Book Selections, Challenges, and Censorship

As a teacher, you are bound to have someone challenge a book that is in your classroom. In fact some people believe if you don't have someone challenge a book every once in a while, then you are not doing your job in selecting a good variety of quality literature. However, a teacher needs to understand the community in which they teach and recognize that even the most liberal of communities has limits on what they believe children and adolescents should be looking at or reading. A very important thing to consider along side the controversial issue a story might create is the socially redeeming qualities or themes the story has. For example - A Bridge to Terabithia. Includes some words that some parents would or have complained about. However, I and others have been able to convince most parents and students the use of such words were appropriate or at least plausible within the context of the story. A good source for such related ideas can be found on the NCTE (The National Council of Teachers of English website. For example the following excerpt from this site for Bridge to Terabithia illustrates this point. -
"Bridge to Terabithia is an excellent novel for boys and girls ages nine to twelve because it deals with real life situations and problems that many children in the nine to twelve age group find difficult to cope with. Paterson is praised by many critics for creating a realistic boy-girl friendship, something "so curiously unsung in literature" Christian Science Monitor (1978, p. B2.) One of the stronger subjects Paterson presents in Bridge to Terabithia is death. Yet Paterson presents death in a very sensitive manner that should not prove controversial to the readers. Another character briefly introduces the subject of child abuse and again Paterson presents this issue in a very knowledgeable and realistic format that the young adult reader would not find objectionable."

Using the same book as a read aloud with my students, years ago, there was one girl that asked about the language used by Jess when he was grieving over the lose of Leslie. I asked her if she would be upset if she lost a friend and while she might not say those words could she imagine that others might or at least think them. When she agreed I suggested that the author chose those words for emphasis and asked her how she might suggest another way to create a strong emphasis for the emotions the author was trying to communicate. Her response was to look me in the eye, smile, say "Oh", nod agreement, add, "Yeah, I can see that." and walk away smiling. I kind of expected a phone call after that, since that was often the pattern with this particular family, but it never came. Not for that incident. We need to careful that we honor parent's requests, but at the same time we can't let a minority group change what other parents expect their children to experience in school.

The Witch of Blackbird Pond is another book that has been removed from book lists by assertive parents because of content dealing with witchcraft and because the main character is headstrong and not respectful of adults. Fortunately I never had complaints about it when I read it aloud. I mention it because just the other day when I was at the Wayne Rec. Center walking in circles when I saw a girl glued to a copy from the Wayne Middle School sitting on the bleachers reading the whole time I was walking while others, whom she usually played pickup games of basketball with, couldn't convince her to stop reading and play ball. A great book is timeless and thankfully for her is hasn't been censored in her school.

Amy Tichota suggests the following guidelines:

As teachers, we need to remember that we need to remain calm when something that is in our classroom is challenged. A simple conference with the challenger may solve the problem. However, sometimes it is not this simple. An important thing to remember is to deal with only one book at a time. This will limit any challenge and make it more controllable. There are three guidelines that can be remembered when book challenges are made:
1. materials selection policy, 2. grievance procedure, and 3. steps to reduce emotional tension.

A selection policy helps by adding a layer of rules and involvement of others so that when books are chosen the selection is made under the rules and guidelines and involve a group of people, usually a selection committee that makes or agrees to recommendations of a selection. It is always comforting to have others in agreement with your decision whether there will be others who do or do not.

A grievance procedure is the process an individual must use if he or she wants to formally challenge the use or availability of a book. It must always include a signature and explanation for the action being requested. A designated committee will then consider the complaint. A final decision is then made by the school or library. If the decision is not agreeable, the individual who complained may choose to seek legal counsel and request a hearing in court.

Last, the teacher and other representatives for the school or library need to continually strive to keep all parties from becoming emotional. This can be done by first listening to the person that has the complaint and attempt to resolve it at an informal level. It is sometimes helpful to describe the approval process used for the selection with reference to the required policy and procedures. One benefit of the policy and procedure for selection of books and complaints about books is to protect both parties. By calmly explaining that no decision can be made without going through proper channels, or to change previous decisions to use or not use certain titles is not a personal decision, but requires certain rules or procedures be followed. Such statements made matter of factly can reduce emotional and biased decisions. Emotional responses can also be reduced when additional people are brought into the process so that additional ears and minds can listen and respond better to both parties to keep everyone calm and honest. If nothing can be resolved informally, then the person who is challenging the book can be told they will need to complete the appropriate forms to make a formal request to challenge a specific book.