Challenging reads

Controversial books spark reader interest.

Elizabeth Posey, Art Director

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In the era of “fake news,” discussions of free speech and the First Amendment are more prevalent than ever as the decades-long censorship debate continues, a debate that often applies to literature.

Under the First Amendment, U.S. citizens are given the right to speak or express themselves freely without unjustified persecution. Personal rights look different for students however, and restrictions can be enforced by districts, schools, teachers, or parents in what books they are allowed to read and analyze.

At Branham, all books are subject to approval by the school district and most always are approved for reading. However, with any work of literature, parents and students can opt out for reasons of discomfort, or explicit topics.

English teacher Barbara Arduini said that the concept of free speech, as most are familiar with, is uniquely American, but is at odds with how censorship is treated in the classroom.

“It’s really hard in general to separate yourself from your cultural context,” Arduini said. “The values that American culture tends to value are ingrained in me as well.”

Founded by leaders seeking to escape religious persecution and limitation on speech rights, the United States holds free speech as a valuable and fundamental aspect of life. Americans generally dislike policies that restrict personal freedoms, whereas in other countries restriction is commonplace.

The debate for allowing literature that is deemed explicit into a classroom environment has not changed much in the last decade.

Since the American Library Association began recording challenged books across the U.S., the data has helped free speech advocates better understand who wants to censor the books and why. Anyone is able to challenge a book, but the decision to ban those books is determined by school boards. Examples of frequently challenged books include “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and “Looking for Alaska” by John Green.

Many Branham sophomores are familiar with Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner,” a book frequently challenged and on 2017’s top 10 list for challenges. Its message, according to ALA records of the concerns, was reported for “leading to terrorism,” “promoting Islam” and containing violence.

According to the ALA, 42 percent of those who challenged books were public library patrons; the second highest group of challengers were parents, at 32 percent.

The organization also noted that the top three reasons people chose to challenge books were for “sexually explicit” content, “offensive language” and material “unsuited to age group.”

In 2017, the ALA reported that the most challenged book was “13 Reasons Why, by Jay Asher, a book that discusses suicide and mental health, as well as sexual assault and bullying.

English teacher Heather Amanatullah explained how she confronts introducing controversial topics to her students.

“If your kid’s going to read something, you shouldn’t make it this taboo thing. You should read it with them,” Amanatullah said. In her annual banned book unit, an extension of national banned book week, she wants her students to see different ways of life and the importance of having conversations about censorship and literature deemed objectionable. In order for the unit to take place, students must first receive permission from their parents and students and parents have the option to exempt themselves from reading the book. From this point, the participating students choose to read banned books from a curated list or they could suggest their own.

Students respond to questions on their chosen books and end the unit with posters and presentations to their classmates. In the culminating assignment, they identify what content was considered explicit and why it may have been challenged in addition to their opinion on censoring that literature.

Talking about challenged books may make some uncomfortable, but Amanatullah believes they give readers new insights and experiences to reflect upon.

As a parent,“It was a really big concern for me being a mom of teenage girls,” Amanatullah said. She emphasized that the way she informs her children and students about books with challenging topics revolves around a discussion of new perspectives that lie outside of their comfort zones.

Although discussion of challenged material in the classroom commonplace at Branham, different areas and schools take varied approaches to controversial books; some schools’ solutions are not to present the books at all. Location is a major factor in censorship, not to mention that the practice was even more frequent in schools of the past. Reading was typically more limited to classic novels, ones that do not usually spark reader interest as banned books do.

English teacher Kerry Murphy did not have the positive experience of  memorable or moving books that shaped her worldview until she went to college, where she was exposed to new ideas in literature.

“I want them not just to read, to analyze, but to read to gain perspective on the outside world and hopefully learn something for themselves as well,” Murphy said.

As she educates a future generation of English students, she hopes that they gain beneficial perspectives from literature that she did not receive at a high school age.

“There are going to be things that we experience that hurt us physically, or emotionally or challenge our way of thinking,” she said. “No matter if we’re not prepared for different mindsets, once we go out into the real world, it’s going to be harder than if we’re allowing a little more challenging content that helps them.”