Book bannings are as old as books themselves, but the fact that they persist into today’s America—an America packed with screens of every kind, screens allowing for easy internet access and thus access to any number of challenging, unusual, and even obscene materials—is simply mystifying to me. Yet still books are banned from schools and formally challenged by parents on a shockingly regular basis. Only this past September, Highland Park ISD (Dallas, TX) Superintendent Dawson Orr approved the suspension of seven books: The Art of Racing in the Rain; The Glass Castle; The Working Poor: Invisible in America; Siddhartha; The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian; An Abundance of Katherines; and Song of Solomon.
To Orr’s credit, however (and after some impressive backlash from alumni, students, national media, and other parents), he canceled the suspension.
“I made the decision in an attempt to de-escalate the conflict, and I readily admit that it had the opposite effect,” he said in an email to parents. “I take full responsibility for the decision, and I apologize for the disruption it has caused.
(qtd. from Melissa Repko’s “Highland Park ISD reverses book suspensions at high school“)
And while it’s upsetting, baffling, and ludicrous to ban books from students (at least in my humble opinion) in any circumstance (after all, if a book is really that troubling to a student, then let the student decide for themselves and ask for a substitute—not the parents), it is still impressive to see a leader not only take responsibility for a poor decision, but also take swift action to correct the mistake. According to Orr, he originally agreed to suspend the books after receiving feedback from hundreds of parents. But why did these parents feel a need to object so powerfully to these texts? Considering that kids can now get their fill of violence, abuse, sexual content, and hard language from not only the internet but basic cable as well, why would parents take such issue with their children encountering these kinds of materials in the thoughtful, more personal world of a book—especially when it’s to be an experience shepherded by a teacher, an experience intended to provoke deeper thought and consideration of such issues rather than simple titillation?
By now, most of us have read and come to love certain books that were once banned or challenged in the States for their content, books like Mark Twain’s (1884) The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (first banned in Concord, MA in 1885 for being “trash and suitable only for the slums”); Toni Morrison’s (1987) Beloved; Ray Bradbury’s (1954) Fahrenheit 451; Ernest Hemingway’s (1940) For Whom the Bell Tolls; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s (1925) The Great Gatsby; Maurice Sendak’s (1963) Where the Wild Things Are; J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series; and even Dav Pilkey’s Captain Underpants series.(qtd. from Banned Books Week)
Dee Brown’s (1970) Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West, was also “banned by a school district official in Wisconsin in 1974 because the book might be polemical and they wanted to avoid controversy at all costs. ‘If there’s a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it?’ the official stated.” (qtd. from Banned Books Week) This reasoning is, to me, one of the most disturbing of all. Not only is this thought process counter to all things educational, but it’s also one of the most despicable examples of “the easy way out” that I can think of, one of the most un-American, thoughtless, and cowardly.
And perhaps that’s the heart of the problem: cowardice. For what other reason could there be to attempt to ban information from kids? If material is truly that worrisome or potentially disturbing for particular children—perhaps kids who themselves have suffered abuses or traumas that would be too painful to relive through a book—then certainly there is cause to provide them with substitute options. But why should this mean banning certain books from all students of a certain school district? It’s fear—it’s the attempt to forcibly impose one’s beliefs and feelings upon others.
So, thank you to Superintendent Orr for taking responsibility and action to reverse a poor decision—thank you for agreeing to not impose the beliefs of some parents upon the children of all in your community. And thank you to all those school officials and parents who stand up regularly for their children and their children’s friends’ right to learn and explore without prejudice or fear. When we begin to fear information, education, and exploration, we become obstacles to progress—both our own and our society’s. We don’t have to like or approve of every book or be glad every book was written. But none of these feelings should give anyone the right to make such determinations for others.
Further Reading Suggestions:
- See Melissa Repko’s “Highland Park ISD reverses book suspensions at high school” with Dallas News for a breakdown of why each novel in particular was suspended
- “Banned Books That Shaped America”
- “Harry Potter Series – Selected Challenges”
- ACLU & Banned Books Week (2011): “Free People Read Freely”
- Lynn Neary, WYPR, “Too Graphic? 2014 Banned Books Week Celebrates Challenged Comics”