During the 2021-2011 school year, 138 school districts in 32 states banned more than 2500 books.
I am interested in the complex issue of book banning and with the current climate of books being removed from classroom and library shelves in some States mostly because of race, sexuality and gender content. I am deeply concerned. Now more than ever we need to provide young people with books that help enrich understanding of themselves, of the world. My book Teaching Tough Topics was written to help teachers use children’s literature to build a deeper understanding of social justice, diversity and equity. Yes, teaching such topics as racism, poverty, bullying, the refugee experience and physical and mental challenges can be ‘tough’ but it is essential that we provide students with resources and present strategies that help them develop as caring citizens of the world. In a speech given by Canadian author activist, Deborah Ellis at the 36th IBBY International Conference, offered the following wise words:
“Good children’s literature is not the sole key to a sustained livable future for all, but it is certainly one of the keys…” (see preface (p. 7) Teaching Tough Topics
Years ago I attended a session Book Censorship in Children’s literature and Katherine Paterson was on a panel discussing the banning of her very special title Bridge to Terabithia. Her concluding message has stayed with me: Do we want to prepare our children or protect our children. Now, more than ever, with complexities of racism, immigration, sexual identity, bullying etc. we need books that help students learn about themselves, learn about others, be compassionate of differences and take action to uphold tolerance.
YOU CAN’T SAY THAT! compiled and edited by Leonard S. Marcus (professional reading)
Writers for young people talk about censorship, free expression, and the stories they have to tell (voices include Matt de la Pena, David Levithan, Katherine Paterson, Dav Pilkey, R.L. Stine, Angie Thomas. Leonard S. Marcus, one of the world’s leading voices about children’s books interviews the authors who each offer stories about having one or more of their books banned banned, each frankly sharing their thoughts about the freedom of expression. You Can’t Say That! helps parents, educators, librarians, politicians and young people come to understand the impact of combatting First Amendment challenges. I found this to be a very inspiring read, prompting me to revisit several titles by the authors to consider what the ‘problems’ might be. I embarked on a little reading project to re-read a dozen titles that were highlighted in You Can’t Say That! This posting is an overview of the titles, accompanied by comments presented in the author interviews in Marcus’s book.
*Note: Jerry Spinelli and Mildred D. Taylor were not featured in Marcus’s book but are included her because for me they were very much worth revisiting and thinking about why they would have been banned.
CENSORED BOOKS: TEN TITLES
AND TANGO MAKES THREE by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell; illus. Henry Cole (picture book) (2005)
An important true story about two penguins in Central Park who made history because they were boy penguins who did everything together, fell in love, and made a home where they slept together. This version is accompanied by a compact disc with the story narrated by Neil Patrick Harris. Written in 2005, And Tango Makes Three is a warm story of same sex relationships, which has been challenged and has been on the top ten list of banned literature in some schools and libraries, since it was deemed inappropriate for children. And Tango Makes Three is a story about family and a story about trying to get something you want – and then getting it.
Justin Richardson:“Abstinence-only education, for example, is the only form of education I can think of that is based on the premise that withholding knowledge is what’s helpful for a child. It obviously makes no sense. But that’s the fear.” (page 158) Tango was the very first penguin in the zoo to have two daddies.
BOY MEETS BOY by David Levithan (2003)
It’s just about 20 years since the publication f David Levithan’s groundbreaking book about teenage gay love. This is a book about boy meeting and falling in love with boy, boy losing boy; and boy love rekindled. Paul is the central character of the story (I’ve always know I was gay, but it wasn’t confirmed until I was in kindergarten.”) and when he meets Paul he is smitten. Falling in love isn’t easy for anyone and this book gay romance seems ‘normal’ with stories of ex-boyfriends, loyal friends, loving families, and a vibrant character who is both homecoming queen and starting quarterback. Narrative and conversations will certainly ring true for many straight, queer and/or otherwise. Of course books with boys meeting boys are forever challenged, even though the abundance of LGBTQ titles has exploded since this book came out in 2003. Some Leviathan titles include: Another Day, Two Boys Kissing, Every Day, The Realm of Possibilities, Answers in the Pages.
David Levithan … the fact that my book and my identity are being attacked at the same time isn’t particularly pleasant. And if you want to rub me the wrong way, say that evergreen phrase, “You must be so happy that your books are being challenged – you’ll sell so many more books!” The response to which is: “Yes, more people in that community are likely to read my book now. But it also mens that the queer kids and allies in that community have to defend themselves and the book in the place where they live, and it means that there are likely librarians or teachers who have put themselves in the line of fire to defend the book.” Intellectually, I know that free speech will prevail – it almost always does – and I know that some good conversations will come out of it. But it’s still harrowing to have to face such intolerance on your home ground, and it never feels good to know that people have to go through that.” (page 71)
BRIDGE TO TERABITHIA by Katherine Paterson (1977)
Summary (inside cover): “The life of a ten year old boy in rural Virginia expands when be becomes friends with a newcomer who subsequently meets an untimely death trying to reach their hideaway, Terabithia, during a storm.” This iconic novel has been criticized for its gutter and unholy language (Jess says the word ‘Lord’ a lot); the undermining of family values (Leslie calls her parents by their first name) and for the element of death (young people should not ready to be exposed to grief).Am so pleased that this little project to revisit titles I’ve read before connected me to Bridge To Terabithia one more time. It is indeed one of the top 10 books published for young people in the past years. Imagine that in 2027, it will be the Newbery award-winning novel’s 50th anniversary. Note: I am honoured to have an interview “Dealing with Bereavement Through Children’s Literature” with Katherine Paterson included in my book Teaching Tough Topics (page 107-108)
Katherine Paterson: “… if a book has power, you really can’t control the pwoer. The reception of the power is the reader’s choice. I don’t think you can decide for another reader what might be damaging for them, and I think most children would stop reading if they realized it was something that was hurting thme or if it was something they didn’t want to understand.” (page 119)
“I heard of a minister who said he was making it his ‘mission in life’ to get Bridge to Terabithia off the shelves of every library in school. I thought Man, get yourself a larger mission. (p. 114)
CAPTAIN UNDERPANTS AND THE SENSATIONAL SAGA OF SIR STINKS-A-LOT by Dav Pilkey (2015)
This is the twelfth novel by genius author Dav Pilkey who’s Captain Underpants comic and comical adventures have delighted millions of young readers since first published in 1997. Pilkey’s work has been criticized and continues to be on the top banned book-lists for its offbeat humour and inappropriate use of language (e.g., fart tinkle, pee-pee) and a view that comic books are ‘dangerous’. How could a book with the word ‘underpants’ be ‘good for children’. In this book, beloved characters George and Harold travel 20 years into the future and we learn that George is happily married with a family as is Harold, except Harold has is happily married with husband named Billy. My oh my!
Dav Pilkey: “If the reality you’ve constructed for yourself and your family can be shattered by a children’s book, maybe children’s books aren’t the problem.” (p. 139)
GOOSEBUMPS: THE HAUNTED MASK by R. L. Stein (1993)
It’s Halloween and Carly Beth Caldwell is determined to take revenge on Steve & Chuck who have been known to constantly come up on Carly and frighten her. It is her turn to make them scream and so on Halloween night, instead of wearing the duck costume prepared by her mother, Carly goes to The Party Store to purchase the uglies goriest, scariest destined to frighten others. But Carly learns that the mask has powers of its own and goosebumps arise. Another great horror “safe scare” adventure by master storyteller R. L. Stein, though challenged by some who considered it to be ‘inappropriate’ and ‘too scary’ for kid and one columnist, Diana West who claimed that ‘Goosebumps was really pornography for kids’.
R. L. Stein: I learned that rule number one is: never defend yourelf. I was taught that by a media coach.
THE GREAT GILLY HOPKINS by Katherine Paterson (1978)
Galadrial (Gilly) Hopkins has moved from foster home to foster home and now she is living with Trotter and Gilly is so unhappy. All she wants he is to be reunited with her mother who now lives in California. Gilly is feisty, smart, rude, resilient, hopeful and oh-so-tought Hopkins. If there was anything her short life had taught her, it was a person must be tough, Otherwise you were had. (p. 86) And yes, she is the GREAT Gilly Hopkins. This book has been criticized for the ‘bad’ words that are part of Gilly’s vocabulary (e.g, God, damned, hell, retarded). She is also a character who lies and steals and has terrible prejudice against African American people.
“Oh my poor baby,”
Gilly was crying now. She couldn’t help herself. “Trotter, it’s all wrogn. Nothing turned out the way it’s supposed to.”
“How you mean supposed to? Life ain’t supposed to be nothing, ‘cept maybe tough.”
“But I always thought that when my mother came…”
“My sweet baby, ain’t no one very told you yet? I reckon I though you had it all figured out.”
“That all that stuff about happy endings is lies. The only ending in this world is death. ” (p. 207)
Katherine Paterson: I think up to a certain point, children need to have happy. endings. By the time they’re nine or ten, children of intelligence are looking around and realizing that the world is not all happily-every–after. That is when they’re going to be ready for a book that mirrors the reality of what they’re learning about.” (p. 119)
HEATHER HAS TWO MOMMIES by Leslea Newman; illus. Laura Cornell (picture book) (1989)
This iconic picture book was first published in 1989 (originally illustrated b Diana Souza) and was one of the first (the first?) to introduce Heather, who is the only girl in her class who doesn’t have a daddy, but has two mommies. This picture book was one of the most frequently challenged books of the 1990’s.
Leslea Newman “I am sorry that any child has to grow up knowing that for no reason on earth their family is looked down upon as worthy of scorn or as immoral. It makes me sad and furious and determined to write more books about LGBTQ families, despite some people wishing I would not do so? ” (page 102)
*MANIAC MAGEE by Jerry Spinelli (1990)
Jerry Spinelli won the Newbery Medal for Maniac Magee, which I would argue is one of the top ten novels for middle age readers of the last 30 years. A classic, indeed that has sold over 3 million copies. I have fond memories of reading this book aloud to my grade five class (they voted it the best of my read aloud books that year). Inspired by the issue of books that have been challenged it was rewarding to read Spinelli’s book. Do yourself a favour and read it again. And if you haven’t read it, put it on your ‘must read’ list. Maniac Magee is a mighty fine fictional hero, a boy who is orphaned and, now homeless, he is on the run from settling into a home to call his own. And on the run he is. He is a legend as a runner, as someone who can untie knots, as a home-run hitter, as a literacy teacher but most of all for bringing together kids from the Pennsylvania town of Two Mills and the segregated life of blacks and whites in the East End (blacks) and those from the West End (whites). In this book, Jerry Spinelli shows his marvel at storytelling and sentence writing. WOW! (“He didn’t figure he was white any more than the East enders were black. He looked himself over pretty hard and came up with at least seven different shades and colors right on his own skin, not one of them being what he would call white (except for his eyeballs, which weren’t any whiter than the eyeballs of the kids in the East End.” (p. 58)
Even though it is regularly assigned to fifth and sixth grade readers in schools, Maniac Magee is frequently on the American Library Associations list of challenged books. (mild profanity, a kid choosing to beat the system by living on the streets and especially the depiction of racism.) In the early 1990s’ the South African government distributed copies of the book to help transition during the end of apartheid. Spinelli has never shied away from tough topics (Wringer/ peer pressure towards violence; The Warden’s Daughter / a girl grows up without a mother in a county prison and Milkweed (the story of a Jewish boy set during the Holocaust).
Jerry Spinelli has said in interviews, that he is only concerned about telling a story with believable characters and doesn’t worry whether kids can handle more mature themes. “Its the world their growing up in…They have their own problems, the same problems that I had when I was their age.”
MEXICAN WHITE BOY by Matt de la Pena (2008) (YA)
I’m familiar (and admire) picture books author Matt de la Pena, the first American Author to win the Newbery Medal for Last Stop on Market Street, illustrated by Christian Robinson. Milo Imagines the World (illus by Christian Robinson) was on my top five list of picture books in 2021. His novel titles include Ball Don’t Lie, We Were Here, and I Will Save You. Mexican White Boy is his second novel which tells the story of Danny who is Half-Mexican brown and who is quiet and introspective. “He’s Mexican because his family’s Mexican , but he’s not really Mexican. His skin is dark like is grandma’s sweet coffee, but his insides are as pale as the cream she mixes in.” (p.90).The story is set in san Diego close to the Mexican border where he hopes to be reunited with his father who supposedly moved there. Danny is spending the summer with his father’ family where he develops a friendship with Uno, who also longs to be reunited with his father. De La Pena paints a vivid portrait of life in a barrio in Southern California and his raw, gritty, portrayal of Mexican, Black and White adolescent friendships and rivals is told through powerful storytelling. The game of baseball predominates many narrative events: “People would have to see Danny pitch to believe it.” The character of Danny came out of the author’s personal family experiences. Controversy for this book title began in Tucson Arizona when the Mexican-American Studies Program was being challenged by people in power. Somebody from the program had mate the statement at a Mexican American event that “Republicans hate Mexicans. the book was caught up in a political struggle.
Matt De La Pena ended up visiting the high school to which he was originally invited: The closing of the program had actually further motivated the Mexican American kids. The had begun to fight for the program. At one point, they had even chained themselves to some desks in city hall. They were activists now. That visit, which the savvy school librarian had managed to arrange without the superintendent or the principal knowing about it, was the most powerful experience I ever had has an author….The experience “made me understand the power of literature. It made me realize that a book is bigger than a book.” (p. 9-10)
*ROLL OF THUNDER HEAR MY CRY by Mildred D. Taylor (1976)
Cassie Logan lives with her family, farmers in Mississippi in the 1930s. The novel features the racist attitude of American Whites in telling the story of the Logans who battle racism to keep their land and stay together. The episodes of racism are harrowing: The Logan children are harassed by a school bus full of white children, Cassie takes a trip to a nearby town and is greeted with disrespect, The Wallace boys (owners of the local store) burn some black men (killing one), The blacks are urged to boycott the store, Papa Logan’s leg is broken during a violent attack, the Logan family is force to pay a loan. The novel was the recipient of the 1977 Newbery Medal. This is a powerful novel, rich in narration, about a family that struggles with indignities, lives with pride and strength and fights for freedom and justice. The Logan family appear in a number of novels by the author (The Land, Mississippi Bridge, Song of the Trees, Let the Circle Be Unbroken).
A frequently challenged book for its harsh depiction of racism and is use of racial slurs. Jim Crow laws, White supremacy, racial lynching have resulted in the banning of this book for fear of harm to black students.
SHOUT OUT: THREE TERRIFIC NOVELS
The following recent titles for middle years readers unpack the topic of censorship and how students take action to deal with book banning.
ANSWERS IN THE PAGES by David Levithan
This rather short novel (163 pages) is presented as three alternating narrative: 1) an adventure story about two boys who are trying to prevent an evil genius from acquiring The Doomsday Code that will destroy life; 2) a relationship story about two young boys who come to realize that their might be falling in love; 3) 2) a ‘now’ story, where Donovan’s mother protests the teaching of The Adventurers because the two characters (as we learn on the last page realize they deeply love each other .When out gay teacher, Mr. Howe brings the novel The Adventurers into the classroom for all his students to read, troubles erupt in Donovan’s life and the life of the school. Moreover, learning unfolds as students, educators and families fight to stand up for their beliefs and fight for what’s right. Kids might have many questions about , but they are sure to find some ‘answers to their questions, in the pages’ of David Levithan’s important new book, indeed worthy of a shout-out.
excerpt from Answers on the Pages
“There is nothing about being queer that deserves censorship rather than expression. Nothing. This should not be a matter of debate because a person’s humanity should never be a matter of debate. Instead it is a matter of the highest principal we can aspire to, which is equality.”
ATTACK OF THE BLACK RECTANGLES by Amy Sarig King
Mac and his grade 6 classmates are assigned to read The Devil’s Arithmetic by Jane Yolen, a powerful novel about time travel in to the Holocaust. As they embark on the reading the book, they discover that some words have been blacked out because someone deemed them in appropriate for young readers (Spoiler: the word ‘breasts’ has been scratched out Mac and his friends are determined to confront censorship and meetings with the principal and with the parents’ council add to the students’ frustration. This is an engaging story about activism and young people’s determination to uphold the TRUTH (even about Christopher Columbus and his discovery of American).
BAN THIS BOOK by Alan Gratz
A fourth-grader fights back when her favourite book is banned from the school library. In protest, she starts her own illegal locker lending library which becomes a huge successful venture.
OF SPECIAL INTEREST
GENDER QUEER: A memoir by Mia Kobare (YA)
The most banned book of 2021-2022, removed from school libraries and classrooms on at least 41 separate instances.
People who are ‘genderqueer’ may see themselves as being both male and femaile, neither male nor female or being completely outside these categories. Presented in graphic format, this memoir recounts the author’s journey from adolescence to adulthocod and with honest words and images provides and exploration of gender identity and sexuality. The author pours out her heart, her confusions and her grappling of how to come out to her family and society. They ultimately define as being outside the gender binary. The book was banned and challenged for its LGBTQIA+ content and for its explicit images (i.e., masturbation and fantasies, the trauma of a pap smear test, the use sex toys).
FYI; Article Toronto Star
by Ira Wells, November 27, 2022
“I joined a book club at my kids’ school, unwittingly writing myself int a long history of literary censorship”
FYI: Article… New Yorker magazine
by Jessica Winter, July 11, 2022
“What Should A Queer Children’s Book Do?”
How a vital burgeoning genre or kid lit is being threatened across the country
FYI: BANNED BOOKS: The World’s Most Controversial Books, Past and Present
DK Penguin Random House
Page by page, this book provides a document of controversial, provocative, and revolutionary literature whose publication has been been curtailed at some point in history. An overview and description of titles that have been is provided in 1-3 pages, with illustration. Some titles include The Canterbury tales, Frankenstein, Ulysses, 1984, The Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingvird, I Know Why the Caged Bird sings, The Handmaid’s Tale, and more recently The Kite Runner, The Absoultely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and ,.
Of the 2500 books challenged in school districts in the United States, do any of these banned book titles surprise you?
Harriet the Spy (Louise Fitzhugh); Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White); The Giver (Lois Lowry); The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (C.S. Lewis); A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle); The Giving Tree (Shel Silverstein); The Family Book (Todd Parr); Where the Wild Things Are (Maurice Sendak); Drama (Raina Telgemeier); The Call of the Wild (Jack London); Speak (Laurie Halse Anderson); Where’s Waldo? (Martin Hanford); THe Witches (Roald Dahl); The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas): The New Kid (Jerry Craft); George/Melissa (Alex Gino): All Boys Aren’t Blue (George M. Johnson): Gender Queer (Maia Kobabe); If I ran the Zoo (Dr. Seuss); Maus (Art SpiegelmanTo Kill a Mockingbird (Harper Lee): (The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank);