Constance Alexander: Books may be banned, but the discussions they engender will live on


Reading can unite us, but there are a growing number of people who think that literature is dangerous and that books should be banned, which I guess is a good reason to observe banned books week at the mid-September each year.

A case in my own story occurred during my first job out of college, teaching 7th grade language arts/social studies at a high school in New Jersey. Incorporating literature into our study of the American Revolution, I have included a poem about William Dawes, an obscure shoemaker who rode with the same mission as Paul Revere on the night of April 18, 1775, to warn Samuel Adams, John Hancock, and d other patriots. that the British were heading for Lexington, Massachusetts, to stop them.

In fact, Paul Revere, William Dawes and Samuel Prescott, along with forty other men on horseback, spread the word about the arrival of the Red Coats. Temporarily held by the British, Revere never reached Concord, and Dawes became lost after falling from his horse. The only one to alert the inhabitants of Concord to the imminent arrival of the British was Prescott, a young doctor who died in the Revolution a few years later.

After using the poem with my seventh graders to spark a discussion about reliable and unreliable ways to learn history, I was approached by a parent who questioned my patriotism because “everyone knows” that Paul Revere was the hero of the Midnight Ride of April 18, 1775. To assuage his anger and save my work, I presented accurate information and careful documentation, tactfully pointing out that the reason why so many people think Revere was the man of the hour was because of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s ever-popular poem, “Paul Revere’s ride.”

Despite evidence to the contrary, the irate dad left still convinced he was absolutely right, and I quit teaching at a public school for a job at AT&T.

So pity the poor English teachers of today, as they fight the fears that stoke the fires of censorship and book banning. The audience watches and waits to pounce on the teacher if a whisper of sex, gender, race, religion, and any other hot topic emerges in the classroom.

“Controversy arises with almost every title,” said 10th-grade English teacher TJ VanDyke, after attending a recent workshop at Murray State University on dealing with controversial topics in the English classroom.

Despite the inherent risks, VanDyke asserted, “But I like finding readings that hold students’ attention because I want them to compare and discuss.”

He mentioned a popular title, The Hate U Give, as one that might interest his students in Dyersburg, Tenn.

“I’m hoping to put it in rotation,” he said, referring to the process teachers must go through to get permission to include a read book in English lessons.

Angie Thomas’ controversial novel appears on many banned book lists due to profanity, violence and the perception of some who insist it promotes anti-law enforcement sentiments.

VanDyke added, “In my district, we are fortunate to teach certain things that are forbidden to be taught elsewhere.

He specifically mentioned To Kill a Mockingbird. “A lot of districts block it because they think it’s offensive, but not if it’s taught the right way,” he said.

Attending the same MSU workshop as VanDyke, Amara Stroud, an English teacher at Muhlenburg County High School, found the sessions led by English teachers helpful and encouraging.

“I learned not to be afraid to teach controversial texts,” she said. “I just have to make sure that what I implement is worth it.”

She explained that her lesson plans for the next two weeks are all about the Harlem Renaissance, which obviously contains racial content. “So students need to understand why it’s worth studying,” Stroud explained.

Courting controversy is an inherent component of teaching young people literature, she added, but said the challenges “remind me of why I’m a teacher”.

MSU’s Dr. Shimikqua Ellis reflected on her eight years of teaching middle and high school English and how that experience led her to a doctorate and her job at MSU, where she teaches future teachers. of English. She quoted award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates who said, “English teachers should be librarians of justice, hope and conscience. English classrooms should provide something more complex than grammar, something deeper than the classics, and something far more meaningful than writing between the lines.

She further defined three ways books can function in the classroom: as mirrors that allow us to see ourselves; as windows through which to view different experiences; and like sliding glass doors that open to a different place.

“The standard curriculum,” she said, “does not meet those expectations.”

According to the ALA, often banned classics to understand:

• “To Kill a Mockingbird”, by Harper Lee
• “The Heart Catcher”, by JD Salinger
• “The Grapes of Wrath”, by John Steinbeck
• “The Color Purple”, by Alice Walker
• “1984”, by George Orwell
• “Brave New World”, by Aldous Huxley
• “Native Son”, by Richard Wright
• “Slaughterhouse-Five”, by Kurt Vonnegut
• “A Separate Peace”, by John Knowles
• “Lord of the Flies”, by William Golding

A recent analysis by PEN America found that many challenged books focus on communities of color, the history of racism in America, and LGBTQ characters. In fact, one in three books restricted by school districts over the past year featured LGBTQ themes or characters.

here are the 10 most difficult books of 2021, according to the ALA:

1. “Gender Queer”, by Maia Kobabe
2. “Lawn Boy”, by Jonathan Evison
3. “Not All Boys Are Blue,” by George M. Johnson
4. “Out of Darkness”, by Ashley Hope Perez
5. “The Hatred You Give”, by Angie Thomas
6. “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian”, by Sherman Alexie
7. “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”, by Jesse Andrews
8. “The Bluest Eye”, by Toni Morrison
9. “This book is gay”, by Juno Dawson
10. “Beyond Magenta”, by Susan Kuklin

The irony is, of course, that banning a book can increase its appeal to young readers. A recent New York Times article lists banned books children should read, including beloved author Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s me, Margaret.

One way to celebrate Forbidden Books Week is to share the Forbidden Literary Fruit and find out what it is. Which unite us, and which divide?


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