A school board in southeast Tennessee recently decided to remove the Pulitzer-prize winning Holocaust graphic novel "Maus" from its language arts curriculum, deeming its content unsuitable for eighth-grade students. Another local school district outside of Nashville decided to remove the book "Walk Two Moons" from its elementary curriculum following parental complaints about its content. These two decisions have received national attention, stirring controversy about what content is appropriate for students to read, when, why, and who is responsible for making those decisions.
The reality is, book challenges, bans, and removals are not a new thing, nor are they limited to a particular time in history or geographic region. The American Library Association keeps record of book challenges, bans, and removals, and their records indicate that this happens all over the world and over the course of many decades (if not centuries!). As parents raising the next generation, decisions and debates like these ought to cause us to pause and consider:
- Why and how are books chosen for curriculum?
- Why and how are books removed from curriculum?
- As parents, how can we step wisely into difficulty topics with our kids when information is proliferated?
- What (content) is age-appropriate? And whose responsibility is it to determine that?
In a recent interview with Dr. Kevin Brown, who is a well-studied, veteran English professor and author himself, he sheds light on some of these questions. The following are snapshots of his insight:
What do you think is the driving force behind decisions to remove or ban books from school curriculum and school libraries?
"These books often discuss difficult topics like the Holocaust and slavery. Parents say that they want to have those discussions with their kids. They're motivated by 'I don't want my child to see ___________' or 'I don't want my child to hear this word.' And I understand that to a certain extent. Sometimes I wonder how many parents are actually taking time at home to talk about the Holocaust. It just doesn't come up naturally. So I think there needs to be some balance here in the in-between...
What I try to do is find that balance in my classroom. If I am going to teach something controversial, I am going to say in advance, 'This is what we're studying. This is why we're studying it. Here are some words we will read so you know they are coming'...I want students [and parents] to know what's coming."
As parents, how can we step wisely into difficult topics like the Holocaust and slavery with our kids when information is proliferated?
"I think about conversations among students, parents, and teachers. I think some of the reasons kids go to those lengths is because they're not getting those conversations anywhere else. So, they have a question, and it might be an embarrassing question, something they don't want to ask a teacher, a parent, or even a friend...
What we need to figure out is how we can engage students with these very important questions in very meaningful, productive, safe and age-appropriate ways without trying to say we don't want them to ever know about these things..."
What content is age-appropriate and whose responsibility is it to determine that?
"I am teaching tenth-graders this year. I have tenth-graders who behave like college students, and I have tenth-graders who behave like sixth-graders. And that's just behavior--that's not knowledge of the world, that's not anything else...
If I'm a teacher and I know my students, I should be good at that...and so much of it is context. I can help prepare my students by setting up the context..."
How do you encourage parents to monitor the information that their kids are taking in (shows, books, etc.) in an effort to help them process some of the more difficult topics and elements of life?
"Sometimes it is impossible to keep up with young readers--it would be impossible to read every single thing that they read...It's an unrealistic expectation to think that parents will be able to read sixty books a year that one of their children is reading, let alone multiple children. That doesn't even include video games and TV shows.
I would say: use your trusted resources. I'd encourage parents to talk to the school librarian. This is what good librarians do--they keep up with these things. Or even ask, 'Do you have two good books that I could read with my child about a this issue?' Talk to teachers, too. There are also websites that offer input. Other parents may be helpful sounding boards, too."
[This is just a small portion of a full conversation with Dr. Brown. To hear the entire conversation, make sure to check out 'Banned Books: Should My Child Read This?' at the Navigating Your Child's Education: A Podcast for Parents.]