Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Book challenges on the rise

The Decatur Daily (AL) reported in its April 17th online edition that book challenges are on the rise. The report deals with Limestone County, Alabama, but it moves to discuss what is becoming a broader trend: book challenges are on the rise. The article makes for interesting reading as an example of how a little ignorance and fear of what children and youth might actually learn can do. Limestone County has a dubious record of banning books from their school libraries, most recently Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher. Crutcher has replied by writing letters to the students in the county as well as to the community and has donated copies to the local public library near the school that banned the book, offering to donate copies of the book to other public libraries near schools that ban his books. A nice move if there ever was one. Part of his reply on his letter was:

"I think it is obscene that your school board does not trust you enough to know you can read harsh stories, told in their native tongue, and make decisions for yourself what you think of the issues or the language," Crutcher wrote in an online letter to Limestone students.

I could not agree more, and what often infuriates me about people who move to challenge or ban books is their ignorance or fear. Very often they will object not because they read the book and decided it was not for them. I can respect that, if you read a book and decide it is not for you. But I have no respect for people who want to impose their view on others who have a right to decide on their own. Also such people often object on the basis of being told the book contains X or Y. They themselves have not read it, but they feel the need to tell the rest of us we cannot read it. It is responsible parenting to decide your child cannot read such and such. You set the values for your family and do your best to live by them. But you do not have to the right to tell me what to read or tell me what my kids or anyone else's can or not read. You don't want your kids to read something, that is what alternate reading lists are for. For all you know, I may want my kid to be able to read some of those challenged books. I may actually trust my kid to be able to make decisions about what he or she reads because I have taken the time to educate them and instill values to them rather than sending them to school and hoping the school will do my job for me.

Having said that, I cannot help but feel saddened that these kids are missing out on some great opportunities to discuss and learn to deal with issues such as racism or growing up because their parents fear their kids will learn some ugly truths. Unfortunately, the world is an ugly place, not always, but often enough. Literature is but one way to learn about the world and to reflect on how we can deal with such issues when the time comes. Shielding our children from certain issues out of fear is not doing them any favors. It just means they may be less prepared to cope with certain things.

Another reason I agree with Mr. Crutcher is the idea that the community does not trust our educators when a book challenge or ban comes along. In this case it comes down one of my pet causes, so to speak. The fact that teachers in this country are never really trusted to educate children. Teachers are highly trained professionals who have children's best interests in mind (yes, I know there are one or two exceptions out there of bad teachers, but for the most part teachers are a very dedicated group in a very thankless profession). You would think that parents would trust their teachers in making a good decision when it comes to the curriculum they teach their children. You would think that parents who claim they want their children to be critical thinkers, to be good citizens, to be excellent contributing members of society, would trust the educators they hire to prepare their children for their future. Unfortunately, what you get for the most part are people who would not dream of being teachers trying to tell teachers how to run their classrooms. This trend of book challenges is just another symptom of people who really have no idea what goes on in their children's classrooms clamoring to "protect" their kids when they are really doing them a disservice. But as I said, some feel strongly enough that their kid should not read something, so be it. Just keep your imposition out of the rest of us who may want to actually learn something different.

A local school library aide, probably has the most common sense in the whole situation. Her comment about the local school board is priceless because it is so true. Often boards vote to ban something so they can cover their "posteriors" (trying to keep it clean here, would not want a challenge on by blog now, would I? At least not today). The article states that:

Ardmore senior Sheila Foster, 18, who is a school library aide, said reading a book with profanity does not make her want to curse.

"I was brought up that I wouldn't get away with saying things like that," she said. "Kids can probably hear worse language riding on the school bus. Some books have pretty good points. You just have to get past the language."

Foster, who has not read "Whale Talk," said she understands the school board's concerns.

"I know the board members need to protect themselves because people file lawsuits for anything these days," she said. "But to me, it definitely would be hard to say, 'Don't let every person read this book.' Everyone is different."

Readers can find the article here, at least for now. You know how online newspapers are. After a set amount of time, an article will get archived, and you may have to pay to see it. But for now, that is the link. The article also provides a list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books of 2004 as provided by ALA's Office of Intellectual Freedom. Here is a little challenge, why not add some or all of those titles to your ongoing reading list? I know I will.

Readers can find Crutcher's letter here. The letter makes for good reading, and it is addressed to young people in a way that speaks directly to them rather than condescendingly, a bad habit many adults seem to have. It also makes a nice statement about the risks and consequences of banning books. Anyone interested in this topic would do well to read it. And while they are there, they can also look over the author's website, which has a few other interesting features. At the end of his letter, he writes, "
It does my heart good to know there are many educators out there who understand that good education requires the opening rather than the closing of minds. " I know that is why I became an educator, and I know that is why I will fight however I can for the freedom to read.

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