In their final project for my Theories of the Reader course, my students had to choose a book that became an “event” and figure out why. A number of them chose books that have been at the center of school censorship battles, namely J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Stephen Chbosky’s Perks of Being a Wallflower. I suspect that I don’t have to describe the first three but Perks, the most recent, is a young adult novel in which high school freshman Charlie, having just lost his best friend to suicide, is trying to negotiate the high school scene. He encounters students experimenting with sex, drugs, and homosexuality, has a crush himself, and finally (like Holden Caulfield) has a mental breakdown. By the end of the novel, however, he has found his balance and is gearing up for sophomore year.
Catcher, Margaret, and Perks regularly appear on “most banned” lists, and Harry Potter has been the target of some well-publicized book burnings by fundamentalist Christians. For the assignment, the students had to find attack texts that they could analyze, and they went rummaging amongst old reviews, editorials, internet blogs, and other venues. Craig Wixon found a fascinating attack on Perks put out by Parents Against Bad Books In Schools (PABBIS). Evan Roe temporarily subscribed to a sermon service (two weeks free trial membership) so that he could find out why some preachers find Harry Potter objectionable.
I required the students to understand the different points of view, and this proved to be the most challenging part of the assignment. They wanted to jump to the defense of the books, and, while I told them they could do so in their conclusions, they first had to put themselves in the shoes of the attackers.
A common theme emerged. Children are drawn to the books because (1) they are given narratives that help them understand what they are going through, (2) they feel comforted that someone else feels as they do and (3) they want information about the world. This third desire is not acknowledged enough. Adolescence is a very confusing time, and Salinger, Blume and Chblotsky directly address a number of the murkiest areas. Meanwhile the Harry Potter books, which commence when Harry is entering puberty, give us a dark fantasy version of the travails of adolescence.
Thus, from the point of view of the students, their parents, by seeking to ban the books, threaten to deprive them of perspectives that help them make sense of the world. They’re not worried about being corrupted; they just want to survive. Girls want to understand why they are having periods that make them feel miserable every month. Boys are trying to handle their own hormonal rushes. Even the most sensitive and sympathetic parents have difficulties talking to their kids, and many simply don’t want to. In such instances, a good novel can become a teen’s best friend.
Teachers and school librarians are often on the side of the students. Frequently constrained themselves from talking to the kids about their anxieties and problems (and besides, who has the time?), they see young adult fiction as a ready aid. And if you’re an English teacher who wants your students to become excited about reading, you’ll get more of a visceral response from Perks than from Great Expectations. Perhaps you see yourself as a literary drug dealer: if you can get them hooked on the lighter stuff (Perks), they’ll then graduate to the heavier stuff—like, say, that love story about the 12-year-old and 14-year-old who buck their parents, make out on a balcony, elope, have sex, get caught up in gang violence, and commit suicide.
Parents are a different story. As they see it, they are losing children who once looked up to them and listened to what they had to say. They are panicked that their adorable little ones have suddenly metamorphosed into teens and are encountering aspects of life that their parents find daunting—like internet chat rooms, sexting, Facebook, and God knows what else. In fact, from their point of view Holden Caulfield’s brush with an actual prostitute may seem almost quaint.
It’s bad enough that their children are encountering this world. It’s even worse that the school system is assigning—or at least making available—works that talk about the problems. It sets off their suspicion of governmental institutions, already a deep source of anxiety for a significant portion of our population.
Tiffany Dorsey, when researching Catcher in the Rye, came across a fascinating set of interviews with parents who, 40 years earlier, had fought to ban Salinger’s novel. According to Tiffany, many of them now acknowledge that what scared them most is what also scares Holden: they couldn’t protect their children (be catchers in the rye for them). They hated the book for showing them their fears.
It was interesting to talk about these parent-school conflicts with Tiffany since she is studying to be a high school English teacher. We asked her what will she do when she encounters irate parents.
Tiffany noted that many teachers self-censor, steering clear of controversial works. But if teachers self censor, that means that, from the perspective of the students, the assigned reading consists of boring and irrelevant books, not books that speak directly to their living reality (as Romeo and Juliet did in the late 16th century and as Perks does now). And if those older works still touch on sore subjects (say, as Huckleberry Finn does), then those works sometimes get dropped as well. And I wouldn’t be surprised if The Scarlet Letter is taught as it was when I was taught it—not as a work about illicit sexual passion (with adultery as a stand-in for premarital teenage sexuality) but as a drama about strange people from another era with no current day application.
Tiffany is African American and wondered how she would teach Huckleberry Finn, given the resistance to it by members of the black community. She isn’t entirely sure how she herself feels about it. Could she, we wondered, forestall attacks by sending notes home to parents explaining what she was doing? Could she use the controversy as an educational opportunity? I’m interested in hearing from actual high school English teachers on this topic.
My students came to the conclusion that, if a work touches on controversial topics—or if it is taught in a way that highlights controversial topics—then teachers today will run into parental resistance. If they teach “safe” works, or teach potentially unsafe works safely, the parents are satisfied but the students find literature and English classes to be boring and irrelevant.
In short, we have to figure out how to talk about volatile subjects when we teach literature, both with students and with their parents. Otherwise, what’s the point?