Archives For banned books

Catcher-in-the-rye-red-cover“I heard about this book called ‘Catcher in the Rye,” said Peyton. She was lining up a “book buddy” extra credit assignment to read with Madison.
I reached for two dog-eared copies with the familiar brick red cover, “Meet Holden Caufield,” I said.

Requests for Catcher in the Rye happen every year. Since we do not teach the novel as a whole class read, I am always happy to see the many copies we have circulating for independent reading. J.D. Salinger passed away in 2010, almost sixty years after his bildungsroman, (coming of age story) of a young man’s wanderings one day in New York City captured the angst of late adolescence for an audience familiar with that angst. Houlden Caufield’s voice was unlike any other, and readers adopted the book with a fervor that bordered on fanaticism. As evidence, there are well-worn copies at every used book sale.

In most high schools today, Catcher in the Rye has a reputation, a cult status. Its “banned book” pedigree  interests both conformist and non-conformists. According to World.edu:

Between 1961 and 1982, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book in high schools and libraries in the United States. In 1981, it was both the most censored book and the second most taught book in public schools in the United States.

Many of my students know about the book’s banning history from the South Park episode from Season 14: The Tale of Scrotie McBoogerballs.  In this episode, the students at South Park Elementary are given copies of Catcher in the Rye and learn that the book is “filthy, is inappropriate, and made a guy shoot the king of hippies.”
“Can we PLEASE read this book now?” Cartman pleads.
(View at: http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/267355/lets-read-it-now )
Very quickly, however, the South Park students learn that 60 years after its publication, the language and themes in the story of Holden Caufield’s day are tame by today’s standards; they are dumbfounded and more than a little annoyed that anyone would consider the book inappropriate. My students have expressed the same puzzlement.

With only one major book to his credit, Salinger still commands the media’s attention. A tweet last week by OpenCulture linked the video below of the reclusive 91-year-old Salinger out for a stroll in Windsor, Vermont (2010):

Under the video, Open Culture also posted a series of anecdotes about Salinger, for example, a story about Nicholas Carr (Is Google Making Us Stupid?)

Nicholas Carr, who was working behind the circulation desk at the college library one summer when “a tall, slender, slightly stooped man” walked in. He remembers his boss whispering, “That’s J.D. Salinger”:

Holy crap, I thought. I just saw J.D. Salinger.

About ten minutes later Salinger suddenly reappeared at the desk, holding a dollar bill. I went over to him, and he said he needed change for the Xerox machine. I took his dollar and gave him four quarters.

That’s my claim to fame: I gave J.D. Salinger change for a buck.

Another recent news item on Salinger was published in the New York Times April 23, 2013, “The Young Salinger, Mordant Yet Hopeful” by Dave Itzkoff. The article described that a recent discovery of nine letters by a 22-year-old Salinger “revealed himself to be as playful, passionate and caustic as Holden Caulfield, the self-questioning adolescent who would become his most enduring creation.” The letters refer to other stories “unpublished and presumably lost works from this period”, tantalizing clues that will set Salinger fans hoping for yet unpublished materials to surface.

Salinger’s reclusiveness fascinates my students. In this day and age, his deliberate choice for isolation starkly contrasts from their uber-connected world of social media. Ironically, social media is a place where Holden thrives today. There are several facebook pages devoted to him. A Google map of his adventures complete with quotes details each step of his journey from the Wicker Bar at the Seton Hotel through the Central Park Zoo and into the Museum of Natural History. He would probably appreciate the myriad of Sparknotes, or Schmoop Notes, that help students who fail to complete assigned reading, or fail to listen to the audio book as available on YouTube. Holden has a Twitter account, @holdencaulfield, and a Tumblr account.  A  blog post on Flavorwire in July 2012 lists 10 Things Holden Caulfield Hates About Everyone including phonies:

“You never saw so many phonies in all your life, everybody smoking their ears off and talking about the play so that everybody could hear and know how sharp they were.”

Predictable, we know. But no Holden Caulfield hate list would be complete without it.

Holden is out there mingling with audiences of this connected age, and now he is mingling with two more. Heads down, they are engrossed with his misadventures during our 20 minute silent sustained reading period.
“How’s Holden?” I ask quietly.
“Good,” they chorus without looking up. They have been caught by Salinger, caught by The Catcher in the Rye.

The Wamogo classroom libraries have many new titles, so perhaps an explanation as to how these titles are allowed into the classrooms at Wamogo for independent reading is in order.  Most of the books in the classroom libraries are books already available in the school library’s main collection. Unfortunately, like most schools, there have been, on occasion, challenges to titles taught or made available in classrooms in grades 7-12. Book challenges are made when a parent or guardian objects to content in a book, and there are some titles that receive challenges more frequently than others.

There are two steps that our English Department members employ in order to meet the requirements of a reading curriculum with the requests of parents or guardians. The first step is to offer students a choice in selecting independent reading or to offer an alternate core text. Because of our extensive used book collection, (see our book flood!), our English teachers are often able to offer another title instead.

The second step employed is the focus on lessons that develop skills rather then then lessons that dwell on content. Our curriculum incorporates activities and prompts that address similar themes or topics, so that the difference in titles does not impact a lesson. Prompts such as, “What is the role of the main character in his or her family? Does that role change?” are designed so that students do not always need to be reading the same text in order to participate.  For example, the Contemporary Native American unit in Grade 11 is centered on Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees as the core text. Titles offered as alternates or for independent reading include Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian or  Reservation Blues, Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Tony Hillerman’s A Thief of Time, Dee Brown’s Bury My Heat at Wounded Knee, and Codetalkers by Joseph Bruchac. Students can choose a different book in this unit and still answer the prompts and participate in activities individually or in literature circle groups. One topic that connects these titles is how Native Americans view others and how they are viewed by others in society.

Unfortunately, book challenges are often in schools made against many of the books that are in the classical canon of literature.

A YouTube compilation quickly lists the top 100 banned books:

In fact, it would be impossible to teach a survey of American literature without incorporating at least one challenged title; most are on the Advanced Placement Literature recommendation’s list. The American Library Association (ALA) keeps a record of book challenges throughout the United States.  There are lists of books that have been banned; one such  web page  is titled The Top Ten Banned or Challenged Classics.

The reasons for challenging a book are as varied as the books themselves. The entire Harry Potter series has been challenged for a number of reasons dealing with witchcraft; one challenge called the series “evil” attempt to indoctrinate children in the Wicca religion. Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has been repeatedly challenged for containing profanity. Mark Twain’s Huck Finn was recently challenged in Connecticut for the repeated use of a derogatory term. These challengesdiffer from the specific objections leveled against Nabokov’s Lolita which has been banned for the obsessive relationship of the middle-aged Humbert Humbert’s with the 12 year old “Lolita”. These examples illustrate the breadth of topics than can result in book challenges or having the book banned entirely.

As a result, most teachers “self-censor”, choosing materials that they consider not objectionable, harmful, or insensitive for students.  However, there are instances where a teacher may not anticipate a challenge; what one group of parents deems inappropriate may not concern another group of parents.

Our solution is to offer a student choice in reading materials which necessitates that more titles representing a wide variety of reading levels are made available to students. Book choices for students are often advertised on websites such as Livebinders  or on a class wiki which is public.  Concerns about the merits of a book should be weighed by all stakeholders- parents, students and teachers- if there should be a question about a student selecting a text. Having a title available may not be enough of a reason to incorporate the book into a lesson plan or unit. Confronting concerns immediately in the teaching of any text is a priority.

In order to draw attention to book challenges in schools and public libraries, the American Library Association publicizes a Banned Books Week. This year, banned book week will run from September 24- October 1, 2011.They organize activities and materials in order “to highlight the benefits of free and open access to information while drawing attention to the harms of censorship by spotlighting actual or attempted bannings.” Educators are often the first to encounter challenges for book removal. Offering choice may be the most successful way to accommodate the parent and still engage the reader.