and even speaking out about his concerns that this book is being taught -- still don't seem out of line. I'm not seeing that he took it any further, for instance. He doesn't want his daughter reading the book, he doesn't believe the book should be taught in school, he filed the papers to say so, and he got some of what he wanted (the important part, I'd wager).

I try to put myself in his shoes. If for instance, the movie Debbie Does Dallas were being shown to my 15-year-old daughter in high school, I might come out and say not just that it's something I don't want my daughter to see, but that it should not be shown in the school at all. There is nothing wrong with my saying that -- it's just an opinion. Doesn't make me right or wrong or even a bad person.

For college kids, I completely agree. I don't see how books taught in college could be challenged under any criteria. But I also haven't seen that example come up in any of the posts I've read yet, though I may have missed it.

Liz B said...

Nancy, the thing is, going with objective criteria for a book, you'll find many for F451; but very few for Debbie Does Dallas! & The problem is that the objector's view is such that they do believe that F451 is no different from DDD.

As to when I'd agree with a challenge:
1, material objectively not appropriate (so I would look to see reviews, etc. to substantiate what was being said; DDD would be an example of something easily shown to not be appropriate)
2, material is inaccurate (usually with a nonfiction book, and again, this should be objective as to facts, rather than subjective)
3, material isn't right for grade level (there can be pressure that "our children our so smart that the 3rd graders read 7th grade material!". Except while their vocabularly skills may be 7th grade, emotionally & content wise, not so much. So this is about not banning book but saying it's not J, its YA; it's not YA, it's J; and again, usually done by offering reviews that state "7th grade up").

A lot of this ties into WHERE the argument comes from; and yes, going to professional reviews & sources is helpful. Is it a 7th grade book or a 5th grade? Is there a revised edition that should be bought? Rather than dirty words always bad (in which case, remove Peter Pan; Tink calls Peter an ass.)

Nancy said...


This is exactly why my first reaction to the F451 challenge was one of wonder. From my perspective, there's nothing wrong with the book, even for teens. But from that father's perspective, it may as well be DDD, and that was precisely the point I was trying to make by using such a drastic comparison.

I'm not sure there's any such thing as objective criteria to decide something is inappropriate, but I would agree that there is a reasonably reliable (though subjective) consensus that we can turn to. Which is why, in the end, the man in question only got part of what he asked for, and this I think was the right result.

Tom P. said...

"he's gone from making a decision for his child to making that decision for others"

But isn't that what the teacher who assigned the work has done? You might say, that's his job but it is also the job of the community to make community standards. I think parents should have input into the decision making around choosing books for their minor children. At the very least parents should be encouraged to find out why a particular book was chosen for a class, what parts of it might be offensive, and what goals will be achieved by using this book. Teachers and administrators should be happy to work with parents.

By the way, my daughter's class is reading To Kill a Mockingbird which happens to be number 4 on the top 100 banned books list. I bought her In Cold Blood by Truman Capote and she is reading that also. So I'm not some kind of book banner. I just think that parents have a responsibility to do what they think is right for their children.

Nancy said...

Tom, on the point of parents having input, there was a comment in the other discussion (on BOD) where someone said, "if these people would spend more time parenting their kids...."

That comment is what prompted me to respond there, and post this here. In my view, these challenges (F451 and Gilgamesh) are examples of parents who ARE parenting their kids. And as much as I might choose to parent my kids differently, I can't help but see the mom's or dad's involvement as a positive sign that they care enough to put up this fight.

I also take your point (made on the BOD discussion) that giving kids the alternate book in place of the one assigned can cause embarassment for the kids. But I'm not sure of the remedy here. Looking at the F451 case, I wouldn't have been happy to see the whole class lose the chance to read the book, nor to see the two girls who didn't want to be exposed to the objectionable material forced to read it. Giving these girls another book seems to be a good compromise. Compromise is never fully satisfying to either side, but what would be the alternative?

Even with Gilgamesh, maybe all the previous translations were total crap (I've seen some very bad translations of various books) and this one really is the best. So do you not teach the book? Use a bad translation? Skip the sexy bits? Here I just don't know.

Tom P. said...

Let's cut to the chase, even if F451 was not chosen because of its content so what? A typical 10th grade class is going to read maybe three novels (plus a Shakespeare play) during the school year. Is F451 really such a great book that it MUST be read? If another book can provide the same lesson and doesn't offend parents then why not use that book? Every book that is read in class means another book was not read. If F451 is read, then the Great Gatsby won't be read. Moby Dick won't be read. The Sun Also Rises won't be read. Imagine this, a list of ten or twenty books is given to the PTA and they are asked if any of these books would be objectionable to them. Now parents are involved in the decision making and feel empowered to be part of their children's education! What a concept!

Nancy said...

A couple things there:

By saying why not just read Moby Dick instead of F451 if F451 offends people, you run the risk of running out of books because so many could be offensive on a variety of levels (I hate whales, for instance).

Putting it to the PTA sounds like a fair start, but what if the parent who is offended isn't on the PTA? How do they a) find out the offensive book is assigned and b) take action about it without coming off as "hotheads?"

Also, asking that parents be allowed to be involved in these decisions is a perfectly reasonable request, but it also depends on the parent to get involved.

Gregory K. said...

I had always thought that School Board officials were elected and teachers and administrators hired to do a job, a very big part of which is to define curriculum and implement it. They are all answerable to parents in the end, but it is NOT the parents place, via the PTA or anything else, to decide individual choices within the classroom. If you start down that path, parents should also be able to decide what math is taught, as some children struggle with long division. Parents should have to decide which songs are appropriate for music class, since This Land is Your Land was, after all, written by Woody Guthrie and he offends some people. Parents should vote, too, on what colors of paint are allowed in the art room and... and... and.

If a school community doesn't believe their teachers, administration and Board are doing their job, they have recourse. But there's a huge difference between being concerned about your child's reading and believing that you should design a curriculum so that YOUR child gets exactly what YOU want. That's possible via homeschooling, a great option for many, but in a public school, it's a non-starter.

Nancy said...

Greg, thanks for chiming in on this!

I see your point about the slippery-slope effect of letting parents decide what is taught, though I hardly expect parents would actually weigh in on long-division or burnt sienna.

I do think there is a role for parents in oversight of what materials their children are exposed to. You say "there's a huge difference between being concerned about your child's reading and believing that you should design a curriculum so that YOUR child gets exactly what YOU want." I wholeheartedly agree, and wasn't suggesting the latter as a solution. I simply don't see the danger in allowing parents the opportunity to know in advance what books will be taught, and to express their concerns and/or arrange to have their kids taught a different book. I also think it's perfectly fine for a parent to say "this book should not be taught to any kids" as long as we know that all they are doing is expressing an opinion, or at most, getting the wheels in motion for an open debate. For instance, I don't agree with the F451 guy at all, but I still think he has every right to care and speak up as he did.

Homeschooling is not a great option for many, because so many homes need both parents working to survive.

Nancy said...

On the other hand, here's how another person responded to the F451 guys actions:

"Trust me, these people have no problem with Nazi ideology."

And this is where I get lost in this debate because I simply don't see what could make people so angry or so frightened that they would respond like this.

I'm not suggesting, Greg, that your stance was anywhere NEAR this one quoted above. I only quote it as a way of explaining why I feel compelled to speak out on this issue and to be a bit of a nudge on it, admittedly.

Thanks again!

Gregory K. said...

Nancy, of course people should have the right to say "hey, I don't think this is right." Every school or district should have a policy to deal with that, however, because the reality is that folks will complain about the most amazing things. You think parents don't weigh in on math or other more mundane curricular matters? Betcha a buck you're wrong. Pay up, cuz all you have to do is Google "teaching Columbus Day" or "cupcakes in school?"

When it comes to book challenges (or anything, really) the goal always has to be for rational discussion. Schools are in a community, so they have to react to the community. But that is very different than every parent getting to choose what books their own child reads, even based on a limited list. What if a parent decides that XXXX as an issue isn't something their child should learn about. Then ANY book on that subject would create problems, unlike in this case of F451 where there was an alternate book that one parent found fine. What if they hadn't? What if issue XXXX was deemed important enough to cover by a teacher/school? What if the teacher actually knew what they were doing and was thinking "we can learn so much from examining XXXX from all these different angles -- writing skill, debate, how issue XXXX plays out in the real world" and on and on? That's what we pay teachers to do. And what if issue XXXX is in the state standards or on the SATs or...? Decisions on what to teach aren't made in a vacuum, after all.

Again, sometimes a teacher will teach something that the community at large objects to, and in an informed, rational discussion that can come to the front and changes can be made. But if you take your idea to a logical extreme -- that parents get to pick and choose what's read -- then I don't see how any teacher is going to be able to effectively teach, as they could end up with 35 kids reading 35 different books. There's a difference between empowering parents and stripping power from the schools.

I'm certainly not suggesting every book in the world should be taught. What I am saying is having policies in place and fostering an atmosphere where rational conversation takes place with the understanding that teachers, administrators, and school boards exist for a reason is key. They're professionals, after all, and even though some are flawed, the system can only work if we go with the idea that they do know what they're doing.

Nancy said...

Greg, I think we're making very similar arguments. I don't think the parents should PICK AND CHOOSE, and I hope that's not what you get when you carry my argument (keeping parents informed and letting parents be involved) to its logical extreme! I also think that if parents such as the ones who argued over Gilgamesh and F451 do take a stand, we shouldn't brand them as book-banners, hotheads or Nazis. That's all I'm saying.

Also, I should have known better than to say people wouldn't challenge other things. In my home state, they're challenging Fluffernutters. Ever had a Fluffernutter?

Leila said...

For real? Are they challenging them because of peanut allergies?

Nancy said...

Those silly people object to the fact that fluffernutters are offered daily as an alternative to the regular entree. They seem to think that fluffernutters are not nutritious or something.

I just don't get it.

Peanut Butter = protein
Fluff has egg whites = protein
Plus the bread = carbohydrates

Seems perfectly balanced and nutritious to me.

Leila said...

Also, they're delicious, which is more than I can say for those nasty-doused-in-sugar-syrup-bright-orange-canned-peaches that they used to give us.

Nancy said...

I agree!

We never had the fluffernutter option. Instead, we had the hostess line, where we could buy devil dogs, fruit pies and twinkies for lunch.

Do you think the schools were purposely trying to sugar us up to get us through the afternoon?