#BannedBooksWeek: Celebrating Diversity in Literature (Infographic)

Jeri Walker
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Jeri Walker
Jeri Walker
Jeri Walker
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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.

 

Image of Celebrating Diversity in Literature banner

 

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.

 

Infographic of Banned Books

 

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.

 

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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.

Author: Jeri Walker

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51 Comments

  1. Completely appalling and the info-graphic makes it even more so! Ah yes, critical thinking is on the decline. Debate is more often stifled than encouraged. These days, it seems if you don’t agree with a certain point of view, the discussion is shut down completely. Interesting to see how far back the history goes!

    Post a Reply
    • Jacquie, it’s rather disheartening how true debate doesn’t happen often these days. The loudest voice who can appeal to the most in agreement tends to win. That’s not good for education, literature, and certainly not politics.

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  2. The other night, I told some friends about your story from your ‘Such is Life’ collection. The conversation was about restricting topics and how we all lose when we won’t talk about, learn about or read about things outside our world view. One of my dear friends grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home and like my family she went to museums and saw art as a family activity. But when the two of us traveled to Europe together, I had to give her a quick course in the New Testament. The school she attended did not want students exposed to outside religious philosophies and stories. We laughed about it at the time, but I felt sad for her. I learned about all sorts of faiths through ART in museums and literature.

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    • Candy, thank you for sharing that example about your friend. As a teacher, I often found it quite the challenge to try to bridge the knowledge gaps inherent in any group of 25 or more students. There is only so much time that can be devoted to doing so, and sometimes, literature classed end up becoming history classes in order to better supply readers with background knowledge that can help them better understand and appreciate the text. It’s exhausting at times! How wonderful too that you and your friend had and continue to have so many rich opportunities to learn about life through art museums and the like. What a great way to expand one’s mind.

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  3. This is so bizarre, some of these books are banned for such random and reactionary reasons. The authors who penned these books should view their banishment as a success that their work got a reaction, at least. Trust me. I’ve cringed while reading American Psycho but can’t fathom why only one part of Australia banned it.

    On another note, I had a friend whose mom banned the Harry Potter books from their household because of the sorcery and other things involved. I guess she just couldn’t handle the magic of J.K. Rowling’s words? Who knows?

    To answer your question, I try to read diverse books from all walks around the globe but have gotten stuck on fiction or historical fiction these days. Vaddey Ratner’s In the Shadow of the Banyan is probably banned because it specifically details the author’s journey from princess to peasant in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge’s terrible reign. I think it’s important to read this and other banned books because there’s certainly an important message in these. That’s why they’re banned after all because I highly doubt governments would ban something that harms people.

    Anyway, that’s my two cents. Off to find something banned and consume beyond this week! Thanks, Jeri. Loved the infographic, btw.

    Post a Reply
    • Duke, your comment about the parents who banned their child from reading Harry Potter reminds me of a writing project I designed for freshmen students. The focus that year as on self-identity with To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, and The Odyssey providing the backbone of the year’s curriculum. We started with a short story unit, and the booklet I led students through utilized various forms of writing to discuss their self-identity. One small part of the booklet involved researching their astrological sign and then writing a comparison/contrast on how the general Zodiac sign description did and did not fit their personality. That’s when a call came in from a parent about the assignment promoting exposure to the dark arts. And out went that section of the booklet. I was a student teacher at the time and my cooperating teaching didn’t want to deal with the headache of justifying the inclusion of that part of the booklet. All because ONE objection was received.

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  4. I believe in diversity in literature and that schools should expose students to that diversity and encourage critical thinking. “What is age-appropriate literature?” is an interesting question, however. I’m always surprised when I read about books people have wanted banned and their reasons. I can’t imagine the tough positions that has been educators in. Banned Book Week (and the Canada equivalent “Freedom to Read” which occurs at the end of February) are good things to raise awareness. I love in the infographic.

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    • Donna, over the years I’ve realized more and how just how many factors go into determining what makes something age-appropriate literature. I used to have students do some reading aloud in their literature circles. These groups split the class into groups as they read six different books and did various assignments and completed a final project on novel. However, one day the two groups that stayed in my classroom to do their circle reading aloud while the others went to the library or out in the hall, I realized just how uncomfortable certain topics can make students who have led a more sheltered existence. A group of girls read from Chris Crutcher’s YA novel Stotan! It was a brief section where the guys talk about a girl character and mention her butt. It made that particular group of girls really uncomfortable to read it aloud. They blushed and giggled and didn’t want to say the words aloud. I’m glad I was in the room to sense their discomfort and just told them to read those few pages silently and pick back up later on. It was a relatively small part of the book, but one they weren’t ready to tackle aloud in a small-group setting. In later years, I would always say just to go to silent reading on those types of sections. Not saying words aloud can make them easier to digest and get used to at first. In retrospect, I wished I would have asked the teacher who wanted to use Alexie’s book if he intended to read it aloud. Given the population base, I would have suggested he gloss over certain words just because of the community. It’s such a hard line to walk at times.

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  5. A great reminder, especially in this time of frustrating political divisiveness. Shallow reading encourages us to think simply, making it easier to separate Us and Them.

    We take access to books so much for granted. I was reassured this weekend while visiting Powell books in Portland, to find it full of people browsing, reading, buying books. Hope. Also, since my entire blog post this week is a bad word, am reassured you and other banned book week celebrators won’t think less of me! Cheers—

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    • Julia, I just saw this week’s post and it did indeed give me a good chuckle, so thanks for that. Even though the new Common Core standards are in place, and I happen to feel they do a great job of delving into critical thinking as opposed to the more easily testable lower-levels of cognition such a remembering and knowledge, their existence has to be implemented in the midst of the very likes of that I address in this post. It is any wonder the turnover rate for teachers is so high?

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  6. I always love this week as it reminds me just how insane these choices have been!! Great infographic Jeri and it brings the point home really well.

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    • Kathy, and thanks again for the excellent guest post you wrote on banned books a couple of years ago for this site.

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  7. Intolerance has always evoked sharper responses yet people continue to overlook the truth. While I agree that age appropriate books should be emphasised but youngsters manage to read and see whatever interests them in these times when everything could be easily accessible through various sources.
    It is ironic that books like ‘Lady Chatterlay’s Lover, which we yearned to read as students of Literature is now available online just for 99 cents!!
    I wonder what was there in Lolita, which evoked a ban!
    Most of the times those who ban don’t even read or understand those books as they are guided more by public outcry and that too initiated by a small group of persons.

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    • Balroop, you make such a pertinent point regarding how those who often try to ban or challenge books haven’t really read or understood those books. A former drama and English teacher who became a college professor of curriculum and instruction had a great story about a set of parents who were adamant about a certain book. He gave them three other books their child could read, and each one was more questionable than what the class was reading as a whole.

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  8. And we wonder why it’s hard to inspire our kids to want to go into teaching careers! Critical thinking is indeed a difficult concept to teach, but I daresay the kids may get it better than the parents sometimes. Thanks for this very insightful post!

    Post a Reply
    • Meredith, teaching really does pull a person in so many different ways. It’s impossible to please everyone. I admire those who can stay in the classroom, but I knew I would never be able to do a truly good job, so I had to get out while I could, rather than go on under a system that needs a major overhaul.

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  9. That is a diverse group of books. However being banned probably increased book sales.

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  10. Very effective infographic. Thanks for sharing this, Jeri. It’s an important subject and one we would think is not a problem today. This is not true obviously. Hearing your stories about overprotective parents really makes one realize, book banning is far from dead. I think it’s a sign that parents are too involved in their kids’ lives but that’s another topic.

    Green Eggs and Ham? Wow!

    Book banning only makes the book more attractive and notorious. Tropic Of Cancer for example, I read for the first time a few years ago. I was disappointed. I thought it would be more erotic. Great topic, Jeri and it is great to hear about your experiences and how you’ve handled them.

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    • Lisa, book banning is definitely far from dead. Some people though will find fault with anything that comes their child’s way. Would you believe that the TV that was out in the commons area at my former school came under attack as well? The principal always left it on CNN with the closed captions on. One would think this is a way to get students accustomed to news channels, and it was. Until a group of parents complained that the commercials were too suggestive. Yes! This was a thing, and then the TV sent dark. Maybe cartoons would have been okay.

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  11. I so want to say, Duh, seriously?
    I don’t know that I seek out diverse authors as much as diverse titles. I bought, “The Sex Lives of Cannibals” because the title cracked me up. The book was very well-written and circulated through my friends before disappearing somewhere. Maybe to the island that inspired it?
    Glad to say I have read a number of the above books. I can’t recall either parent ever saying I couldn’t read a book for this or that reason. Ever.
    And good old Romeo & Juliet? In about 1976, my high school lost one of its best teachers ever because some moron parent objected to both Shakespeare and to the showing of the classic film. He left. My parents? They loved R&J and would have watched it with us.

    Post a Reply
    • Rose Mary, I don’t doubt your story of a parent objecting to Shakespeare like that. I could show the classic film, but had to use the freeze feature on my smartboard because BOOB and BUTTOCKS alert! It was funny in a way, because I did a rather hilarious narration of the visual that couldn’t be seen, especially having fun describing how the nurse nervously guards the door in her rocking chair while the lovebirds are waking up. I will definitely head over to Amazon now and take a look at the cannibals book you mentioned.

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  12. “All too often, challenged or banned books are those written by authors from minority backgrounds whose voice does not represent the status quo”.
    I guess those lines pretty sum it up…
    I am sorry that you had to go through that “parental censorship criteria”, back in those times when you were teacher…
    Curiously enough… when I began reading the post I think of “Romeo & Juliet”… and how this story might be considered “dangerous” (I don´t know which other word should I use!)… with respect to the Ideal of forbidden teen love, against all odds…
    I guess choosing a set of books whe being a teacher might be hard work…
    Also, I guess certain censors are not that short minded… as otheriwse they would have never banned “Animal Farm” (I guess they understood the message!;)… last but not least… seeing the Bible in the list is kind of shoicking … mainly if we keep in mind that certain books might have been banned … using the Bible as model of moral judgment… A paradox, I´d say!…
    Great post, dear Jeri… thanks for sharing!… all my best wishes. Aquileana 🙂

    Post a Reply
    • Aqui, yes the themes in Romeo and Juliet can indeed be considered dangerous, and Shakespeare quite saucy in some of his verbiage once the meanings are teased out of his lines. Yet, any subject matter can be handled with finesse. Some teachers will try to appeal to the lowest common denominator to catch student interest, but that doesn’t need to happen. There was one school in my area though where two ninth grade students in the same school had committed suicide in the same year. The teachers opted to re-write the ending of the play due to the timing of the sensitive topic material. I don’t agree with that at all. Reality must be dealt with, not whitewashed.

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  13. Very on point, I especially like how you didn’t invalidate your argument, as so many do with this one, by choosing a bunch of volumes that fit in much the same niche. There is one “banned book” in particular that I would love to have a copy of for reasons which have nothing to do with why it was banned. I won’t even mention the title here, as the mere mention of it causes quite a flash of emotion. Banned from sale everywhere in my country.

    I’ve never been a fan of censorship in any form, but it seems that the more integrated people become through social media, the more this “hive mind” concept I like to talk about becomes a reality. Right now that mind is polarized, but beware the day that the arguments are settled and we take a unified view on what should be what.

    Post a Reply
    • Martin, oh yes the hive mind! Social media definitely feeds into its formation. To think we have so much information available to us, but so many seem more close-minded than ever.

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  14. Hi Jeri. The fact that there’s a #bannedbooksweek means there’s a lot to work to do in terms of promoting open education and critical thinking. If we aren’t up for reading about hard topics, how can we talk about or face them? Thanks for sharing.

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    • Tatia, one of the reasons I was inclined to teach was for a love of teaching literature and getting to engage in deep discussions with students. That happened on occassion, but more often than not, the name of the game was test preparation.

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  15. In a world of so much diversity, it’s almost ridiculous that books should be banned, especially some of these shown above. I think the naysayers should just refrain from reading and give people the freedom of choice to read what the heck they want. And great infographic! – The Wizard of Oz – really? 🙂

    Post a Reply
    • DG, often too the naysayers take offensive passages out of context, which makes matters even more troubling. One school district in my area has even done things like use a black sharpie to blot out words like hell and damn in The Grapes of Wrath. As if students can’t tell what the word is supposed to be…

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  16. I have always enjoyed reading and writing – I guess this is why I blog!

    I read a range of books as a child. I recall reading the whole Judy Blume series as a young teen. I could relate to the the problems the girls faced as I too questioned my identity, how others perceived me, my lack of popularity.

    I read Of Mice and Men, I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings and To Kill a Mockingbird Bird at school. Those books have always stuck with me.

    I do not read nearly enough books now. Really I should be aiming for at least two books a month.

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    • Phoenicia, I also try to read two books a month as well as listen to one audio book. It doesn’t always happen, but also, every so often I surprise myself and read more than my goals 🙂

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  17. It’s so tiring hearing people’s complaints about being offended. I stopped being politically correct. I’ll be courteous to others, but if I have something to say, f*** the PC world. Society needs to grow some thick skin. And banned books, it’s just shocking that it even continues today. Don’t some schools give out condoms for sex ed? Yeah, there’s logic there somewhere, right?

    Diversity in literature is a wonderful thing. We tend to be drawn to things we can relate to but we’re leaving out so much more if we continue that way. I don’t just read white male and female authors. I’ve recently read Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book Americanah. Although I couldn’t relate to much of it, I learned some things from it, but I won’t read another book by her again. I’ve also read books by authors in other countries and from different backgrounds.

    Aside from thinking it’s crazy to banned books, it hasn’t personally affected me. The only time I saw a public mass hysteria to banned a book was when someone published on Amazon. Authors, readers, were slamming Amazon for allowing the book, “The Pedophile’s Guide to Love and Pleasure: a Child-lover’s Code of Conduct” to be published. Some threatened to pull their books from the site. Amazon defended its stance in allowing people the freedom to publish, but then pulled it due to public outcry.

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    • Denise, you are a great example of a person who reads widely and expands your boundaries. Your example of condoms being available in school did indeed make me chuckle. Such hypocrisy abounds, and it really does seem to be getting worse. I’m with in that society could stand to grow thicker skin. In the classroom, too many students run home and tell their parents this or that offended them. Guess what, the world is kind of like that is what I always wanted to say.

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  18. Have lived in countries where books are banned. Believe it or not, but when I lived in Saudi Arabia I used to buy books I was interested in reading in The United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. Kuwait was a bit better, but I still had to shop for books in The United Arab Emirates. And maybe the most interesting aspect is that there is no logic to why they ban the books. It would make sense to do so if they were somehow a threat to the regime but they are not. They also ban websites with the result that when you are in any of those countries it’s impossible to click oon a website where there is a picture that, say, shows the upper arm of a woman. Medical sites are hence difficult to access. Getting a sign saying forbidden happens to you every day.

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    • Catarina, there really is no logical at all to why most books get banned. Thanks too for sharing your example with how website access can often be blocked in certain countries.

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  19. I was blessed early in school by having a multitude of fantastic English teachers who presented reading material and left us to form our own opinions about books and authors, shunned, banned, or otherwise. Huxley, Orwell, Shakespeare, Joyce and then in college authors of the African Diaspora among others. They led me toward a lifelong love of reading that still burns strong today. Great literature knows no color, politics or gender.

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    • Such a great comment in that the best of teacher will tackle literature in a way that does lead students to form their own opinions 🙂

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  20. Good God, if somebody could actually find something controversial in Charlotte’s Web, then nothing is safe!

    Thank you for posting about this, Jeri. It’s always good to remember why we want and need to uphold diversity in literature.

    Post a Reply
    • Laura, seriously. Charlotte’s Web! My own reading hasn’t been too diverse as of late, but I tend to go in streaks.

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  21. I am all for diversity, in literature and elsewhere! I would want to teach Romeo and Juliet to students too if I was a teacher! It seems unreal about the 3-second animated scene being cause for an email from an outraged parent but I guess I need to learn to expect the unexpected, right?! The other day I was at a bookstore and there was a full display outside its front that was devoted to banned books. I was happy to see three people combing through the selection 😉

    Post a Reply
    • Christy, banned book displays are great that way. I used to have a banned books poster in my classroom and it really got the attention of many students.

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  22. I don’t think that diversity was a word in the lexicon when I went to school many years ago. I was lucky, though, that I attended school at a time when parents didn’t rush to the principal to complain about every little thing that they felt was harmful to their sheltered child. In my day, if a teacher reprimanded a child, the parent would likely give him a whack on the behind for good measure!

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    • Jeannette, it’s much appreciated when parents will stand behind a teacher’s judgement. Many still do, but the ones who get their feathers ruffled and noise out of joint often have voices that silence the more level-headed folks.

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  23. This is an interesting topic. I know some books need to be read, and free to teach at schools. But I also have seen the flip side. teachers wanted students to read a book, because it was banned somewhere else.
    The book may not have any significance in either how it was written, or some historical content, but the teachers are insistent that it be taught because of it being banned.

    There is a big difference between banning a book from being purchased, and banning a book for being taught at a school etc, or promoting a book because it is banned. So who has the right to make these decisions? One person, the teacher, or a school board, or does the community as a whole?

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    • William, the process for banning a book varies drastically from school to school. A good school district will have a strict protocol in place for assessing challenged books. Sadly, too often that isn’t the case. One or two people get outraged and to avoid any more feather ruffling, books will get removed from the curriculum to appease those who squawk the loudest.

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  24. Such an interesting topic, it amazes me when in some situations we here feel the west is far ahead of us and then are proved wrong. I will someday take time out and would like to read your ‘Such is Life’ story and the post ‘What is Age Appropriate Literature?’
    I believe in diversity it is necessary whether in context with the Literature or elsewhere it makes us understand and grow widen our horizons!
    Liked the infographic you shared it enlightened the post further to me!

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    • Sushmita, I do hope you read the post on age-appropriate literature. It’s a hard call to make at times, that’s for sure.

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  25. Three quick points:
    (1) I’m a bit surprised that Mein Kampf does not appear in the banned book list – then again, perhaps Mein Kampf is too tedious to be banned.
    (2) My own definition of a true-blue right-winger is someone who would object to the use of The Catcher in the Rye as a class novel in high school English. Holden Caulfield sure says “goddam” a lot, doesn’t he?
    (3) So, is The Satanic Verses not banned in Iran, of all places? Interesting…

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  26. (((SOoooooooo interesting.))))

    You know, I reallllly despise when people tell me what to do, how to think, or WHAT TO READ!

    How dare them!

    Lolita is appallingly, naughtily, brilliantly genius. Probably the best book I’ve ever read.

    And…

    the gull of another person or organization telling us we cannot read something is from the dark ages!

    Anyhow,

    I loved this, Jeri. xx

    Post a Reply
    • Kim, I’m with you on how brilliant Lolita is. It’s definitely tops on my list of favorite books as well.

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