It’s Banned Books Week! Every year, I think about doing something with banned books in class, but I never make it work. Usually, September is a month of holiday interruptions – in NYC, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur shorten our first few weeks – so by the time we make it September 22nd, I’m afraid of derailing the momentum we’ve begun to build with a diversion into censorship. And of course, every year I think, “Oh, right, so next year we’ll incorporate censorship into the first unit!” But that’s September me who thinks that. June me thinks, “Ow. My brain.”
So, here we are in Banned Books Week, and I’ve got nothing planned to tackle the issue. But I think I might have to this year, even if we don’t get to it until next week. Two reasons: Dreaming in Cuban and Eleanor & Park. These two novels have recently been challenged as profane and pornographic, and it’s surprising to me. Not that parents would object to sex or swearing in books that children read, but that we’re still responding to these objections with attempts to ban books. I think censorship is, in essence, an effort to silence dissent. If you look at a list of the most challenged books in the United States, you’re looking at a list of books that have tried to, often successfully, change the way we look at issues in society. Check out bannedbooksweek.org’s page, Banned Books That Shaped America. Change like that comes from shifting perspective, endeavoring to see in ways that we cannot, have never before. And isn’t that learning? That flexibility, the empathy we develop when we step into others’ shoes, the ability to understand how one’s actions affect others, these are all traits we value in coworkers, employers, leaders, and members of our communities. So maybe instead of censoring books that alarm, frighten, or challenge us, we should be teaching them.
My boyfriend discovered the controversy around the book Dreaming in Cuban as he was digging up some horrific Common Core-aligned curriculum materials that are being sent to “help” teachers around the country (scripted lessons to have first-graders create effective calls-to-action, for example). He read me a snippet of a newsletter about a school district in Arizona that is pulling Common Core approved Dreaming in Cuban, following the parent’s association’s objection to its graphic sexual content, some of which is excerpted into the newsletter. Having read this book, the sex is not what I would include in a summary of the book. It’s there, but Celia and Gustavo’s affair is not what this book is about, and it’s not why this book should be read. There’s so much amazing content here – the multitude of perspectives on a political and social revolution, the family structures and dynamics, characters grappling with morality, and loyalty, and love, and hate. Does a sex scene cancel out the relevance of this novel? Should we censor an entire book on account of a few pages that make us uncomfortable? And it’s not that it doesn’t make me uncomfortable to teach, or even to think about teaching, a book with sexual content. As with any text, I spend time considering how a student’s beliefs, backgrounds, experience, family, and maturity level will play into what we read. Sex in a work of literature – one that is meaningful and thought-provoking, one that will encourage students to see the world, or themselves, through another’s eyes, one that will nurture their hearts and souls as great books do, tell them that their experiences and lives are valid and worthy – is not a reason not to teach or read, but instead an opportunity to teach and read with more care. Instead of sheltering students from works of literature that include sex, in some misguided effort to shelter them from sex itself, we could make the space for conversation.
Revisiting my own high school experience and the books on our reading lists, the sex in books was politely ignored, usually, not a topic of discussion (I remember, acutely, one of my English teachers staring patiently over our heads as he waited for the giggles to subside after the first paragraph of Grendel gave us the phrase “gross balls”). I don’t know how my classmates felt, because we didn’t talk to each other about it either, but I wondered as I tore through the Hemingway and the Greek myths and Catcher and The Handmaid’s Tale, if this was how it was supposed to be. Was this love, and sex? Was this romance? Should I want this? And I wish I’d had someone to talk to, maybe even an awkward class discussion, something that could point out the violence of possession in so many “love” scenes, someone that allowed me to question it. I think my teachers were silent on the matter because they needed to protect themselves from people who wanted to protect us children. But if I had been encouraged to look critically at Hemingway’s treatment and characterization of women and love interests, maybe Brett and Jake wouldn’t have seemed so damned romantic in high school. Thinking of Dreaming in Cuban, the possible political metaphor of Gustavo and Celia’s affair seems a shame to skip over, and that lens allows for a more informed critique of their relationship. Maybe the books we deem inappropriate for children and remove from schools are exactly where they need to be – in schools, with teachers who are willing to handle content that students are otherwise abandoned to figure out on their own. I’ve had so many Twilight-interventions, needing to have the conversation that draws the lines between “love” and “possession,” between “romance” and “stalking.” It isn’t fun, but I want my students to know that when they have sex for the first time, they will not wake up in a broken bed, covered in bruises that are testaments to their ability to withstand love. And that if they do, it is not because someone loves them. I want them to look with sharper eyes at what they read and see, to question and challenge, but that’s tough to do without the space and people that make it safe. There’s something to be learned from literature that makes us uncomfortable, that challenges what we know, that pushes against or points out the difficult parts of our world. What do we learn with our heads in the sand?
Another recent ostrich moment: the YA novel Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell, has aroused the distaste of parents who have labeled the book as pornography based on descriptions of teenagers making out, and who have read the book in order to keep a tally of the profanity used within the novel. Linda Holmes at NPR says everything I need to say about this book, way better than I could ever say it. But, a few points:
1. The profanity and abusive language that appears throughout this novel is real. 100% accurate. As someone who spends all day around teenagers who are not around their parents, Rowell captures excellently the vulgarities teens use when joking with one another, insulting one another, and hitting on one another. To readers who object to Rowell’s use of profanity, I want to stress that – this is the way the majority of teenagers talk to each other. This is what teenagers are hearing around them, from their peers. If it is upsetting, shocking, horrifying, disturbing, etc., understand that it is all the more so for being authentic and talk to children about it. Pay attention to the fact that Park is disgusted by the jocks who use profane language around him and spends his bus ride trying to drown them out, and that Eleanor is bullied and sexually harassed by her classmates. This is really happening. Kids are really witnessing, suffering from, and perpetrating this. Banning a story that represents reality will not prevent reality from happening.
2. The two 16-year-olds in this story fall in love and do a lot of making out. The parents who are challenging this book consider those moments pornographic, because even though Eleanor and Park do not have sex, they “clearly want to.” Most 16-year-olds want to have sex, or, more accurately, are given the impression that they should want to have sex, even if they don’t know what they really want. Remember being 16? It’s a confusing time of your life. You probably thought about having sex then (it’s ok, you don’t have to admit it), and you probably didn’t have many people to talk to about it. Maybe you read Forever… and were able to get some picture of what this all looked like. It probably made you sigh and stare off into the distance, like you saw women in movies do. It probably made you feel a little better about the tangle of peer pressure, and wanting to be mature but still wanting to play with dolls or build blanket forts, and wanting someone to kiss you but also thinking that it would be really weird to have someone’s face that close to yours. And, best of all, you could talk about this stuff now. You could tell your friends that you didn’t think Katherine should have had sex with Michael, and it was the right amount of remove, it wasn’t about you. In the world of the story, it was safe. We all deserve that safe space, the opportunity to step back and examine the world from a distance, to try out lives and mistakes and triumphs that are too scary in the real world.
3. As Holmes eloquently details, “ugly stories matter.” Eleanor and Park are dealing with ugly sides of life – abusive homes, sexual harassment, racism. Stories like this are upsetting, and they are not easy to read. They become even more difficult as they become more true to life. This is exactly why they should be told, and read. Life gets ugly, and sometimes our lives are ugly before we even get a say in the matter. Hiding all the ugliness, ignoring it, refusing to confront it and question it and challenge it, will not make it go away. It will be there, festering, flourishing unseen. And if we teach children to ignore the ugliness that surrounds them, we are also teaching them that when that ugliness affects their own lives, they should not reach out. We are telling them that if they are abused, verbally or physically or sexually (all content that has gotten books challenged or banned), they cannot ask for help, or tell about it, because that is an ugliness no one should see. As Holmes puts it, “What’s worrying about treating Eleanor & Park as a nasty book, or a dirty book, or an immoral book, is that it transforms talking about how to survive ugliness into something that’s no different from ugliness itself.”
I’ve learned so much through teaching, and I’m continuing to learn every day. Something I’ve learned about teenagers is that they are adept chameleons. When the rules of a social setting dictate that they should follow, they slip on their sheep costumes pretty easily. But if they are given the license to interrogate, to push back, to dissect and analyze, they can be amazing, critical detectives. Controversial books are considered as such because they demand us to look critically at the world, at the status quo, at ourselves. Doing so is hardly easy, especially in a classroom – whether it’s Eleanor & Park or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it’s an undertaking. But with all of the reasons to teach and read controversial literature with teens, the only reason not to seems to be for the benefit of nervous adults. I don’t want the students who come through my classroom to grow up to be afraid to tell their stories, or afraid to know the real world. If I want them to be brave, I need to be brave first.
Now, I need some ideas! What do you do with banned books and censorship in your classrooms? Share your ideas in the comments, please!