Once again, banned books week is upon us. This year’s focus is on celebrating diversity in literature. All too often, challenged or banned books are those written by authors from minority backgrounds whose voice does not represent the status quo. Please take a second to think back to all the books you’ve read, either in school or for personal enjoyment. Now ask yourself how diverse your reading background has been. If that list includes a lot of dead white males, was the formulation of that list a conscious choice on the behalf of your teachers or yourself? Numerous reasons exist for choosing books to balance a curriculum’s cultural diversity–the most important being a more accurate reflection of the world we live in because only then can society truly deal with the myriad of issues that need addressed to create a more just society.
Now more than ever, this world we live in could stand to take a good step back and really look at itself. Too many people these days get offended at the drop of a hat. Our media-centric world has exposed us to more information than ever, but yet it’s easy to unfollow friends who say something contrary to our beliefs. We subscribe to newsfeeds that reflect our liberal or conservative perspectives. Rather than deal with the things that piss us us, too many people silence them or even resort to violence. How long has it been now since the last bombing or mass shooting? You get my drift… Celebrating diversity in literature is one small and safe way to explore the world around us and we could deal with various issues. Plenty of research has shown that reading can increase a person’s empathy.
A book can be banned or censored for many reasons. As a former teacher of high school English and creative writing in a conservative farming community, I did my best when it came to celebrating diversity in literature despite the odds stacked against me. I have plenty of stories of parents who objected to the literature I was supposed to teach. When I was given free rein to design a college-level creative writing class, a parent photocopied the majority of the short story anthology I’d picked and highlighted every offensive word and passage–even in the stories that weren’t on my syllabus. The principal and I had an interesting discussion. His conclusion was to still use the anthology, but to not send it home or ever check it out to students. Lucky for us, the parent wasn’t going to take the issue any further. Really, I could have been fired if the right parental unit been offended. Such is the power one parent can yield, especially in small school districts.
I even wrote a short story inspired by the experience detailed above titled “Not Terribly Important” that appears in my short story collection Such is Life.
Another time, a mother insisted her ninth-grade son not be exposed to Romeo and Juliet due to all the sex and bawdiness in the story. Instead, she recommended an alternate title (it wasn’t even a play, but memory eludes me as to what got picked). Each class period he would check in with me for attendance and then go to the office to “read” his book. I had to make alternate assignments. Sure, I could have raised a fuss and added even more hours to the typical 55- to 65-hour workweek. Another time, I showed a 30-minute animated version of Romeo and Juliet as a pre-reading activity. A day later, I received an email diatribe from a parent that stated I was showing porn to studenst due to the three-second scene that showed the young lovers embrace and Cupid fly above them. Once again, my principal and I had an interesting discussion, and also watched some cartoon porn together. The solution? Use the Freeze button on my SmartBoard remote to pause the image while the audio still played. Whatever works, right?
However, I can at least say I fought the good fight when it came to a parent on the school board who wanted to totally re-write re-write the district’s media-use policy. With the help of another teacher who spoke to the school board, I was the one who revised the policy with input from the rest of the staff. Words can’t even express how strict the other proposed policy was, not to mention it showed the parent had zero teaching background. Why yes, it would be totally practical to pause any movie every 15-minutes for discussion purposes! Perhaps most heartbreaking of all was the new middle school teacher that was hired my last year in the classroom. He loved Sherman Alexie’s YA book The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian. I said go for it, and he ended up reading the book aloud to his students. This choice led a year-long witch hunt that ended with him getting fired. This also inspired my post What is Age Appropriate Literature?
Schools are supposed to teach critical thinking above all else, right? That can be mighty difficult at times when critical thinking might not be valued at home or in the community.
Celebrating diversity in literature is an issue near and dear to my heart. It was even one of the areas I focused on in my graduate studies. One of my all-time favorite books is Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and one of my most-viewed blog posts on this site is my literary criticism piece titled The God Within: Structure and Spirituality in The Color Purple. Maybe those of us who have been marginalized in various ways more readily relate to the need for all voices to be heard. Though I tend to be all-business here most of the time at Word Bank, it’s rather refreshing to let my true colors show every now and again. Thanks for reading.
Why is it important to celebrate diversity in literature? Do you read diverse books? How have banned books touched your life?
Image Credit: Celebrating Diversity in Books Banner
Image Credit: Banned Books Infographic from Printerinks
Please share responsibly. Jeri Walker, 2016.