Banning Books

by Mitch Harris, Literacy To Life Associate

There is, and always has been, a heated debate concerning what is “appropriate” in a classroom for students at various age levels.  Because of this, school boards and educational institutions are allowed to ban (with good reason) books that are seen as offensive or inappropriate for their students.

However, for one week each year (this week in fact), the American Library Association along with a host of other literary organizations sponsors Banned Books Week, a celebration of literature that pushes boundaries and opens new world to us as readers.

First it is important to note what it means when a book is “banned.”  When a book is deemed banned, it cannot be on library shelves or assigned as required reading in a school district. However, if not banned, a book can also be restricted.  Restrictions give books a sort of “rating,” i.e. you can only check this book out if you’re in 9th grade or above.

The Godfather, Raging Bull and Schindler’s List are three of the American Film Institute’s top 10 movies of all time.  They are revealing, beautiful, challenging, difficult, dramatic, entertaining and life-changing films, but all are rated R and are incredibly inappropriate for young children.  This is the rationale behind restricted books.

In the 2012-2013 school year, Texas school districts challenged 58 books across the state. However only 10 were banned and 19 restricted–the lowest number of banned books for Texas in over a decade. Austin ISD challenged no books in the past school year, but its neighbor, Pflugerville ISD led the state in challenges–13 according to the ACLU.  The top three reasons for the challenges were sexuality, profanity and violence.

Fortunately when the Paramount Story Wranglers are teaching our creative writing residencies with 3rd grade classes, we don’t run into much explicit material. It is not uncommon in a typical story, for a monster and snowman fall in love, get married and have hundreds of kids with little to no explanation of the processes that happen in between.

Likewise, students know better than to use profanity when writing stories (although the age-old struggle to limit the use of words like poop, diaper, and fart lives on).

Violence, however, comes up quite often in students stories.  If it’s not a robot trying to massacre an island of horses, it’s a monkey man shooting a bazooka at a minecraft castle.  There isn’t a week that passes without a student’s story containing blood, guns and death.

However, the Story Wranglers don’t believe in “banning” these stories or ideas. Instead, we try to channel those ideas in a different direction make them more fun, creative or interesting.  When a cowboy shoots another cowboy, where’s the fun in that?  We’ve all heard a story where that happens.  But if the cowboy challenged the other cowboy to a hip-hop dance battle, or coated the other cowboy in confetti, or trapped him in a tub of raspberry-lime jello?  Now we’ve got a fun story on our hands.

The truth is that sex, profanity and violence exist everywhere and our 3rd grade students are exposed to them more than we’d like to admit.  The Story Wranglers believe that it is not our job to ignore these issues, but confront them with creativity and turn them into something more constructive for everybody.

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