Banned Books We Read at M-A

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M-A has very flexible requirements when it comes to books covered by school curriculum. There are many books being challenged, specifically in the Midwest due to reasons such as violence, vulgar language, and sexual content. Below are a few books in the M-A curriculum that have been challenged or banned in other parts of the United States, and why teachers cover specifically these books in class.

At M-A, teachers have some wiggle room in terms of the books they get to choose to cover in class. “At this school, in this District, there’s a lot of freedom. One of the main concerns is logistics, there are certain books that are assigned at certain levels, for example, The Great Gatsby is a junior year course,” said AS English III and English III Kat Keigher. AP Language and Composition teacher David Rosenberg added, “We have a bigger green-lighted books list through the district, and we get a fair amount of leeway.” Keigher did mention that a book she covers in class, Passing by Nella Larson, “which is about a queer romance between two black women, one of whom is passing as white woman. This is a book that I probably would not be allowed to teach if I were located somewhere else.” M-A has a lot more flexibility and open-mindedness regarding books containing queer, LGBTQ+, and POC content.

MCLV (9th Grade)

   Romeo and Juliet tells the story of two young lovers who belong to rival families. The novel follows their journey to discover each other’s positions as members of opposing families and their inner conflict regarding the situation. The book was challenged in many schools due to teenage sex, drugs, and disobedience of parental authority. 

Multicultural Literature & Voices teacher Erin Walsh said, “While Romeo and Juliet disobey their parents, the ending doesn’t encourage it.” A particularly public challenge that resulted in a ban was in Liberty, South Carolina for its “mature content.” 

Walsh continued, “I can see the criticism there, but I don’t think those aspects of the book make it worth being banned. I think that’s where you look at it, critique it, think about it critically, and apply it to [your] own life.” Walsh added, “It’s a piece of literature that forms the foundation of a lot of cultural work that has continued into our society today.” Romeo and Juliet is still part of the MCLV curriculum.

Night is a memoir by Elie Wiesel, which details his experiences with his father in the Nazi German concentration camps, specifically at Auschwitz and Buchenwad, towards the end of the Second World War. Despite Wiesel being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on Night and it becoming a bestseller, the memoir has long been a widely challenged book due to the graphic depictions of Holocaust conditions. Walsh, who covers the book in her class, said, “He’s descriptive of the graphic nature of the concentration camps to emphasize how horrible the Holocaust was.” Nevertheless, Conejo Valley Unified School District gave students the option to opt out of reading the memoir, flagging the content as “mature.” According to later reports, a teacher could not teach the book, despite it being in the curriculum, due to the large number of opt-outs. “We learn perspective by reading, in Night’s case, from someone who went through this experience,” said Walsh. “Yes, it’s graphic. Yes, it’s traumatic to read. However, what we learn from it outweighs those factors.”

AS English II

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini follows the life of Laila, an Afghan woman and her battles through life. Set in 1990s Kabul, the novel explores lost romance and sisterhood through the eyes of Laila amongst the battle and war-torn life. Former AS English II teacher Susie Choe said, “Many students haven’t been exposed to extended works that heavily feature different cultures.” The book has been challenged many times throughout the United States due to the violence and abuse against women displayed in the book. However, Choe said, “The novel in no way glorifies violence and abuse.” Scenes in which the abuse and violence occur are clearly framed as negative. She added, “By the time the physical abuse becomes explicit, we see how Mariam has been groomed for this. We know it is wrong. And we all loathe Rasheed for his actions.” Although the novel has not received as much backlash as the Hosseini’s previous novel Kite Runner, and has not been publicly banned from any curriculums, it has been challenged in many school libraries across the country. “How can we ban a book that actively teaches against violence and against abuse? These scenes exist to tell us that it’s wrong. That’s like banning writing about murder or theft,” said Chloe.

George Orwell’s 1984 is a well-known American classic which details a nation where the main character, Winston Smith, is being watched by an oppressive “Party”. It is a cautionary dystopian science fiction novel, and was instantly viewed as a possible reality when it was published in 1949. Choe, who taught the book in her class, said “1984 teaches people about the dangers of a single voice, of the dangers of propaganda and subversive messaging, and what happens when a community goes too far in one direction.” Walsh agreed, stating, “It’s worth teaching because it’s essentially a warning against totalitarian governments.Finding the parallels between this horrifying future and our own world is really powerful because there are some things in 1984 that are not far from what governments in our own world are doing to their people.” The Soviet Union and China have both banned the novel, but the book has also been incessantly challenged in the United States. It was completely banned in Jackson County, Florida due to its obscenity and pro-communist passages. However, Choe said, “The sex in 1984 is pretty tame. The first time Winston and Julia successfully have sex, it is described as, ‘He pressed her down upon the grass, among the fallen bluebells. This time there was no difficulty.’” Additionally, the novel is widely regarded to be a satire. “If people can’t see the satire in it and take it completely at face-value as promoting totalitarianism just by sheer virtue of talking about it, then this is a larger issue of wilful denial/manipulation of truth,” said Chloe. “1984 is a good vehicle through which to teach the dangers of partisan censorship and show how it is possible for a country to devolve together,” she concluded. 

Summer Reading: AS English III

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri is a novel about a husband and wife from Culcatta, India moving to Massachusetts as an arranged couple, and follows the lives of their children, mainly their son Gogol. Keigher, who covers the book in class, said, “It’s a coming-of-age story about a boy growing up and struggling with his own identity.” The book was recommended for removal by the ad-hoc literature committee of the Coeur d’Alene School District, citing the “descriptions of sexual conduct that are too explicit for high school seniors.” Administrators eventually voted to remove it from the school curriculum. At M-A, Keigher said, “As a white person who is not the child of recent immigrants, it is really helpful for me to hear what my students say about the text,” and added that lots of her students relate to the experience detailed in the novel. Keigher said, “I don’t relate to the protagonist at all, and so hearing my students speak on how his relationship with his parents mirrors theirs is enriching for me because it allows me to experience the text from their perspective.” Fortunately, M-A has not banned the novel and it is still on the AS English III Summer Reading List.

English III

 The Great Gatsby is an American classic set in New York which follows the story of the self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby and his pursuit of his childhood love, Daisy Buchanan. Despite being a novel “focused primarily on the issues and conflicts of wealthy white people,” according to Keigher, it has still been banned in Palmer, Alaska due to the concern that it contained “sexual content that could cause controversy.” Keigher remarked, “It’s not even that sexy of a book,” adding that her approach to teaching the novel, which includes sharing her theories about how “Nick is gay, and Gatsby is a Black man passing as white,” add a “refreshing contemporary perspective, but also make it controversial.” Keigher has replaced The Great Gatsby in the English III curriculum with Passing by Nella Larsen, which has “a broader worldview which still retains a similar writing style and theme to Gatsby.”

AP Literature

Invisible Man is a novel that follows the story of a young, college-educated African-American who struggles to survive in a society that is racially divided and refuses to truly see him for who he is. The book was challenged in the Randolph County High School libraries, but ultimately remained despite the strong language and incest scene. AP Literature teacher Lisa Otsuka said, “Every character in Invisible Man is a symbol of a larger consciousness, and in that incest scene the man represents the expectations the white power set for him.” Rosenberg, who is a former AP Literature teacher, said, “I can understand why you wouldn’t want your 10-year-old child to read the Trueblood incest scene, but I think by ages 15 or 16, sheltering people from literature doesn’t serve any of the parties involved at that point.” The novel has been fully banned in Palmer, Alaska, due to both the incest scene and the multiple depictions of sexual relations throughout the novel. However, Rosenberg said, “I think the cost outweighs the benefit. I’ve seen kids overcome parental expectations, get more involved in their community, apply it to their higher education, and more.” Rosenberg added that, back when he taught the novel at a school in Oakland, “A lot of the students felt seen.” Otsuka said, “Ellison’s book is not just about race, but about the individual’s social invisibility in society. I think he links the African-American experience to everyone’s experience.” 

Age-Inappropriate or Censorship

Some M-A teachers agree that books should not generally be banned at the high school level. Keigher said, “I don’t think it’s surprising that as an English teacher, I don’t believe in banning books.” Rosenberg agreed, “There’s ‘age-appropriate,’ ‘content-appropriate,’ things like that. But I think blocking people from information has predominantly, if not always, detrimental effects.” “Logistically, it’s a terrible idea if you’re trying to keep information out of people’s hands. It just makes it more tempting,” added Keigher.

Some other teachers can see the reasoning behind book banning, but still view banning as a negative. Walsh said, “I can see the potential benefits of book banning, but the benefits of allowing free speech through free dissemination of literature outweighs the benefits of banning certain books.” 

However, there are some teachers who think book banning isn’t necessarily bad. Otsuka argued, “There are valid reasons to ban books. I think if there’s something offensive in the sense that it’s misogynistic, or racist, or homophobic, absolutely yes.” Otsuka did later clarify, “I do think we can teach offensive or difficult ideas sometimes because that can actually be a good talking point, but when you are teaching something in class you are giving it time and attention, you’re giving it its day in court, and not all books merit that.” 

As for the books currently being banned, Keigher said, “I think it’s another way of politicizing public education. Certain groups, typically conservative groups, will attempt to limit access to texts that have content that they find objectionable to their own personal worldview.” Otsuka added, “Literature usually takes the side of the voiceless and the powerless. The danger of that is in states where books are being banned because of certain ideas, you’re doing the same thing. You’re silencing voices that need to be heard.” Overall, most teachers seem to agree that at some point, banning books becomes a form of censorship. Walsh concluded, “I think it becomes censorship when books that all have something in common are all collectively banned, where it is clear that there is a very dominant narrative that wants to be told and the less dominant narratives or minorities are being silenced.” More generally, Keigher said, “Literature has the power to hugely impact people’s worldviews, therefore people should have access to it.” 

Thankfully, M-A is a lot more open-minded in regards to such topics and students have access to a wide range of resources when it comes to books. However, it is important to be aware of the situation in other areas of the country and determine for ourselves whether this content is truly age-inappropriate or is a particular perspective being silenced.

Malika is a senior and second-year journalist. In her free time, she likes to read and listen to music. Malika is also involved in soccer and website design.

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