This week we’re celebrating the freedom to read – it’s Banned Books Week!
When Behind the Book staff visited the New York Public Library last week for an exhibit called The ABC Of It: Why Children’s Books Matter, we saw an ominous room covered ceiling-to-floor in black paneling. This contained books that have been censored, banned, or challenged. One might not be surprised to find Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn due to its content dealing with racism and controversial use of language, but even the fun tales of the rebellious Pippi Longstocking did not escape criticism due to the main redhead’s notorious naughtiness. The extremely popular books in this section came under fire, especially by fundamentalist religious groups, for mature content and setting bad examples. Mark Twain surmised that the success of such books was not in spite of censorship, but partially because of it.
We have brought controversial books that discuss sensitive issues into classrooms because we believe that it is important for students to read books that reflect their experiences, especially when most books do not. We try to find books that are relevant to their lives, and sometimes that means content about race, violence, and drugs. Our students are often reluctant readers, but they are drawn in by stories that deal with topics with which they are familiar and to which they can connect.
Rule of the Bone by BtB author Russell Banks explores drug use, sexual abuse, and murder, and has consequently met much opposition. When it is taught in schools, the classroom can become a safe space to openly discuss these matters that may affect the readers. Even if they are not directly impacted, teenagers may encounter such problems in their communities, have friends who are struggling with them, or just hear about them on the news.
BtB author Matt de la Peña’s Mexican WhiteBoy was banned in Tuscon, Arizona for containing “critical race theory,” thus violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of “racial resentment.” We work with diverse groups of students from different racial, ethnic, religious, and linguistic backgrounds, and we celebrate that diversity. In a NY Times article, Tuscon students explained that the characters in Mexican WhiteBoy were more relatable than those in other books: their race, family and financial situation, educational goals, and career aspirations.
The bottom line is that relatability gets kids reading. Because many of our students are familiar with the taboo topics that get books banned, a banned book might just be the reason a student discovers reading!
By Laurie Beckoff, Program Intern