Censorship V. Selection
With the 2021 Banned Book Week now behind us, I am reflecting on some of the discussions that populated that week for me.
Censorship is almost always discussed and studied in the Children Literature Class I have taught at the University, but it is also a topic in classes like the Social Studies course that I am currently teaching. Since this course focuses on Social Studies content and strategies, historical fiction is always a topic that we dig into deeply. My college students were just finishing up historical fiction book studies that revolved around the Revolutionary War, when the topic of censorship and banned books came to the forefront.
Many discussions focused on the tough issues that came through in these novels- slavery, conflict, racism, sexism, violence. Tough topics for any books, but these were books that were specifically written for young people. Children. Many of my students wondered if it was appropriate to bring these topics up in an elementary school classroom. Was it appropriate to use these books in the classroom to help students deepen their understanding of this historical time period?
My answer- it depends.
It is important to remember that CENSORSHIP is different than SELECTION. Censorship is a small group of people saying that no one should be allowed to read a specific book, because they have deemed it inappropriate, bad, or offensive. Selection is when parents, teachers, or schools, decide they will not bring a specific book into a specific classroom or use it with a specific group of children because it is not appropriate for THEM. These are very different processes.
Is every children’s book appropriate for every child? Of course not. When selecting books for inclusion in classroom libraries, school media centers, and the curriculum, these are just a few of the things that need to be considered:
- Reading level/ Lexile. This is the actual readability of the book and it is calculated based on vocabulary, sentence length, syntax, and complexity. This determines the average developmental age of the reader most likely to be able to independently read and understand the text. Remember though, these are averages and based on independent comprehension. We all know that most kids are not average, and often, when books are read in class, they are read and discussed together, not independently.
- Themes. Most books have both main themes and secondary themes, so both need to be taken into account. Not only do we need to consider if the themes are developmentally appropriate for the age/grade of the students, but we need to know our students well enough to decide if it is personally appropriate for them. For example, a book I usually do with one of my groups, which has a sub-theme of loss ( the main character’s mother has died), I chose not to do one year because I had a student who had recently suffered through the death of her father. Her loss was recent and raw, and I felt that she was not ready to deal with her emotions through a book study yet.
- The Teacher’ comfort level with the content. While we often consider the students’, we must also consider the teacher’s. If the teacher is not comfortable or does not feel competent enough with a particular topic or theme to adequately deal with the discussions and questions that will come up as a result of reading the book, it is not a good fit for that classroom or class.
If you were to examine the lists of banned and challenged books and look at the reasons given, it is almost always because the book includes a tough subject. Racism, LBGTQ issues, violence, sex, sexism, bigotry, hatred. And when these books are meant for children, a great deal of complex emotions surface. After all, our first response as a parent, teacher, or grandparent is to want to protect children. To protect them from pain, from negative emotions, from the ugliness of life. But as we know, we cannot protect them forever, so when they are ready to deal with these types of issues and concepts, isn’t literature a great and safe place to do it?
Life is filled with tough issues, and subjects that make us uncomfortable. Great literature can help us make sense of it.