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Off the Shelf
Literary censorship in schools and libraries
April 17, 2017
Literary censorship is a hot-button topic that has swirled around the American public for decades; This is a debate that appears to only become more heated with time, as novels like The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and To Kill a Mockingbird
continue to draw fierce criticism from parents across the nation. In the past, certain novels have been banned entirely, and then restored following unsuccessful obscenity trials; This includes Ulysses, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Naked Lunch. While the process of banning books from the American public entirely is essentially retired, public and school libraries have faced pressures from the public to remove certain works. Many of these challenged novels have contributed heavily to the evolution of literature and mankind, yet remain controversial when taught in schools.
There is no place where controversial literature is challenged more often than in schools and their accompanying libraries, according to the ALA (American Library Association). Parents are usually making the charges of literature being obscene or inappropriate, with the most typical reasons for offense being offensive language, sexually explicit content, and the extremely vague “unsuitable for age group.” Delve deeper into these controversial novels and you will find what may truly be alarming parents: literature covering LGBT lives, varying religious and racial viewpoints, and unflinching portrayals of humanity, especially in teens.
“Keep in mind that students choose books,” urged Linda Kirkland, Waukee High School librarian. “If a book is not right for one, it doesn’t mean it’s not right for everyone.” Kirkland is a staunch defender of the freedom to read, and a firm believer in the transformative power of diverse literature. She opened up on the process of book ordering, “Every book order I place is approved through our district financial office. Each librarian in the Waukee School district is considered by administrators to be the expert in her field and expected to order and maintain a collection suitable for the needs of her building.” The needs of a school building and its students is subjective, and Kirkland must stand by what she believes students want and need, even if her selections offend some. She has heard comments on language offending some, but is adamant in her selections. She explained, “We choose materials based on age, interests, curriculum, books that reflect the given population and books that offer insight into populations and interests not represented by our patrons.”
When controversial books are required reading, teachers face increased apprehension from parents. Angela Youngers, Language Arts instructor, shared how concerns are handled at Waukee, “[We] allow a student to read another option, but have it be comparable in subject, difficulty, and element focus.” Youngers believes in the lessons literature teaches students. While content may be an issue for some, she works to instill the same literary themes for all her students. Fellow Language Arts instructor Kristin Jeschke elaborated, “It’s all about communication.”
While instructors are willing to work with parents and students on finding alternative reading options, one is given the impression that this is not the ideal lesson for teachers. Youngers particularly believes in the literature in the Language Arts curriculum and the lessons they teach. “These themes and situations may arise in one’s life, and literature aims to recreate the human experience so that readers can connect and learn from the stories,” Youngers elucidated, “A better option is that a reader can experience the difficult situations indirectly through reading, and learn the lessons without actually going through the pain and tragedy.”
While literature may sometimes contain difficult or offensive content, Youngers believes this only adds to the lessons she wants to instill. She argued, “To sugarcoat [life’s] fact[s] would be to insult a reader’s ability to handle life situations and take away the full impact of thematic lessons.”
While some literature has been challenged for decades, contemporary literature proves challenging for parents and students as well. According to the Banned Books Week organization, more recent works such as Fun Home, Beloved, and The Things They Carried have drawn criticism in schools and their libraries. Fun Home has faced controversy due to storylines regarding sexual identity; Beloved is challenged due to brutal, violent content, which clearly depicts the horrors of slavery and the torment following a black mother’s freedom; The Things They Carried proves controversial because of its portrayal of Vietnam War soldiers’ lives, a fiercely anti-war work filled with criticism for America’s actions during a tumultuous time in history. The one thing these works share is their devotion to illuminating a perspective the majority of readers have not seen before, a way of life that readers have never experienced, but need to understand in order to comprehend the world and the people around them.
Waukee is a very small section of Iowa, which is miniscule in the scope of the world. Students and citizens may have small worldviews, but literature can expand these into a vast understanding of America and the world. 12.2 percent of US citizens are black and 16.3 percent are Hispanic or Latino, 5 percent of citizens identify as LGBT, and roughly ¼ of the country does not belong to a Christian religion. According to the Waukee School District, there are 68 languages spoken within Waukee High School, covering a vast array of continents, countries, and regions across the globe. Demographics for the city of Waukee reveal a predominantly white population, which makes up approximately 90 percent of the city; However, Asian and Hispanic citizens are represented at nearly four percent each, and black citizens are represented even less, making up not even two percent of the population. Literature pertaining to these groups are censored and even banned. Schools and libraries’ duty is to inform the public through literature and the arts. Literature has always welcomed diversity with open arms, but parents and the general public react in different ways.