The last week of September is the American Library Association’s annual Banned Books Week. It always dovetailed with the exploration my classes started on why we read. As a class we would go through the list of the 25 most challenged books and why they were banned. Students were shocked, perplexed, and just plain angry at how adults could so misunderstand one of their favorite books. “Bridge to Terabithia promotes witchcraft?? Really? That was my favorite book!” And so it would go as we went down the list. “Do these people even read the book, the whole book?” one student fumed. It was, to say the least, a great motivator to get even my most reluctant readers reading. It also was a clear illustration of the power of the written word.
The understanding that words have power seems even more important. We have seen the impact of words – in court rulings, on social platforms like Twitter and news shows, in colleges, and in the halls of government. Lately it seems as if word choices are made for the shock value or for what will evoke the most visceral reaction. That worries me a lot. Visceral reactions shut down speech and shut up people instead facilitating reasoned discussions on larger issues. Who are we as a nation? A society? As individuals? What exactly do we value? How do we ensure those values are reflected in our laws? How do we balance those values in a country of many cultural, ethnic, religious beliefs? It is the more reasoned discussion among that plurality of beliefs that is our hallmark and our strength as a country. Yet lately words are honed to a laser focus on our differences. That makes it almost impossible to find common ground. In her poem “The Human Family” Maya Angelou puts it best:
I note the obvious differences
between each sort and type,
but we are more alike, my friends,
than we are unalike.
As long as we cannot see what we have in common, that divide will continue to grow, and, I fear, to strengthen. Worse, it will tempt us further to silence those voices we do not agree with.
Which brings us back to the critical importance, of students reading a wide range of materials from a diverse range of voices. Some materials students may agree with; some they may find more challenging, maybe even uncomfortable. It is only in reading and reflecting on things that challenge and discomfort us that we grow. Note I said reflect. This does not mean to suggest there will be a change of belief, though that may happen. More important, as Kylene Beers and Robert Probst describe in Disrupting Thinking, is the reflection on what we know, how the book makes us feel, and how we reconcile that dissonance that offers our students a path to a better world. When we are willing to reflect on how a book adds to our understanding of the world around us, to question what we know and think, we allow for the space to find likeness where it may not seem to exist.
St. Augustine said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.” Even centuries ago he realized the danger of a limited perspective. Research shows we develop empathy when we read. By reading diverse texts, we are afforded the opportunity to put on another’s skin and experience their reality. It is another tool to ensure we do not suffer from the single story that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently warns us of in her TED talk “The Danger of a Single Story”.
My fervent hope for your school year is that it is filled with a wonderfully rich variety of literature. May there be the joy of discovery as well as the discomfort of examining deeply held beliefs. Below are some resources to explore this topic further.
http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks Resources on top ten most challenged books by the year
http://www.ncte.org/action/anti-censorship Guidelines for choosing ELA materials, rationales for the teaching of books that have been challenged, NCTE position statements on intellectual freedom and censorship as well as the support the NCTE can offer.
Speak Loudly is a collection of some YA authors on the topic of censorship. With thanks to Wendy Glenn for submitting this on behalf of the ALAN Anti-Censorship Committee.