By Andrew Butler
In middle school, I was fascinated by the list of America’s most banned books, noting that many of them were standards that were taught in the classrooms of my school: “Catcher in the Rye,” “Fahrenheit 451,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Of Mice and Men.” These were some of my favorite books, books that brought the classroom to life, books that challenged my perceptions, books that kept me up late reading ahead.
So, why was it that some of my favorite books were so controversial? Many of the challenges center around “inappropriate” ideas, “profane” language and questions about if and when relatively mature content should be introduced to adolescents and young adults. In recent years, there seems to be a marked increase in curricular challenges to the novels taught in middle and high schools across the country, both in public and private schools.
The recent news about a Tennessee school board banning Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust-related graphic novel “Maus” is yet another step in the direction of censorship and the dumbing down of the literary canon in an attempt to reach the lowest common denominator: books that will not offend anyone.
And yet, all too often, books that can offend are also books that can inspire. Education is a process of breaking down and building up, and the literature classroom thrives on debate and discussion. The motives of those pushing to ban certain books from the classroom are not always clear. Many of the books being challenged feature themes related to race, gender and sexuality. However, like the recent situation in Tennessee, the surface objections usually come down to the appropriateness of certain language or images.
In the case of “Maus,” the board’s unanimous vote determined that the book is not appropriate for their district, citing bad language (such as “God damn”) and a cartoon nude drawing of an animal. Spiegelman himself commented on the ban, calling it “Orwellian,” doubting that the challenge was really based on language and the image alone. But the board maintains that their decision was unrelated to the Holocaust-related content of the book.
Other popular school novels have also been challenged in recent years. “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is taught in far fewer schools than it was a few decades ago, primarily based on its use of racial slurs. And “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Of Mice and Men” are in the news again, and may be the next classics to go.
Other challenges surround books that feature LGBTQ characters, such as “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky or “George,” by Alex Gino, on the theory that “normalizing” these characters could have a damaging effect on “innocent” readers.
Some adolescent modern classics, like “The Outsiders” by S.E. Hinton and “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins, have been challenged for their violence and strife, despite being perennial student favorites.
There is good reason to keep the edge in our literature, and to support efforts to use it to help students face the realities of life through the lens of great literature. Aristotle famously said that “the essence of drama is conflict.” A good literature class comes to life when the anchor text challenges and confronts. The safety of the classroom is a perfect place for thoughtful discussion and debate that aids in development of critical thinking. Teaching English to adolescents is about so much more than reading comprehension, sentence structure and proper grammar; it is about teaching students how to think, how to challenge and how to learn. And, hopefully, how to love literature as they encounter new ideas and characters.
The purpose of reading literature is not for readers to model every behavior they see in the characters, but rather to learn from the characters’ choices, and to allow for easier discussions about difficult subjects. For example, I often teach Ray Bradbury’s excellent short story “All Summer in a Day” when I want to discuss bullying and exclusion with my middle school students. Imagine how much easier it is to talk about the story’s antagonist William bullying the protagonist Margot, instead of asking students to share personal experiences. Students read about William’s growing harassment and nastiness toward Margot, and can dispassionately discuss how each of the characters should react.
When we teach Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” we are not advocating disobeying parents or the tragedy of suicide. When we teach “The Outsiders,” we are not encouraging our students to drink, fight or burn down barns. When we teach Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” we are not advocating for a violent revolution. Instead, good teachers use the edge in literature to hook students’ attention and to inspire high-level thinking, reasoning and empathy in our students.
Part of what helps students learn to love literature is showing them that stories can be exciting, challenging, inspiring, infuriating and edgy, while still educational. We aim to show them that a good book can be as, or more, entertaining and engaging than anything they passively watch on social media, in mass media or via their streaming services. The recent attempts to censor more and more parts of our literary canon cut away at teachers’ options for meaningful classroom growth and sanitizes the reading curriculum to the point where controversy and difficult discussions are avoided. This robs students of opportunities to learn about diverse life experiences and to reach beyond themselves for understanding. And, perhaps most importantly, it makes inspiring students to love reading even more difficult than it already is.
To parents who are concerned about material being taught in your children’s school novels: Take a look at what your children are viewing online, the videos they are watching on TikTok, Instagram and YouTube, the movies and shows they watch on Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, and the searches they conduct while going “incognito,” and direct your censorship there. My bet is that you will find the most “controversial” literature being taught in schools will pale in comparison.
Andrew Butler is chair of the English Department and a middle and high school teacher at Scheck Hillel Community School in North Miami Beach, Fla.