“Censorship ends in logical completeness when nobody is allowed to read any books except the books that nobody reads.”
“Our culture has traded books for Web page views, words for icons, and study for entertainment. We have, in fact, become a society full of people who are merely functionally literate rather than deeply literate” (91).
—John Suk, Not Sure
We have just emerged from a brown, uneventful winter. The Canada geese look dizzy as they circle around, heading south, then spiral back again to the open waters of Lake Ontario. The homely garlic that was planted in the fall decided it was time to grow, so we can almost eat it already. Winter for me is a time of rest from the garden, and a time to catch up on reading: children’s fiction, professional literature, “Canada Reads” (the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s annual book competition) winners, and whatever else comes my way. There seems never to be enough time to read all the good books! What do we as educators read, and what do we encourage our students to read? What makes a book “good”? How do we decide which books to put in our Christian school libraries or our literature units, and which to leave out?
The list of banned children’s books is surprising. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is banned from many high schools in the United States because of its use of what are now considered racial slurs. Hatchet is an optional novel for study in our school in grade six, and I was surprised while writing this article to find that it is banned in some places because of its graphic description of injury and trauma. Even The Lorax by Dr. Seuss is banned in some areas of the United States for its “allegorical political commentary,” despite its incisive account of environmental disaster. The list goes on: Harriet the Spy (banned for being anti-authoritative), Shel Silverstein (banned for some of his “non-traditional” ideas), and The Diary of Anne Frank (banned for its depressive tone). Finally, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition was banned in some libraries for having “Thirty-nine objectionable words” (amazon.com/gp/richpub/syltguides/fullview/R35VVPN7OSI8N).
The process of censorship is subjective, and is affected by geography, historical context, and environment. Ironically, the sales of books that have been banned usually skyrocket, with the Harry Potter series a prime example. Writing fiction involves embellishing a story to tell the truth. A good book describes a human experience in an effective way, and can be appreciated by both Christians and non-Christians. One librarian told me she can handle books that deal with violence, but has no use for books that use profane language. Yet another librarian might be more opposed to violent themes than to profanity. As our own metric for censorship is inherently biased, where do we draw the line? War stories have violent themes, but they also often teach lessons of compassion and hope. Should we censor such books as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which is both violent and redemptive? Some books would not make good novel studies because of their content, but could have a place in the classroom or school library. Teachers and librarians need to dialogue with parents to create a positive reading environment for our children. Perhaps more importantly, we need to read along with our students so that we can participate in informed dialogue with them about what makes good literature. Without this kind of dialogue, it is all too easy to simply jump on the “‘banned’ wagon” before we even know what a book is about.
Our school participates a in a program called “The Battle of the Books,” where literature covering a variety of themes is introduced to elementary-aged students. This program, initiated in the 1980s, is undertaken each year in public schools, Catholic schools, bookstores, libraries, and a number of Christian schools. Its purpose is to encourage reading across a variety of genres of literature: historical fiction, fantasy, classics, mysteries, “serious” and “human” issues, adventure, and multiculturalism. The focus of the “Battle” for the students is to remember details of the books. Each school (or group of students) forms a team, which then works together to prepare for a competition with other schools or groups. This competition rewards cooperation, and provides students with an opportunity to compete on a team not focused on sports. What I find amazing about the program is its capacity to encourage the shy “bookworms,” who normally sit quietly in the corner of the classroom, to step into the limelight. These generally unrecognized students often have amazing skills of memory and organization, and capably take on the role of team leader at the competition.
To maintain interest in the “Battle,” the books have to include some “blistering” literature that challenges our students to read beyond their normal comfort zone. In choosing such books, it means that the reading list may not be “safe,” according to the standards of some. This year, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins was chosen as one of our books. This science fiction novel is both philosophical and suspenseful, and is filled with adventure and romance. Although the novel includes unsettling violence, it yet remains a powerful story of love and the endurance of the human spirit. Some might argue that this novel should be banned from the competition for its violence, but this would ignore the bigger picture that Collins presents to her readers. While attempting to broaden the reading experiences of our children, it is sometimes necessary to present literature with challenging themes.
This fall when we released the new “Battle” book list, our librarian was almost knocked down as students raced to get their hands on the books. Although not all will complete the program, it is great to see a revived interest in reading in this day of television and computer games; it seems the humble book has a hard time competing with the digital age. In his recently released memoir, Not Sure, pastor John Suk writes of literacy: “We have, in fact, become a society full of people who are merely functionally literate rather than deeply literate” (91). In response to Suk’s argument, I ask myself: What would a generation of “deeply literate” students look like? As Christian educators, the task of teaching our students both to read and to think has never been more urgent.
- Suk, John. Not Sure: A Pastor’s Journey from Faith to Doubt. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011.