Banned Books: What is age appropriate literature?

Jeri Walker
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Jeri Walker
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Banned Books, Part-time Indian cartoons

Sherman Alexie’s young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was the second most challenged book in 2012. Banned Books Week draws attention to the on-going fight against censorship. Too often, the group taking offense does not represent the voice of the majority.

Many people voice their support of students reading about sensitive issues so long as the literature is age appropriate. Yet, it’s next to impossible to agree on where to draw the line. The blurb for Alexie’s novel speaks to the depth of its thematic material.

Junior is a budding cartoonist growing up on the Spokane Indian Reservation. Born with a variety of medical problems, he is picked on by everyone but his best friend. Determined to receive a good education, Junior leaves the rez to attend an all-white school in the neighboring farm town where the only other Indian is is the school mascot. Despite being condemned as a traitor to his people and enduring great tragedies, Junior attacks life with wit and humor and discovers a strength inside of himself that he never knew existed.

Banned Books = Blindness

Schools are continually adding more young adult books as required-reading to their curriculum. The main argument in doing so involves the accessibility of the language and situations the characters face. Those opposed to this practice often note young adult books do not challenge readers as much as reading classic works of literature.

In my experience as an English teacher, both arguments hold merit. The number of struggling and reluctant readers continues to grow. Alexie’s semi-autobiographical character comes to life with the authentic voice of a fourteen-year-old. Junior’s voice just wouldn’t ring true otherwise.

“There is another world, but it is in this one.” –W.B. Yeats

The novel’s Yeats epigraph speaks to the richly-layered story. Yes, the language is raunchy at times, but to discount a work’s literary merit based on a character’s dialogue shows little foresight. Junior’s language reveals much about his socioeconomic status. Demanding “cleaner” words is just one of many ways to elevate a supposedly right way of seeing and experiencing the world while ignoring other viewpoints.

Banned Books Week Cover Image Sherman Alexie“And if God hadn’t wanted us to masturbate, then God wouldn’t have given us thumbs. So I thank God for my thumbs.”

“You should approach each book — you should approach life — with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.”

“I used to think the world was broken down by tribes. By Black and White. By Indian and White. But I know this isn’t true. The world is only broken into two tribes: the people who are assholes and the people who are not.”

 

Banned Books = Bullying

Here are a couple of negative Amazon reviews representative of reactions to the language in Alexie’s book:

It’s too shallow for high schoolers and too vulgar for junior highers. And the vulgarity is gratuitous. It didn’t strike me as having any purpose other than to shock some teens and get them to think, “This book is cool, man! Shakespeare never uses the f-word!!” Is anyone edified by reading about the nocturnal addictions of a teen boy? Has our culture really become so debased? This book won several awards! I simply cannot believe it.

Banned Books, part-time Indian cartoons

Not sure why this story needed to be told in the “raw” language of today…my son is punished when he says something “sucks” and this book is full of things that “suck” in the author’s opinion… Despite the objections I have to it; it was entertaining and documents what life for an American Indian kid is like on the “rez”, which I don’t think kids (or anyone) in mainstream America have given much thought to. This book could be a winner in my book if the author “classed” it up and didn’t stoop to the low level of writing just to get kids to read it. How it got to be an award-winner is beyond me.

As an educator, I can attest to any number of ways to appropriately handle such books in the classroom. When students see teachers model professional discussions on hard-hitting issues, they become better critical thinkers. Too often, those who sit in favor of banned books look at the world through rose-tinted glasses.

Banned Books = Intolerance

Personally, I would teach this book to high school freshmen and beyond. At the middle school level, the issue gets a bit more dicey. I’ve even heard of students as young as ten being required to read it.

Junior is so much more than a typical teenager. He comes to this realization by the end of the book:

I realized that, sure, I was a Spokane Indian. I belonged to that tribe. But I also belonged to the tribe of American immigrants. And to the tribe of basketball players. And to the tribe of bookworms. And the tribe of cartoonists. And the tribe of chronic masturbators. And the tribe of teenage boys. And the tribe of small-town kids. And the tribe of Pacific Northwesterners. And the tribe of tortilla chips-and-salsa lovers. And the tribe of poverty. And the tribe of funeral-goers. And the tribe of beloved sons. And the tribe of boys who really missed their best friends. It was a huge realization. And that’s when I knew that I was going to be okay.

What are your thoughts on age-appropriate literature?[signoff][/signoff]

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Author: Jeri Walker

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46 Comments

  1. It sounds like the book gets chosen in part because of the diversity factor (Native American teenager story) and in part because young people relate to the language, even if some adults don’t approve.

    I can see it from both angles – I actually have more respect for the parents that don’t want their children exposed to this language than for those who force the language on everyone. To me, that is intolerance (the forcing).

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    • Leora, I experienced feelings of forcing language on students when I taught Chris Crutcher’s young adult book stotan! When students were in groups reading aloud one time, I observed how a particular gathering of ninth grade girls really blushed through certain parts of the book (like when a young man describes a girl’s butt). That incident taught me to be more cognizant of how to use certain texts in the classroom. Even so, when parents object to state-approved books it can be very hard for a teacher to come up with individualized lesson plans. Indeed, can a teacher realistically be expected to do so if the book is on a state-approved reading list? Trouble also arises when book committees start to pick more and more “safe” books, which is a form of censorship.

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  2. I’ve been reading up some on “banned” books this week, and trying to understand how age appropriateness fits in, especially with regards to availability in school libraries.

    The Alexie book is a great example. From your comments (I haven’t read it myself), it seems appropriate for perhaps junior high & older, but too mature language-wise for middle school and younger.

    But does not purchasing it in the younger schools constitute banning? There’s got to be some level of age screening, right? There’s no John Grisham or Stephen King or E.L. James (that I know of!) at the elementary school as these are clearly adult books.

    I think the YA genre is tricky: while the overall writing level is accessible to younger kids, the language and topics often are not. So where do we draw the line?

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    • Jay, Alexie’s book would not be placed in an elementary library, which would probably not shelve books between middle reader titles. I too agree that the YA genre is tricky, and the boundaries are being pushed more and more all the time. In my book, that’s a good thing, though I didn’t advertise that when I was a teacher 😉 Probably would have gotten me fired.

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    • Jay, Alexie’s book would not be placed in an elementary library, which would probably not shelve books between middle reader titles. I too agree that the YA genre is tricky, and the boundaries are being pushed more and more all the time. In my book, that’s a good thing, though I didn’t advertise that when I was a teacher 😉 Probably would have gotten me fired.

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  3. Most of the people who rabidly object to a book do so for very personal reasons. I have no quarrel with this until they try to keep me from reading it because they don’t like it. It’s like the old joke, my mom’s cold so she insists I wear a jacket when I go outside.

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    • Additionally, the level of absolute intolerance and ignorance displayed by the ‘book burners’ er, banners, is amazing.

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      • Charles, I couldn’t agree more. When a book is challenged or banned, the group responsible is typically unwilling or unable to concede to the validity of other viewpoints. To take a book off a shelf or out of a classroom does not address the source of conflict, it only silences it. In my book, silencing is akin to bullying.

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  4. I despise that thought of banning books of any sort. However, that doesn’t mean that every book should be so readably available for all ages. Addressing a book at the appropriate age needs to be determined both by the educator and the parent. Although I think all books should be available to all in a public library, this doesn’t mean that every book should be publicized for blandly.

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  5. Wasn’t there a time when they wanted (or had in some places) banned catcher and the rye? I remember my sophomore year in high school my English teacher said we were reading a “controversial” book, but its a classic now, isn’t it?

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  6. I remember books getting banned when I was in school. I wish I could actually think of which ones. I think high schoolers can handle most subject while kids in middle school and younger need to be thought about a little more.

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    • Krystle, I can testify to how readily high school students can handle such subject matter. In fact, I would say they are practically hungry to read stories that reflect their language as well as their place in the world. Critics who say Alexie’s book is devoid of literary merit, or too simple, have not given it a fair chance.

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  7. Some of these reading standards that we are failing with, I have to wonder if it has anything to do with forced readings. We are forcing children to conform to our views of what is literature and such.

    My daughter had Lord of the Flies for summer reading this year. She hated it. Through the reports and such she had to write I was able to see the story from her eyes. Here is the thing, certain books may be classics but they are not relatable to the people reading them. The themes maybe there but they require more work to uncover.

    Books like this approach similar themes to classic works but in a way that is more approachable to the youth of today. Maybe curriculum should be changed to find books with similar themes, classics and modern and compare and contrast them in the classroom. Or is that putting too much thought into the approach?

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    • Jon, I also hated Lord of the Flies with a passion. I didnt’ have to read it in school, but heard a lot about it and picked it up on my own. It’s one of the few books I just couldn’t get into to finish. One alternative to full-class readings is to use literature circles where students can pick from a seven or so books that they will then read in common with their group. It’s a lot of work for the teacher the first few times literature circles are implemented, but worth the increased student engagement. It allows for greater subject matter in the reading as well as books that cover a variety of reading levels. However, there are still students who will complain they don’t like the books and cannot relate to them. Teenagers love to let teacher know that no matter what!

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  8. In general I am against book banning. I can think of a couple of exceptions I would make. I think age appropriate reading is a good thing. Don’t make available books to young children that are clearly meant for adults. I think the book on bullying should not be banned for the language it uses. That’s the language that is actually used so why censor it? If you are going to deal with the real issue at hand, deal with the language that goes along with it. This is a case where parents and their children should read and discuss it together.

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    • Cheryl, exactly! Junior’s character would not ring true if he sounded G-rated rather than PG-13. The level of diction in the book is a great instance where a teacher can incorporate lessons on voice, character authenticity, as well as the power inherent in language and learning.

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  9. I’m with Jay Dickens on this one. I think not purchasing books is different from banning books. Libraries, especially school libraries, have to make decisions on how to allocate funds. I think if they are short on funds, they may stick to literature that is not particularly controversial.

    However, we have to acknowledge that public libraries are supposed to house a wide variety of books of interest to the public. They should have both controversial and enlightening books in them. People should be able to explore an entire universe of thought by simply going to their public library. It’s supposed to be a place where children with restrictive parents can learn about the real world (despite their parents’ denial that it exists).

    My own parents always figured, if we were reading, it was a good thing, so they didn’t look too closely at what we checked out. I think kids view things through their own lenses, and when they read books that have controversial topics or language, they may not be as “traumatized” as parents think because their own lenses aren’t deep enough for them to necessarily get all the nuances/implications (adult readers get). And when a young person does read something that bothers them, the reaction shouldn’t necessarily be to panic and say the book is bad. The better reaction may be to find out what about the subject matter or language is troubling and help them deal with that. Unfortunately, that’s one of the hard parts of parenting. And it’s a lot easier to say this book shouldn’t be read by kids than to have a potentially tough conversation.

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  10. I have serious heartburn over banned books because the intent isn’t what is represented. It’s usually about someone passing moral judgment upon the written word or book, not the message it’s trying to convey. We live in a world that has difficulties, not to allow for different voices to express a point of view doesn’t allow for valuable and varying opinions and insight.

    Coarse language is a fact of life. It’s here to stay, to prevent it from being read is just foolish. An individual will hear and read it elsewhere. Wouldn’t it be best to have it referenced in the proper context? Just saying.

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  11. It seems as if the discussion with regard to ‘age appropriate’ tends to revolve around language. ‘To fuck or not to fuck!’ Are we so naive to think children are not exposed to that language. They might not be allowed to say it at home but you can be sure they do at school. So, the question is where on the scale or gratuitous to realistic do we put the mark. Children are, I think, quite sophisticated language wise and they know if they’re being spoken down to. If you’re writing a fourteen year old character, surely you should write the way a fourteen year old would speak. If so, you can be damn sure there will be a fuck or two in there, although probably not in front of the parents.

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    • Nephy, if only you could have been a fly on the wall when I had to have a two hour discussion with my principal about how the f-word is the worst word ever. The entire time I was thinking about how it’s such a great word linguistically. It can function as all parts of speech 😉

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  12. To me the very act of banning any book is intolerable. It deprives us of choice in what is supposed to be a free society. Electing to withhold material from a child should be a parental choice… but it seems many parents gladly relinquish that duty as well as the responsibility for that choice. Like expecting the teacher/schools to raise their children and then blaming them for the finished product,

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    • Jacquie, the hardest parent complaints were always the ones that came after the book had been assigned for a few weeks. Most likely, the student had not been doing their reading and felt behind, so showed the potentially offensive language to their parent. Then the parent calls and asks that they be excused from the reading due to it’s vulgarity. Ugh. I hated those calls. At least it never came to sending permission slips home for books, but we had to for movies.

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  13. Parents don”t always know what is best for their child, even when they think they do. They often rely on teachers to make parenting decisions. As a teacher, I know this from experience. (This is especially true when the parents are drug addicts, alcoholics, or people with low IQs. Or a combination of all three.)

    As far as the issue of finding age-appropriate books for children, I think what needs to be considered is the intellectual age of the child. Some children can read Shakespeare and love it, while others prefer something easier, like a comic book! Finding a happy medium and making it required reading is a tough decision educators must make – regardless of the relevance to the issues in today’s society.

    BTW, Jeri, you can tell your tech fixer that the problem I was having has been resolved! 🙂 Also tell him/her “thanks”!

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    • Lorraine, thanks for letting me know the comment subscription is working. Also, I’ll put out there that students do need to be able to pick books in line with their reading level, but if they are always give the choice of easier texts they won’t be pushed enough. It is definitely hard to find the sweet spot.

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  14. I don’t recall ever reading or hearing of a banned book growing up. I know some people watch a movie before they let their children watch it. I think the same should go for books. My son just started middle school this year and I’m sure there are some things I’d want to know he’s reading or watching beforehand so I can be prepared for his questions. Like the Enhanced Male (or whatever it’s called) commercials. I was stuck when he asked what testosterone was.

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    • Cassi, having parents read books along with their children would be such a huge educational achievement, but I’m sure the parents would belly ache more than the students do.

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  15. I remember being told that some places had banned “Catcher in the Rye’ but the issue never arose in my school, we read it an wondered what the big deal was all about. Managing how and who reads books because content may be inappropriate is one thing, but banning a book is a very final and closed way to manage a difference of opinion. My biggest challenge with book banning is that I have yet to come across a discussion where I thought, yup, that sounds like trash. Usually what I think is, yup, that sounds uncomfortable, but so is life at times.

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    • I agree with Debra, not everything is appropriate for every classroom, but banning is dangerous. I trust the teachers to make those decisions, and if they made one I didn’t agree with, well, such is life.

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      • Laura, but teachers don’t get to be the ones who ultimately make such decisions. The adoption of books for the classroom typically takes place by curriculum committees, which may or may not have active teachers sitting on them. Also, when books are banned and challenged, it’s often handled by school boards and administrators. Teachers get very little say at all.

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    • Debra, exactly! Life isn’t pretty and so literature tends to reflect that. It vexed me to no end that a certain aspect of being a highly-functioning teacher in classrooms today seems to be the expectation to teach “safe” literature. Part of the reason why education is so stagnant is that it can’t own up to real world implications. All the better to simply teaching reading comprehension without getting students to think at all about the subject matter at hand.

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  16. Can’t help thinking about a more important issue – the land in the US actually belong to the Indians. What would life be like today for Junior if they had been able to keep their land?

    What would what is now the United States of America be like today if poor and ultra religious Europeans had not decided to migrate to the new world?

    When it comes to young adults reading today, that’s clearly unusual. Only have first hand experience of teenagers with highly educated and successful parents that read a lot. But even young adults with that kind or parents hardly ever read. So as far as I’m concerned getting them to read a David Baldacci book is better than them not reading at all, which is often the alternative.

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    • Catarina, I agree that many kids aren’t reading today, but I think a lack of reading texts is always going to be a problem. Reading has gained a bit more cachet among teens due to eBooks and the ability to connect on sites with fellow readers on sits like GoodReads. The over-arching anti-intellectualism that pervades society seems to blame.

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  17. I think banning books is unnecessary but age-appropriate reading a no-brainer. I remember being in elementary school and going to the library once a week for class. We had been given the task to write to an author…any author we wanted. I chose Marguerite Henry, who was the author of award-winning children’s books like Misty of Chincoteague and King of the Wind. What changed my literary life forever was that Marguerite wrote me back. A true pen and paper letter written just to me. A friendship blossomed and having family in the same area as where she lived, allowed us to meet years later and develop a true friendship until her death in 1997.

    I think that getting children to read is so important especially when they’re young. If they can be exposed to the fun and joy of what reading can do early in life, then I think they’re much more apt to embrace reading as a young adult and into adulthood.

    But in the world of banned books, I can see both sides, but I also think that our society and culture has changed so drastically since I was in school (I’m 40) that we don’t give our jr. high and high school students enough credit. I think they can handle more than I might’ve been able to when I was a kid. But at the same time, there is a line of appropriateness that shouldn’t be crossed. Using your example of Alexie’s book, aren’t high school students well aware of the cultural and racial issues that exist today? They might not know about the Native American issues some face and for that it makes sense to allow for learning and reading even with the frank language. C’mon, that’s how a lot of kids these days are speaking, whether we like it or not.

    It’s an interesting debate for sure. I just hope that students will always have the opportunity to read. That’s the most important part.

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    • Pamela, a good debate for certain, but it’s so difficult to establish the line of appropriateness that shouldn’t be crossed. When it comes to age-appropriate literature, even one “damn” or “hell” can ruin a book for a reader. As a teacher, I can testify that students largely feel racial issues are a thing of the past, and yet we are in a world that still has many issues with equality. The frank language Alexie uses shouldn’t come as a short to anyone, and yet parents are still outraged against the book, many of them because their children are not allowed to use such language at home. Even if a child isn’t allowed to use certain words at home, they ARE going to encounter them elsewhere.

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  18. I think certain language used show be age appropriate and the parents have the best shot of teaching their children. I think banning books is unnecessary but hopefully parents have some say. When it is inappropriate in schools that is a different story. I do believe in the freedom of speech, but it some control should be applied

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    • Arleen, parents can get involved with adopting books for the classroom, but sadly they usually do not. Then schools get attacked for pushing “risky” reading, even though books like Alexie’s are adopted by committees of professional educators.

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  19. Choosing age-appropriate reading is a task best left to the professionals. Teachers know their students and their capacities, and no doubt always push just a little to make them work harder. When so much information in our society is dumbing down, thank goodness we have the teachers pushing and promoting smarter reading habits. And what happens when you dumb down? You get people who want to ban books, because they’ve never had good reading habits to begin with. Oy.

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    • Krystyna, oy! Dumbing down curriculum and reading choices can lead to a greater number of people who want to ban books as you mention above. In many of these cases, the conversation never seems to go to what exactly it is about a word or concept that can cause such strife. When asked why a book should be banned or moved to a higher grade, responses too often dwell in “because it’s offensive.” The arguments tend to be go deeper, which is a shame. Our reactions to material can tell us a lot about ourselves and the world we must function in.

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    • Krystyna, oy! Dumbing down curriculum and reading choices can lead to a greater number of people who want to ban books as you mention above. In many of these cases, the conversation never seems to go to what exactly it is about a word or concept that can cause such strife. When asked why a book should be banned or moved to a higher grade, responses too often dwell in “because it’s offensive.” The arguments tend to be go deeper, which is a shame. Our reactions to material can tell us a lot about ourselves and the world we must function in.

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  20. Hi Jeri,
    Thank you for linking to the Robbins Library blog post about Banned Books Week. I’m not sure how you found it, but I’m glad you did. I really enjoyed your Banned Books post too, and all the comments – very civil and thoughtful.

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    • Jenny, thanks for stopping by and thanks for noting my blog readers are “civil and thoughtful” 🙂

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  21. I always thought that by banning a book you just made it more popular, so in essence all these committees are doing is making the thing that they wish to ban more attractive.
    I find age appropriate material hard to define. I can only talk about young children reading at home, but I know kids that are fascinated by Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, yet are scared to death of Snow White. Just based on that example all I can think is that it would make more sense for the teacher or parent who knows the child to make that decision. But, that would be a very hard thing to achieve, so I guess you are stuck with banned books based on the fact that it may not be age appropriate for the less mature.
    That is a can of worms for sure…

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    • Becc, fairy tales are pretty intense stuff! A lot of intense literature gets glossed over because it’s considered classic. It’s always so hit and miss which books get picked on. The higher the profile, the greater the change of censorship. Usually, those going the attacking have not fully read the book or considered it’s worthiness.

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  22. It’s so hard to judge what is appropriate on the basis of age alone. Kids grow up at varied rates. I’ve also noticed that there are intellectually “advanced” kids with less real life social experience and visa versa. That has a huge impact on what they will understand in controversial books.

    I have to bow to the wisdom of educators, but having just read in the New York Times that the gay marriage sub-plot in Spamalot (Monty Python) got a high school play canceled and the theater teacher fired, makes me wonder about agendas.

    It’s a big world out there and maybe the best lesson is that there’s room for a whole lot of things that might make you uncomfortable and even more that might unnerve your parents.

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    • Candy, agendas prevail in our education system. There is so little trust placed in teachers and the evaluation process is full of chinks. I’m not surprised at all about that theater teacher getting fired. As much as I loved teaching, I just couldn’t stomach all of the other stuff like that which went along with it. In my final year before I resigned because of moving cross country, I witnessed a new English teacher get fired for made-up reasons and all because he had read out loud from Sherman Alexie’s Part-Time Indian YA book. Everyone knew it stemmed from that, and yet he got canned because of incompetence. I was one of a few teachers who observed his teaching and he was going fine, especially for a first-year teacher.

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