Banned Books Week: Our right to read, September 24-30, 2017

Lynn Bruno

Challenge to Stephen Chbosky’s "The Perks of Being a Wallflower"
Hadley Jr. High
Glen Ellyn, Ill.

How did you hear about the book challenge in your community and why did you take action?

One of my colleagues arranged for her students to form book groups for independent reading. One group chose the book "The Perks of Being a Wallflower." When a set of parents objected to the content of the book, their child was given the option of moving to another. Unfortunately, the parents decided that no 8th grade student should have access to the book and pursued a ban from the school. The complaint rose to the level of a recommendation committee that, in the end, preserved the availability of the book in the classroom library, but banned it from being used for direct instruction. The parents were not satisfied with the recommendation and the issue moved to the Board of Education. At that meeting, the parents expressed their concerns about the book and the teachers spoke to the merits of the book. The Board of Education voted 4 to 2 to ban the book. Within a couple of days, we were instructed to remove the book from the classrooms. In my case, I had to physically remove the book from a student who was in the middle of reading the book. When she asked why, I explained to her that the Board of Education had voted to remove the book from the school. That prompted this student and others to ask how they could have their voices heard in the debate. I became involved initially as a professional in the defense of academic freedom and the right for kids to have access to literature that engages them and to which they can relate. When my students stepped up to participate in this conversation, I took action to support them in their pursuit.

You can get books at the library or store, why should we care about a book being removed from one class of students or one community?

One of my students actually raised a very good point when this argument was presented at a meeting. She lives in an area of our town considered to be unincorporated. She does not have free access to the town’s library, as homes in unincorporated areas are charged a substantial fee to borrow books. Her family could not afford to buy books nor could they afford to pay the fee for the library, and so for her, the classroom library was a vital link to contemporary and age specific literature. The assumption that everyone has access to a public library or can afford to purchase books is ill informed and presumptuous. Schools are the only public institution that can provide free access to literature for the children of the community, so to ban a book from the school removes access to children who have no other avenue. It is an act of classism and further aggravates the divide between those that have and those who do not.

Why do you think being aware of book challenges or bans is important to our country today?

The banning of books is done to restrict a group of individuals from access to particular information. Censorship threatens the ability for individuals to think critically and intellectually about issues, putting them at risk and promoting ignorance in the name of protection. It is patronizing and dangerous. Access to information should not be dependent on class standing or religious doctrine. It is important to stand up against attempts to do so in order to protect our access to information, no matter how offensive. As the German theologian, Martin Niemöller, once wrote:

First they came for the socialists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak for me.

While he was referencing people, the same holds true for books or ideas. When we begin passing judgment on what ideas should or should not be permissible in books, where does the line get drawn and who draws that line? Our country is grounded in the diversity of ideas and our society is dependant on a populace that is able to think critically and deeply about those ideas – all ideas, the good and the bad. It is the level of maturity and life experience that are critical in the determination of an individual’s readiness to contemplate specific issues, not an age or grade. For children, the best individuals to help those children make that determination are the professionals in the field, teachers and librarians, and their parents. By banning a book, not only is the child’s right to read removed, but a parent’s right to guide their own child in that process is co-opted, and the professional’s expertise is dismissed and belittled.

Who inspires you? Who is your hero?

My students – hands down!