At IRA14, the Crazy Reading Ladies had the honor of leading a group discussion centered around Young Adult literature. The participants were teachers, librarians, literacy professionals, and several YA authors. As we chatted about recommendations for reluctant readers, tried-and-true favorites, and upcoming releases, the word "appropriate" came up.
Teachers and librarians dove right in, sharing their own stories about books they could or could not recommend to students, what they had been asked to censor at a parent's or administrator's request, or what their current permission slip looked like.
The authors were positively gobsmacked. Seriously, mouths hung agape.
"Wait, you guys have to pre-screen stuff?"
All around the circle, teachers' heads nodded as the moment of mutual shock set in. These authors had no idea that one sex scene, f-bomb, or allusion to drug use could remove their book from a child's hands. While we were overjoyed that a light had been shed on a very real problem, we couldn't really give the authors much assistance in making their books more marketable without crossing the line into censorship.
That's right. We said it. The C word.
It's a fine line between determining appropriateness and censoring. A mighty fine line.
Determining what is and is not appropriate requires the teacher to look at the big picture - identifying themes and ideas and matching those things up with potential readers. Discussions take place around how the conflicts are developed, how far into the book one goes before the protagonist redeems herself, and the overall impression the reader leaves with. When books are seen not as a arrangement of individual words but rather as a collective message, it becomes much easier to forgive certain sins. As public school teachers and educated professionals, we feel empowered to judge literature and determine it's relative appropriateness for our wide middle school audience. Appropriateness includes grey area; something might be fine for a mature 6th grader but not a good choice for a sensitive 7th grader. Appropriateness is flexible and fluid.
Censoring is a different beast entirely. Censorship pays attention to the power of individual words and phrases. The idea here is that, while the overall message may be positive, the book itself is polluted by certain letters arranged in a certain order. As ELA teachers, we understand the power of individual words. Mary recently spent a full 15 minutes with her students teasing out the significance of the word "my" in a passage from To Kill a Mockingbird. If a two letter pronoun can change the interpretation of an entire fictional relationship, then what can a four letter curse word do? A lot. If you're living in one of the less enlightened areas of the country, that four letter word can remove the book from library and classroom bookshelves.
|Oh, stop. He's singing "Where is Thumbkin?"|
Herein lies the problem. There is not one universal standard deeming language - or anything for that matter - offensive. It is a personal decision. What is upsetting for one person may be perfectly acceptable for another.
Some authors have taken it upon themselves to help us out by altering the language that they use. For example, in response to the John Green lovefest that recently swept our Middle School, we picked up a copy of AN ABUNDANCE OF KATHERINES. Scattered throughout the book was a word we had never seen before: fug. In case you too are a bit kwanfused, let us put it in context. It can be used in the following ways: Go fug yourself or Mother fugger.
First of all, was the original word (we think we know what he was going for...) so "offensive" it was deemed "inappropriate" for young adults? If so, is the changing of that final consonant sound really fooling anyone? Are parents and publishers breathing a collective sigh of relief because of the absence of a certain expletive? Are we the only ones who think that the connotation is loud and clear? Isn't the intent obvious? Come on, if you are going to say something, SAY IT! You really aren't doing us any favors. Really.
Now, we understand that some language is so offensive that parents feel the need to protect their children from it. We understand that some scenarios in The Hunger Games or Divergent are upsetting to less mature readers. And we have fully supported parents in their right to say no to their child. Recognizing that each person has her own comfort zone, the CRL developed our policy regarding what to do when a parent is offended by our book choice:
"The decision lies with the family. We will support you 100% in deciding what is best for your individual child."
Sometimes, that is all it takes to mollify an upset parent. Unfortunately, it is more frequently the case that parents are not content with choosing what is right for their child. They want to decide that their standard should be applied to everyone. And that's not okay with us.
Ultimately, we Crazy Reading Ladies have decided that censorship is the mountain upon which we are willing to die.
That is, we will listen to parents who disagree with our choices, we will talk them through our decision making process, we will listen some more while they list the thousand of other books we should have chosen instead. We will encourage them to do what is best for their child and listen even more while they inform us of their various degrees in literature and child psychology. We will thank them for their input, and we will relay their concerns to our principal, but we will not remove an otherwise appropriate book from the hands of 499 other middle schoolers simply because it has a word, a phrase, a scene, or a character that offends them. We will not take that book from our shelves or wield black sharpies in an attempt to protect all our students from the material that one parent deems offensive.
We certainly aren't here to incite riots, wave flags, or further an agenda. We have always sought to put good books in the hands of students and get them excited about reading. We are here to create lifelong literature lovers, nothing more.
That's not to say that we haven't somewhat caved to pressure. This year we went to unprecedented lengths to get parent buy in, announcing the book to parents a full six weeks before it became available to students, allowing parents time to read and decide for themselves. We chose a book we thought no one could possibly object to - the inspiring true story of a WWII hero. We chose to adopt and promote the YA version of the book to further provide a buffer for those who felt the subject matter too upsetting. And still...STILL...parents complained. Frustrated and irritated by the request to choose a book better aligned to conservative family values, Mary exclaimed, "What do they want!? Charlotte's Web?" Erin replied, "That will upset the vegans."
I guess that's our take-away. There is no such thing as the perfect book. There will always be something to upset someone. The best we can do is choose good books for our kids.
And if they don't like it, fug 'em.