Guest Blog Post by Carole Soden
I must admit that I am concerned with the current trend of attempting to censor or ban children’s books that are not in keeping with one’s political or historical beliefs. I can understand that some books are wrong, outdated or even incorrect. I myself am often not happy with the salacious or overly violent content of some of the books in my library, but my job is to educate my students and to support their First Amendment rights.
I also feel that many of these books can be used as teaching tools. Some of the best discussions in my class have come from controversial books. When I first proposed reading Huckleberry Finn to my racially mixed middle school class, there was an uproar and not a few objections. However, when the students came to the part where Huck chooses eternal damnation (which was quite real to him) over doing what he believed was the “right” thing, it was a powerful moment. The discussions that this provoked were far reaching and led students to really understand how choices they make affect their lives.
My students loved the book, Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen . After we read the book, we researched the Native American challenges to it which was a real eye-opener for many of them who had never even considered whether the Tlingit culture might have been misrepresented in the book, and whether or not that made a difference.
The controversy surrounding books such as A Birthday Cake for George Washington by Ramin Ganeshram which has been pulled by Scholastic, and A Fine Dessert by Emily Jenkins are upsetting to me. Both books have been roundly criticized for making slavery “too happy,” and for not explaining enough about it. As a librarian, I am always looking for books which show non-white or multi-cultural people and here is A Birthday Cake for George Washington, a book about a black man who is the head chef in the White House with white chefs working under him, and Scholastic pulls it. Again, I think this would be a wonderful teaching tool. Young children are quite able to evaluate and understand the good and bad points in books and isn’t it our job to educate them? This book and A Fine Dessert show the triumph of the human spirit, and that’s what I want my students to come away with. (I can point out that these people are not free and discuss much more about slavery). Isn’t this why Nelson Mandela was such a popular and revered leader?
While I truly understand the real concerns of people such as Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education who wrote, “Imagine reading ‘A Fine Dessert’ to a classroom in Philadelphia that is 90 percent African American. How are those kids going to feel?” but that isn’t enough to stop me from using this book or to make me deny these students their First American rights.
We need to empower our students and help them to think. We need to show them that they can learn to deal with the uncomfortable and wrong things that happen in life. We need to shake ourselves out of our comfort zones and help our students to do the same.
I think that Education and Library classes need to teach us how to deal with difficult subjects in books. That’s a class I’d love to explore and teach! In the meantime, I’m upset with the idea of banning or censoring books. I want my students to continue see how the world has changed and where it still needs to change. I want to keep using these books to make students think. I want Banned Books Week to stand for ALL books and not just the ones that make us comfortable and support our points of view. I want us to continue to find ways to use all books to enlighten and educate our students.
Carole Soden is a librarian and teacher (with a Masters in Library Science from Portland State University). She has taught in International and local schools in many foreign countries (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lesotho, Ethiopia, the Philippines, St. Kitts), as well as private and public schools in the United States. Her passion is teaching reading and finding the “right” book for each child.