By: Kate Lechtenberg
Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is one of the most frequently banned books in the U.S., and this spring, the Mat-Su School District in Alaska became the most recent school to deem the book inappropriate for its students. The Mat-Su district labeled the book as “controversial” because of its depictions of rape and sexual assault, as well as its “anti-white messages.” Although the “anti-white” critique deserves a post of its own, in this post, I want to address why challenges to Caged Bird and other books that address rape are so common—and how we might address concerns about sexual trauma in literature without banning or unfairly labeling books.
First, were the books “banned” or just “removed”?
In addressing the controversy, Mat-Su’s School Board President Jeff Taylor claimed on Facebook that Angelou’s book and the four others removed from the curriculum approved list (Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ellison’s The Invisible Man, O’Brien’s The Things We Carried, and Heller’s Catch-22) “are not banned”, but the difference between “banned” and “no longer approved for curricular use” in this case was really a matter of semantics.
Granted, it can be hard to tell when to call curriculum changes “censorship” and when it is simply an informed educational choice made by educational experts. However, in Taylor’s Facebook post, he said he wanted the books to be “replaced” and “removed,” and he came to this decision without reading the books in their entirety. In addition, the five books on the list were flagged as “controversial” by administrators, and both the National Council of Teachers of English and the ALA oppose such red-flagging. Even Mat-Su’s controversial issues policy speaks to the value of studying controversial issues in school.
In short, although Taylor is correct that all five books were still available in libraries, the fact that Mat-Su labeled these books out of context and took measure to restrict access based on that labeling, Mat-Su’s initial decision was a form of censorship. Thankfully, after the negative national publicity Mat-Su received, they reversed the decision.
When we restrict books about rape, who are we protecting?
Books like Angelou’s that include storylines and characters experiencing rape and sexual trauma are often banned and challenged on the grounds that young readers are too immature to read about or discuss them. But are they?
Last week, my adolescent daughter was looking over my shoulder as I was taking an online child abuse mandatory reporter training, and during the section on recognizing signs of sexual abuse, she said, “Why don’t kids have to learn about child abuse too? I mean, we’re the ones who need to know—for ourselves and to look for signs in our friends too!”
My daughter is right. The tragically high rates of child sexual abuse in the U.S. mean that whether we like it or not, too many young people are survivors of sexual abuse, and many more have siblings or friends who are survivors. Whether we like it or not, too many of our children have been abused or know a survivor, so adult efforts to “protect” our young people from reading about and discussing sexual abuse are often misplaced.
Respecting rape and sexual trauma survivors by offering reading choices
Although banning books that address sexual abuse is short-sighted and restrictive, educators and librarians must also take seriously the concerns of those who argue that young people—particularly sexual abuse survivors—may not want to read books that include storylines and characters that address sexual abuse and trauma.
Some librarians, psychologists, and educators believe that putting the right book in a reader’s hands can help them cope with difficulty in their lives. While this may be true on an anecdotal level, librarians and educators are not qualified to make prescriptive assumptions about how books will “help” readers. “Bibliotherapy,” the psychological practice of using relevant books as part of a therapeutic process, is not in the librarian’s or educator’s job description.
Therefore, we must also remember that reading about the trauma one has experienced may re-trigger or compound a survivor’s trauma. No librarian, educator, school administrator, or school board should presume to know what the effect of reading will be for an individual reader. Therefore, as much as possible, schools should offer readers choices in their reading, and not only in the “contact the teacher if you’d like an alternative text” model.
Literacy educator Kelly Gallagher argues that reading drudgery in the form of whole class novel, study guides, and other mind-numbing practices are a form of “readicide.” Many contemporary literacy educators like Donalyn Miller and Penny Kittle recommend a choice-based literature curriculum, and others suggest ditching the whole class novel in favor of small groups, book clubs, and similar approaches. These practices are promising for both young readers’ literary growth and for respecting their emotional needs.
The Bottom Line
In short, Mat-Su’s choice to remove I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was problematic for two reasons:
- because the initial removal was based on unprofessional red-flagging that failed to consider the text in its entirety
- because their curricular text-selection process supported a false all-or-nothing approach to literature about sexual trauma and other issued labeled as controversial.
Books and their readers are more complex than up-or-down votes, one-book-for-all-kids approaches, and flashy headlines. Young readers in Mat-Su schools and beyond deserve adults who can address complex issues, reading choices, and students’ educational and emotional needs with more nuance and flexibility.
Kate Lechtenberg earned a doctoral degree from the University of Iowa’s College of Education, where her research focused on how teachers select, frame, and facilitate discussions about controversial issues. She teaches courses in young adult and children’s literature, collection development, and critical literacy at the University of Iowa. Find her on Twitter @katelechtenberg.