By Gloria Jones Ellis, M.A. – Educational Therapist & Co-Founder of Lighthouse Homeschool Solutions
I recently came across a question in a Facebook group for homeschooling parents that gave me pause. I found the question to be genuine but, from my own perspective, very disconcerting. I spent much of the night pondering why this question made me feel so uncomfortable and concerned.
The question being asked by this homeschooling parent was along the lines of this:
Can anyone recommend ‘safe’ books for sixth-grade reading?
The parent clarified further that she was looking for books for her sixth-grade child that did not include any themes related to race, gender identity, sexuality, or any similar topics, which she deemed “unsafe.” She also emphasized that she didn’t want to offend anyone with her question.
While I didn’t feel at all offended, as a black parent and an educator, her question made me feel very sad. I just couldn’t stop wondering what made books that share experiences that fall outside of the white, heterosexual, cisgender, mainstream “unsafe.” I also wondered whether or not I should be considering the countless stories centered around white, heterosexual, cisgender, mainstream characters and experience as “unsafe” for my own by multi-racial, LGBTQ+ children and school students. Is it just unsafe to read about anyone who is different from ourselves? If so, what makes it so dangerous?
Here’s the danger that I see:
- By reading about someone who is different from yourself, you might develop empathy for someone who many people would prefer to consider “undeserving.”
- By reading about someone who is different from yourself, you might question some of the biased, cruel, and incorrect beliefs you have been implicitly or explicitly taught to embrace.
- By reading about someone who is different from yourself, you might see and feel connections and common humanity.
- By reading about someone who is different from yourself, you might learn that “truth” is relative.
- By reading about someone different from yourself, you might begin to question authority and defy the status quo.
- By reading about someone who is different from yourself, you might find that you’re actually reading about someone like yourself- maybe a part of yourself that others prefer you to keep hidden.
- By allowing all children to have access to books that expose them to all of the above, plus a multitude of characters who are like themselves, you are providing them with powerful models of their own strength, their own humanity, their own emotional complexity, and that of every other human on this planet.
I guess this is pretty dangerous stuff…
It seems the danger, to those who wish to maintain their own power by dehumanizing others, is really found in the possibility of young people feeling a connection to anyone who falls outside the lines of what is determined to be “acceptable” or “desirable” in our society? I, personally, do not see any danger to our young people in books that expose them to different perspectives. Quite the opposite. But, I guess I can see why some people feel threatened…
Therefore, for this week’s Field Trip Friday, in honor of Black History Month and in support of literature from a variety of perspectives, join us on a dangerous journey into the world of banned books!
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
“Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction and later adapted into a film and musical of the same name, The Color Purple by Alice Walker focuses on the lives of African-American women in the South. Spanning the 1930s—an age of major political and economic change—the novel has faced many challenges due to its portrayal of rape, violence, and use of racial slurs. Most recently NCAC intervened in an attempt to remove the book from Brunswick County Schools in North Carolina. In her formal challenge, Pat Sykes, Brunswick County Commissioner, told the board that the only result of reading such a book will be “Trash in, trash out.” Thankfully, the board voted 3-2 to keep the book as part of the high school curriculum. Freedom to read great literary works: 1; Censorship: 0.” –National Coalition Against Censorship
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
“Angie Thomas’s 2017 New York Times bestseller frequently appears on lists of banned stories. Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter lives in two realities: a predominantly white prep school by day, and her mostly Black, low-income neighborhood by night. Starr’s careful balancing act crumbles when a police officer kills her unarmed friend. Unsettling depictions of police brutality, violence and racism have led some to ban The Hate U Give from classrooms and libraries. Despite (and perhaps because of) these heartbreaking scenes, the book is worth a read—especially if you’re starting a book club.“ –Reader’s Digest
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
“Maya Angelou has deservingly been placed on many “Top 10” lists for her breathtaking poetry and autobiographical books. And she’s on another list, too: the American Library Association’s Top 10 Banned Authors. In fact, she has been on that list every year for the past decade. According to the Office of Intellectual Freedom, her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings has received numerous challenges due to its “bitterness and hatred toward white people” and encouragement of “deviant behavior because of references to lesbianism, premarital sex and profanity.” Nonetheless, Angelou was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011, ensuring that her words will continue to serve as a beacon of hope and inspiration.” –National Coalition Against Censorship
Black Boy by Richard Wright
”For some, coming-of-age novels seem to assume the reputation of their protagonists: perpetually misunderstood. Black Boy is one of those novels. Richard Wright’s autobiography examines his tortured years in the Jim Crow South and his eventual move to Chicago, where he establishes his writing career and becomes involved with the Communist Party. Criticized for being anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Christian, the book has come under fire for more than its perceived political and religious content. Black Boy’s sexual content and grim picture of race relations has made it a book-du-jour for many censors. As Wright’s best-selling novel to date, readers have clearly found great meaning in the richly historical tale.” –National Coalition Against Censorship
A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines
”Trigger Warning: this book may lead to intellectual growth and emotional development. A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines is a highly acclaimed work of American fiction that addresses themes of racism and racial identity in a rural 1940s Louisiana community. In 2008, NCAC was prompted to send a letter to Huntsville City Schools in Alabama after two parents objected to sexual references and profanity in the book. Ultimately, the School Board voted to make the book optional reading on the ninth grade summer reading list. Inherently a story of friendship, resilience, and hope, Gaines undoubtedly deserves praise for creating a world where compassion for a people and their struggle reigns paramount to hatred and injustice. Perhaps we could all learn a thing or two from him.” –National Coalition Against Censorship
George by Alex Gino
“Reasons: challenged, banned, restricted, and hidden to avoid controversy; for LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not ‘put books in a child’s hand that require discussion’; for sexual references; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint and ‘traditional family structure’” –American Library Association
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
“Despite being so beloved, Harper Lee’s novel is still the fourth most challenged or banned classic book in the United States. Set in 1960s Alabama, the coming-of-age tale follows young Scout Finch, brother Jem and father Atticus during the arrest and trial of a Black man accused of raping a white woman. Through Scout’s eyes, readers bear witness to the deep injustice of the situation along with the bittersweet lessons of growing up. Advocates of banning the book argue that its issues with racism and sexuality aren’t suitable for young readers. Their stance hasn’t affected the popularity of the book (or its movie adaptation)—it’s widely considered one of the greatest books of all time.” –Reader’s Digest
All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
”LGBTQIA+ advocate and nonbinary writer George M. Johnson calls this 2020 book a memoir manifesto. The collection of personal essays chronicles their experience as a queer Black person in the United States. Of course, honest descriptions of gender identity, racism and queer love have raised the hackles of those who advocate for banning books with sensitive content. Yes, All Boys Aren’t Blue includes graphic content that might not be appropriate for some younger readers, but the book is also an essential work of representation.” –Reader’s Digest
The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
“The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s first novel, was published in 1970. Set in Lorain, Ohio — where Morrison herself was born — the book tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, an eleven-year-old African American girl who is convinced that she is ugly, and yearns to have lighter skin and blue eyes… Since its publication, the book has consistently landed on the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books. Reasons cited have included, ‘sexually explicit material,’ ‘lots of graphic descriptions and lots of disturbing language,” and “an underlying socialist-communist agenda.’ One complaint simply called it a ‘bad book.’” –PBS
I’ll take the danger of banned books over the danger of banning books any day! Yes, scary times!