September 26-October 2 was Banned Books Week. Banned Books Week is a time to discuss the concept of book censorship, interesting and different texts, and the history of why certain books were originally banned from schools. It is also a perfect time to discuss or begin the reading of different banned books for the middle school classroom as well.
I have always been the teacher that believes students should read what interests them, and every author should have the freedom to write about hard, real-life experiences. Sometimes reading challenging perspectives are the only times students encounter diversity or difference of beliefs. Sometimes it’s the only time students learn about different cultures. Sometimes it’s the only time students gain an understanding of complex and difficult life events that may not be pretty. I always say history and life are “ugly.” We need to learn the “ugly” in order to understand life and sometimes books must contain the “ugly” to do this.
I have taught high school and middle school English and have taught a variety of previously banned books. From I Know Why a Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou that I taught to high school seniors to To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee to high school sophomores, the idea of banned books has intrigued every age of students I have educated.
I often use this intrigue to help students become fascinated with a book we’re about to read. It provides mystery as to why this particular book was previously banned. It creates student buy-in from the start. Before teaching this book, I always hype up that we’re reading a banned book, and I list the reasons why this book was banned. Students often ask, “Why are we allowed to read it then? “Should we read it?” I am the type of teacher that likes to answer a question with another question, and I always ask, “Well…should we then?”
Previously banned books were frequently banned because of how the book fit into that specific time period of publication. Sometimes the books were ahead of their time, contained truthful yet hard-to-read information, and/or contained bad language. Books were banned also due to religious reasons or personal opinion. It is interesting to find out why certain books were censored originally and why they were later taken off the banned book list.
Banned books are still a source of controversy. I do believe that books should be age-appropriate. Some books aren’t suitable for elementary or middle schoolers, because it could contain mature content and the students are not developmentally ready to handle the crux of them, nor do they have all the information to fully take in the heaviness or importance of a novel and the reasons it was banned in the first place. I would not give an egg and frying pan sitting on a hot stove to my one-year-old because she’s not old enough to cook, nor would I hand a third grader To Kill a Mockingbird. They simply need more time to develop the knowledge and reasoning to appreciate such a book.
Therefore, I have devised a list of three previously banned books I have taught to middle schoolers that are age-appropriate:
Bridge to Terabithia by Katharine Paterson
This novel was first published in 1977 and is about two children, Jesse and his friend Leslie, who create an imaginative world called Terabithia. Jesse, the main character, deals with all sorts of childhood challenges, such as recess races, bullying, a crush on a teacher, and some harder issues such as his family’s poverty and the death of his best friend, Leslie.
This book was originally banned for curse words. Children imagining another world was seen as witchcraft, which was another reason for banning it, along with the references to the main character, Leslie, questioning the existence of God and the Bible. Another reason for banning the book is the death of one of the main characters, a child. We now know how silly it is to think that children having an imagination could be linked to the witchcraft, so let’s look at the other reasons for censoring this book.
I have taught Bridge to Terabithia to mainly sixth graders, and I have never had a student say they didn’t like this book. I have taught Bridge to Terabithia in Christian schools and used the references of Leslie questioning the existence of God and the Bible to affirm how we all may have these moments in life, and we are not alone in that. We discuss how Jesse, Leslie’s best friend, helps lead her to God in a beautiful way. When Leslie died, in the Christian school I taught in, we had complex discussions about faith and heaven and death, so complex that what sixth graders were thinking blew me away.
Oftentimes the people that banned or censored books believe that certain concepts will make their children go morally astray, whereas I like to turn that around on itself and use those very concepts to make children see why we should do the right thing.
Bridge to Terabithia contains a couple of curse words. I warn students of the curse words in the book, and I ask them if books should contain curse words. Many conclude that sometimes life, like Bridge to Terabithia, has bad words in it. We discuss how those bad words are part of the author’s craft, and sometimes authors use these words to provide emphasis and shock and how sometimes other words just won’t “do” in that situation.
The concept of death in Bridge to Terabithia, especially the death of a child, is hard to read about. I first read this book when I was in fifth grade and the death of Leslie did not affect me the way it does now that I am a mother, yet children are still affected by this event in the novel. I often have students produce a writing response, detailing their thoughts on whether this should be a banned book based solely on a child’s death, and most of the time, students say that the book should be read. They say that sometimes children experience the death of a friend or a family member, and this book can help them connect to their grief. They often say that sometimes kids experiencing grief feel alone because they never see another child walking in their sadness, yet Paterson does an amazing job of helping the reader experience Jesse’s grieving process.
Don’t be afraid to teach this book. It still elicits discussion and deep thought for new generations every year.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle
A Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962, was originally censored for promoting witchcraft and then, on the contrary, for being too Christian-like. I first read this novel in eighth grade, and I remember being hooked. I loved it so much, and I was not a girl that liked to read fantasy books. I loved my hardcore realistic-fiction genre, but this one I devoured.
The book chronicles Meg, a thirteen-year-old girl, in her journey to finding her father, a scientist who has disappeared in a suspicious government mission. With the help of some outlandish women, her brother Charles Wallace and friend, Calvin, they travel through dimensions, time and space, and to other planets to find him. They experience “tessering,” or the ability to travel quickly by bending time. They also experience evil through the being of “It.” The reader learns that the only way to overcome evil is through love and goodness.
This book is science-fiction wrapped up in a fantasy genre. I love to teach genre differences with this novel as well as character and setting analysis because this novel has truly unique examples.
Because of the other-worldly travels, the dark mentioning of “It” and how “It” tries to take over the characters’ minds, many parents originally believed this book was promoting witchcraft. When it was found out that L’Engle is a prolific Christian, and she used this book as a type of allegory to the Christian faith (the love and goodness in the novel) overcoming evil, many people wanted to ban it again. Books have power and many feared the power that this book contained. Even if you are teaching at a public or secular school, this book should be taught because isn’t this the aim of society? We are all trying to teach our kids to make wise choices and to be morally just. We would never want our children to choose “evil,” or to rejoice in wrongdoing. We want them to choose love.
Besides the deep message L’Engle conveyed in her novel, it is excellently written, contains so many points of interest to teach reading skills, and is a favorite among students. Most of my scholars enjoyed the imagination that was explored, and it encouraged them to tap into their creativity in their own writing and everyday life.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
I currently teach the Newberry Medal winning book, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, to my eighth graders. Published in 1976, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry details the daily life of Cassie, a nine-year-old girl and her family in Depression-era 1930’s Mississippi. Originally banned for derogatory language, this captivating novel demonstrates the ugliness of history and the difficult challenges that many families faced specifically during this time period. This book is real, raw, and powerful.
Publisher’s Synopsis: This is an extraordinarily moving novel, one you will not easily forget. Set in Mississippi at the height of the Depression, it is the story of one family’s struggle to maintain their integrity, pride, and independence in the face of racism and social injustice. It is a story of physical survival, but more important, it is a story of the survival of the human spirit. And, too, it is Cassie’s story, Cassie Logan, an independent girl who discovers over the course of an important year why having land of their own is so crucial to the Logan family, even as she learns to draw strength from her own sense of dignity and self-respect.
The novel spans a length of a school year in which Cassie first experiences racism, her teacher/mother is fired for teaching the truth about slavery, and her brother’s best friend is almost killed for a crime he did not commit. While reading this book, we analyzed why Taylor used extremely offensive words to convey racism and social injustice. Our investigation of her choices is part of learning the author’s craft and how it is used to portray the viciousness of that time period.
“Although there are those who wish to ban my books because I have used language that is painful, I have chosen to use the language that was spoken during the period, for I refuse to whitewash history. The language was painful, and life was painful for many African Americans, including my family. I remember the pain.” Mildred D. Taylor
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry definitely does not “whitewash” history. It paints a shocking, yet straightforward picture of life in the 1930’s. This is a powerful book that should be used in History classes as well as English. With its emphasis on poverty in the Great Depression and how many were adversely affected by racism and social injustice demonstrates a perspective that’s not often found in many books.
Including Excerpts from Banned Books
Some books I absolutely love but feel parts would not fully be appropriate for middle schoolers due to mature content. I choose to use excerpts as short story studies from these particular books.
A few of my favorite books to pull excerpts from are:
House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
Banned due to its depictions of domestic and sexual violence.
Publisher’s Synopsis: Sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous, The House on Mango Street tells the story of Esperanza Cordero, whose neighborhood is one of harsh realities and harsh beauty. Esperanza doesn’t want to belong, not to her rundown neighborhood, and not to the low expectations the world has for her. Esperanza’s story is that of a young girl coming into her power and inventing for herself what she will become.
Night by Elie Wiesel
Banned due to its explicit descriptions of the Holocaust.
Publisher’s Synopsis: A candid, horrific, and deeply poignant autobiographical account of his survival as a teenager in the Nazi death camps. Wiesel reflects on the enduring importance of Night and his lifelong, passionate dedication to ensuring that the world never forgets man’s capacity for inhumanity to man.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Banned due to profanity and situations that were deemed sexually explicit.
Publisher’s Synopsis: Heartbreaking, funny, and beautifully written, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, which is based on the author’s own experiences, coupled with poignant drawings by Ellen Forney that reflect the character’s art, chronicles the contemporary adolescence of one Native American boy as he attempts to break away from the life he was destined to live.
If you find a book you love, but students aren’t quite ready for that content, consider using excerpts instead. I don’t believe in banning these books, but I do feel it is best to allow students to mature enough to get to the point they could handle a more serious book.
Use Banned Books Week as motivation to research specific banned books and the controversy behind them. Utilize the intrigue of banned books to help with student buy-in and take the time to really delve deeply into the serious topics of these books. Censoring diverse books creates a great loss to the students and the potential of what they could learn, and that is more dangerous than them ever reading a banned book.