A middle school teacher’s thoughts about teenagers and Banned Books Week

Guest post by Ashby

Photo by Mr. T in DC, used under Creative Commons license.
When I was growing up, my parents mostly let me do my thing. We had rules, but they generally centered around safety and respect — don’t do things that hurt other people, or that might hurt you. Other than that, I was pretty much allowed to make my own (often ridiculous) choices and deal with the (often embarrassing) results. The one area that my Mom exerted her authority was, interestingly enough, my choice of reading material.

Maybe she chose books to worry about because I spent the vast majority of my time with them, or maybe it was because she herself is an avid reader, so she understood exactly what it was I could be reading under my covers at night. For whatever reason, there were very clear rules about what I could read until I was an older teen — nothing with overt sex, nothing that glorified violence or cruelty, nothing that depicted unhealthy relationships in a positive light (she would have DIED if I ever brought any of the Twilight books home). At the time, the rules mostly made me buy a lot of trashy novels and stash them under my mattress. But now, I kind of get it.

Teaching middle school, I am frequently disturbed by the book choices of students (especially girls), because so much of what is marketed towards that age group is just not developmentally appropriate. A book that I may read as an adult has an entirely different meaning to a thirteen-year-old who doesn’t have the life experience or perspective to recognize irony, generalizations, satire, or just plain poor choices. I get really worried when my twelve-year-olds read books about teen crack addicts and miss the underlying message that drugs are bad, noticing instead how fun the parties sound and how attractive the main character’s boyfriend seems to be. I wish that kids would only read books that are appropriate for their age. But does that mean that I would ban those “inappropriate” books if I could? Hell no.

Despite my obvious (and often founded) concerns, it’s often the books that are the most “dangerous” that end up having a positive impact on my students. Sometimes they find something in a character that they can relate to, or they picture something vividly enough through the book that they feel like it’s their own experience, and they don’t have to test it out. But even if the effects were only negative, I still wouldn’t take away that choice. Because what it comes down to, what it always comes down to, is that the choice itself is the powerful thing.

Every Banned Books Week, I talk to my students. We look at that year’s list (all books that have either been banned, or that organizations have attempted to ban) and talk about titles they recognize, discussing what it was about each book that earned it the honor of inclusion. And the kids get pissed. And it’s awesome.

At an age where we balk at any attempt (real or imagined) to silence our special, unique voice, adolescents empathize with banned books. Kids who have never read a book for pleasure become incensed at the idea that someone could tell them they can’t read something, and decide to really stick it to the man by — ha! — picking up a book for the first time in years. That’s the kind of rebellion I’ll get behind.

On top of using banned books as enticement to read, I find them an amazing conversation starter. In discussing why a book was banned, conversations about politics and societies and freedom of speech and value systems and personal freedom and religion and appropriateness spring up in classrooms where before there were only crickets. I always walk away from these conversations impressed by the thoughtfulness of adolescents.

I encourage anyone with access to a teenager to start a conversation this week about banned books, or about censorship in general. Some questions to consider:

  • Is censorship ever appropriate?
  • Would it be ok to “partially” ban a book, maybe from a certain audience?
  • Are there any books that you think should be banned, for the sake of the greater good?
  • Who should have the right to ban books, if anyone?
  • If you could ban a certain book, would you? If so, why, and which book?
  • Should parents be able to decide what their children read? At what ages?

Generally, I’ve found that teens favor freedom of choice — not shocking, considering that the whole point of being a teenager is to learn how to be someone other than your parents. But most kids are able to think further than “don’t tell me what to do.” I am always impressed by how readily my students will adjust their perspective to try to see things from the other side.

Comments on A middle school teacher’s thoughts about teenagers and Banned Books Week

  1. My father (a seventh-grade teacher) would always get so upset over the (unfounded) banning of books from his school. It would be based on something like the superintendent’s daughter read a book and told him that it mentioned sex or drugs, and it would be banned. But there were some horrid books on the shelves and in the wrong areas (like three grades too young) despite that! But the thing that would upset him the most is that he couldn’t expect his students to write reports about any of these worrisome books, and then talk about them and what made them so “iffy”, which is what the students needed. Otherwise, they were just going to read them outside of class and never be guided through what might be questionable content.

  2. I’m a public librarian that serves teens. It has been an awesome couple of weeks being able to talk to them about banned books.

    “Captain Underpants! Who would ban that?!?” (I have teens who already engage in nostalgia about books they’ve read in the past.)

    For the most part, they are bemused. They agree that their parents should be the only ones that have any say over what they read. A few are a little incensed about our body books and feel that they are too salacious for the intended audience of young to elementary aged kids. We’ve talked lots about perception. They still can’t wrap their brains around the idea that a kid might be completely bored with the idea that we all have different working body parts!

    When presented a book like “Go Ask Alice,” they asked what the general story line was and as a group turned up their noses at it. I think there’s something to be said of being aware of your limits. When a kid brings this stuff to you and says, what is that? That’s wrong, isn’t it? You couldn’t be presented with a better opportunity to talk about what is right and wrong because their minds are engaged with the issue at hand.

  3. We don’t really have any “banned books” in Norway, you pretty much can borrow whatever in the libraries, but I remember when I was 11-12 year old and wanted to read the “Clan of the cave bear”-series, the one with Ayla and Jondalar and the stoneage (ring a bell with anyone?)

    My father said that I had to wait until I was older because of “inapropriate content for someone my age”, which means “house wife P++n”. It took a week before I was reading it in secret. And it’s a great serie.

    I remember when “Harry Potter” got published and we watched people in U.S (sorry) burn the books on a big pyre and look now. The books only got more popular.

    The moral is: Ban books from teenagers and they WILL read them. Let them read the books but have an open dialogue with them about the choices the books caracters make and they will learn to make better choices for themselves.

    • I remember those cave bear books! I read them in the school library when I was 10. (It was an area school that included students from pre-school to high school graduation.) I wasn’t very impressed with how the main characters were both a Mary-Sue and a Mary-Stue.

      Later on I got caught reading a different ‘mature’ book by my English teacher. The school couldn’t get angry at me for just reading so instead I was told to point out all the books that have sex scenes in them to the Librarian so she could put ‘mature readers’ stickers on them.

    • OMG. It is AMAZING that you mentioned Clan of the Cave Bear. My 3rd grade teacher read that to us (he skipped some parts) and I could never remember what it was called. Def gonna go buy it and read the whole thing!

  4. The whole movement to ban books doesn’t take into account that books are just one influence upon children. You can ban a book because of questionable content, but the child may be exposed to the same ideas through another medium. Ideally, kids would read many, many books, all of which would help widen their perspective, making it less likely that a single book would have a negative effect on them.

  5. I read Juliette et Justine and the 120 Days of Sodoma by De Sade when I was 15. I read The Pillars of the Earth at 9, Stephen King’s Night shift at 12, and a lot of adult fiction involving sex, drugs, violence all along. Of course I also read lots of childhood classics, poetry and literary masterpieces. I have never taken any drugs, never smoked, never gotten drunk and waited to have sex until my 20s. I don’t think books can damage people. Books are windows opening to other possibilities, what makes the difference is being taught why it is better to keep some doors shut.

  6. My mom was a librarian so books were pretty accessible. She didn’t want me reading bodice rippers when I was a pre-teen or young teen (but I did anyway) but it was because some of them featured sexual situations she was morally against like rape. But I read books with sex in them. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern books have some steamy scenes and I did a book report on one of those books in grade 8 (my teacher had obviously never read them). We did have one book at our local library that was only available by parental request to kids of certain ages: Robert Munch’s _Good Families Don’t_ which is about farts. My mum of course let me read it.

    • YES. I also read Tamora Pierce’s Alanna books, which had sex scenes in them (along with her Immortals books), the Clan of the Cave Bear books, and other books that featured sex pretty graphically, but not in the bodice-ripping way. And I turned out to be the girl who was a virgin until she was 24 and has still only slept with one guy – the guy she’s going to marry. Although I have been living “in sin” with him for the last three years…

      But yes, banning books does not prevent teenagers from doing teenager-y things. And maybe if they’re home reading books about sex, drugs, and parties, they won’t actually be out participating in those activities! Lol.

  7. A friend of mine has a pre-teen girl who loves to read. My friend’s rule is that her daughter is allowed to read anything she wants, as long as she runs it by mom first. So, when she wanted to read a smutty romance novel as a 10 year old who thinks boys are gross, mom told her it has boys and girls kissing and stuff, and asked if she was still interested. Kid said no. Same with Twilight. Mom went over some basic themes of Harry Potter with the kid who sounded enthused, but it opened up the dialogue about death and evil later so that the kid could discuss it and process through it with a grow-up.

    Personally, I really like this idea. “You can read anything you want, but I want to read it first so that we can talk about it.” So when the kid did decide that she was ready for the Twilight books, they could discuss how sometimes we fantasize about things we aren’t really interested in doing ourselves, and why that’s OK. (We can’t wait until her kid gets into the Anne Rice Sleeping Beauty novels…)

  8. I am not familiar with any lists of banned books, and my parents placed no restrictions on what I could read. (My mom had no idea that some of my novels contained pretty adult material.) Interestingly, it only made me aware that certain books and sex scenes made me uncomfortable, and I ended up self-censoring what I read in the future.

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