Thursday, March 13, 2014

What I Think of the Latest Attempt to Ban John Green's Books

You've probably heard about the latest attempt to ban John Green's books, but if you haven't, here's a quick recap: A teacher at Strasburg High School in central Colorado wants to teach an elective on young adult literature. The parents in Strasburg have taken issue with several of the books on the proposed list, so they've brought the matter before the school board, which plans to address it at a board meeting next month.

Curious about that proposed list? Here it is:

FEED by M.T. Anderson
DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver
UGLIES by Scott Westerfield
TAKEN by Erin Bowman
WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON by John Green and David Levithan
GO ASK ALICE by Anonymous
13 LITTLE BLUE ENVELOPES by Maureen Johnson
PAPER TOWNS by John Green
IF I STAY by Gayle Forman
BEFORE I FALL by Lauren Oliver
CLOCKWORK ANGEL by Cassandra Clare

Other than the fact that this teacher wants to read pretty much everything that John Green's ever written, it's a pretty diverse list:) Of these nineteen books, I've read all or part of thirteen. Of those thirteen, I stopped reading four because I wasn't comfortable with the amount of profanity or the sexual content. (I've also put down books that I thought were too violent or gruesome, but for whatever reason, that doesn't happen as often.)

Now, several of the books I finished probably had the same amount of profanity or sexual content as the ones I didn't. Sometimes, I'm more sensitive, and sometimes, I'm just weak (which is to say that I'm too invested in the story or characters to put the book down, though I feel like I should). I really enjoy YA fiction, and I think I'll enjoy it for many years to come, but there are a number of books that I simply won't read because I find them too profane, too sexually explicit, or too violent.

In other words, while I applaud this teacher for wanting to teach current teen fiction, I also understand where the parents are coming from. But why are we always so concerned about the teachers and parents? What about the students themselves?

As a junior in high school, I was assigned to read John Steinbeck's THE GRAPES OF WRATH. I only made it a few chapters in before I gave up. I thought it was dull as dishwater, granted, but the way the Joads talked really grated on me. I was a sheltered teenager, yes, but I preferred it that way. I knew the world could be ugly and was often cruel, but I didn't see the need to willingly expose myself to its ugliness and cruelty. Even if a book uses that ugliness as an example of how NOT to be, there's something about bombarding the reader with it that seems contradictory to me.

I stopped reading the book and participating in class discussions (if we even had any, that is). My English teacher that year was less, uh, stringent than most, so she only ever gave us one quiz on the book. It remains to this day the only quiz, test, or assignment I've ever failed.

I like to think that if the stakes had been higher--if my term grade had been on the line, say--I still would have had the moral courage to put the book down. But I guess I wonder if I SHOULD have had to put my grade on the line if it had come to that. Should we make students pick between their religion and/or ethics and failing a class? In the case of Strasburg High School, is it enough to say, "Well, you don't have to take it, so if you're concerned about one of the books on the list, just don't sign up"?

On the one hand, I think there comes a point when you have to trust your kids to make the right decision, but on the other, I don't think kids should be penalized for choosing not to read something. What I'd love to see in a YA literature course of this nature is a two-pronged curriculum in which every book is studied in tandem with another and the students get to pick which one they want to read (or they could even read both). Then you could pair a gritty, true-to-life book with another that addresses the same issues in a less provocative way. I'm sure it would lead to some rousing discussions about the impact of profanity and sexual content in a book and what it contributes (or doesn't).

And I'm sure kids would come down on both sides of the fence.


JeffO said...

My daughter was in a theater arts class where they watched a number of movies of all different types. The teacher sent the list home, along with a note that if parents (or students) found a particular film objectionable, they could skip class the day it was being watched or discussed, watch a different film, and discuss it privately with the teacher. It's a lot of extra work for the teacher, but seemed likea method that could save everyone a lot of trouble.

Ryan Hancock said...

Well done. It's a sensitive issue, but I think your argument(s) make a lot of sense. You can bet ill be reading each one of the books on my child's list. :)

Jenni Enzor said...

Thank you for saying this. I, too, have had to put down YA books because of content. I am very sensitive to violence, and one of my kids is as well. Usually this comes up more with movies, but I like what you said about giving kids an opt-out clause with another list.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

JeffO, I think your daughter's theater arts teacher had the right idea. It IS a lot of extra work for the teacher, but it's also respectful of other people's movie preferences. (Contrast that with the current issues teacher at my high school, who made kids sign up for movies without letting them research what those movies were about (or what they were rated). And I lived in a community in which 95% of the student body belonged to a religion that encouraged them not to watch R-rated movies. His mission in life seemed to be getting his students to sacrifice their principles.)

Ryan, I love the idea of reading the same books your kids are reading in school. You could have great conversations about the books themselves, and it would also give you a chance to talk about standards with your kids in a real, practical setting.

You're welcome, Jenni. And I run into the same problems with movies. There's usually a lot more information, though, about what's in a movie, so it's easier to make an informed decision. I rarely have to walk out of or turn off a movie because I'm already well aware of what's going to be in it. (For instance, are you familiar with Their reviews include an objective list of all the profanity, sex, and violence in a movie, which makes it much easier to decide if it's something I want to see.)

Rebecca Gomez said...

I don't believe in banning books. But I do believe that parents (and kids) should have the right to opt out of certain reading material. Fortunately, with my kids' school, they are very upfront with what they are reading and in some cases even send home "permission slips" (with Flowers for Algernon, for example). It shouldn't be difficult for schools to be accommodating in this way in general.

Karen Clayton said...

Interesting. I never thought not to read something for school. I've read several stories that still haunt me to this day. I even had to read and then teach Lord of the Flies. I know it is a classic and all, but I really disliked that one! That's just me. You are also right about how various stages or events in your life can really impact your desire to read certain material. Before I had kids, I just adored Poe. Now that I have kids, not so much.

Jessie Oliveros said...

I had a hard time reading Catcher in the Rye in high school because of the language. My teacher gave me a REALLY hard time about it. To the point where my mom came in and talked to her. And actually, my mom wouldn't have minded if I had read the book. She was just sticking by my choice. The teacher did give me another book to read in the end. But she was not my favorite teacher.

Kathleen said...

I am opposed to censorship of any kind.

Myrna Foster said...

Is it just me, or does THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE look out of place?

I had to read some really disturbing books for a particular class in college. I wouldn't have resented the teacher for it if he'd been willing to discuss the issues in class. But because we were at a religious university, he wanted to keep our discussions SAFE. He was one of the few professors I butted heads with.

You're right. It shouldn't be teachers or parents who decide if a student is ready to read more mature content. The student should decide.

One of my high school teachers gave us a long list of books to choose from. We just had to write a paper about each book after we read it. We also had books that we discussed and were tested on, but the more controversial ones were on the list.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Rebecca, I think your kids' school does it right.

Good point, Karen. Different themes and issues affect us at different points in our lives.

Jessie, that's the kind of thing that really grates on me. I think students should be allowed to have principles, and I think teachers should respect them.

To be honest, Kathleen, I'm not sure how I feel about banning books. I can see--and relate to--both sides of the argument. That said, I will always self-censor my own reading material. I'll never be old enough for some things:)

Yes, Myrna, I thought THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE was the odd book out, too. One of these things is not like the others and all that. Perhaps the teacher's planning to read it for comparison purposes? In any case, I like the idea of giving students choices and respecting their decisions. I mean, we want our kids to grow up to be well-rounded adults who can think and act for themselves, right?

Neha Shayar said...

I am a die-hard John Green fan. I've read all his books so it was obvious I'm going to buy this one. I don't regret buying it but its not that great. It's really funny though.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks for stopping by, Neha! It just goes to show how subjective tastes are.